Ron Harper Dishes on Kobe-MJ Debate
It's why he should be back coaching in basketball soon.
Harper, who retired in 2001, is the only player to have won multiple NBA titles with both Michael Jordan in Chicago and Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles. He was there for Jordan's last three. He was there for Bryant's first two. And he played a bigger part than most people realize.
Outside of coach Phil Jackson, whose sideline reign spans all 11 championships that Jordan and Bryant have won, Harper remains the foremost authority -- the bridge -- on any comparisons between two of the greatest players in league history.
"I tell people that they are two great, great players, and Michael remains the best of all time, but Kobe now is right there next to him. He's standing right next to him. He's the closest thing we've ever had to Jordan. There is no one else even in the ballpark,'' Harper told FanHouse Tuesday from his home in New Jersey. "Kobe is hands down the best player in the game today.''
Bryant, 31, won his fifth NBA title with the Lakers last week. Jordan left the game in 2003 with six NBA titles, all with the Bulls.
"Michael still gets the edge because of when he played, and who he played against, but don't take anything away from Kobe,'' Harper said. "Michael played when the rules allowed all the grabbing, holding and bumping that isn't allowed now on the perimeter. He also played against [Clyde] Drexler, [Joe] Dumars and guys like that every night. But after saying that, Kobe still would have been a star in that time.''
Harper, who works now for Nike, was an assistant coach with the Detroit Pistons from 2005 to 2007, but he left the business to stop traveling and spend more time with his wife, also a coach, and young children. He is itching, though, to return to the sideline again, eyeing assistant coaching positions with both the Nets and the Bulls.
"I watch the game now and see all these teams with guys who have good basketball skills, but they don't know how to play in a team concept,'' Harper said. "You can't have a team with five guys on the floor all trying to score. Guys need roles, and they have to be convinced to accept those roles. And that's something I know a lot about. I did it, and I think I can teach it. I already have.''
Harper's ability to change his own game, to fit alongside Jordan and Scottie Pippen in Chicago, is the main reason that Jackson convinced him in 1999 to come to Los Angeles, to be the on-court coach to help a still-budding Bryant mesh with Shaquille O'Neal.
With Harper serving as a point guard and counselor to both Bryant and O'Neal, the Lakers won a title in 2000 and again in 2001.
"I used to tell guys, we're in Hollywood, but as a team, we all can't be Hollywood,'' Harper said. "I knew how to get Kobe and Shaq to play together, and to make it work.''
Harper was once a high-flying, high scorer, averaging at least 18 points in seven of his first eight NBA seasons with the Cavs and the Clippers. Yet it wasn't until a knee injury, which temporarily robbed him of his athleticism, that he won his championships. And even though he remained a starter, he never averaged more than 7.4 points during those five championship seasons.
"Friends used to ask me, why don't you score more, shoot more -- and I sure could have -- but that wasn't my role,'' he said. "And I think that's what I could bring as a coach, the knowledge of how to play the game the right way. You can score 10,000, 20,000 points in your career, but no one cares if you don't win a title.''
Harper retired after the second championship with the Lakers. He was 37. Both Bryant and O'Neal listened when he talked. And as the point guard, he delivered it.
"It was easy with those two. Kobe was young, but you could tell he was going to be great. I would just tell them 'There are no other stars here, so it's all yours.' If Kobe started doing something crazy, I'd talk to him. It was the same with Shaq. They just had to know we were only going to win as a team.''