LOS ANGELES -- In a small table in the corner of a library at Widney High School in Los Angeles, Ron Harper is making space for himself.
It is at once an awkward and tender sight as the Los Angeles Clippers guard sidles between two students despite the fact that his 6-foot-6, 198-pound body barely fits in the kid-sized chair.
The six youngsters around the table -- there to learn how to overcome speech impediments -- are eating it up, their expressions filled with awe, delight and more than a little apprehension. They haven't been this close to anyone famous before.
But Harper sets them at ease immediately. For, in a real sense, he is one of them.
"I know what it's like," he later tells one girl who, with tears in her eyes, has just described how other children tease her.
"People made fun of me, but you can't let it bother you," he tells her. "You have to believe in yourself. I wasn't always an NBA basketball player."
Perhaps not, but it was what he had always wanted to be and now that he has found his mountain top, he wants to help others get there, too.
It hasn't been an easy climb.
The Clippers' sometimes amazing, sometimes baffling shooting guard has fought what has sometimes been a tough life on his own terms -- from overcoming a bad stutter as a child to battling back from a career-threatening knee injury as a once-promising NBA superstar.
Now he plays basketball and gives back.
"I don't think of helping out as something I have to do," Harper said. "I believe that I can do a little bit to make them smile and make them feel good about themselves. . . . Maybe then they can see that if I can do what I do, they can do whatever they want."
Harper has quietly and unpretentiously made a small but significant impact in the lives of the students at Widney in downtown Los Angeles.
He is the patron saint of sorts for the school for physically and emotionally handicapped and his appearances there several times each season border on the magical.
Imagine he and teammate Danny Manning playing basketball in wheelchairs.
That's exactly what the two did two weeks ago to the amazement and delight of the entire student body of Widney, which crowded into their small gym. Many of the students are permanently in wheelchairs, while others barely are able to talk or perform basic functions because of their handicaps. But they all wore the bright smiles that can be found only on the faces of children.
"I've gone out there before," said Manning, one of Harper's best friends on the team. "But Harp was talking about playing in the wheelchair and how difficult it was. He talked me into it. He told me I had to see what it was like. He's a very giving person, and very sincere about it."
He also has been a fine basketball player -- the original Baby Jordan whose career appeared to crash land on the Sports Arena floor Jan. 16, 1990, when he tore his right anterior cruciate ligament. Four days before his 27th birthday, he possibly was looking at the end of his career, and certainly months and months of rehabilitation.
It was a daunting view for a man who has tried to always look at the bright side.
"I've tried to have fun," he said. "I like to play basketball. It was a hard thing to get over, but I knew that if I worked hard enough, I would be able to get back on the court. What people don't realize is that it takes two years to get over a knee injury, I mean to get to the point where you can do the things you did before."
Many people believe he got back to his pre-injury form at the end of last season and during the playoffs, when he nearly led the Clippers to a first-round upset of Houston.
The Clippers exercised a $4 million option on their starting shooting guard over the summer with hopes of signing him to a long-term deal. But while talks continue, Harper says he would be surprised to be back.
"I'm sure there are a lot of teams out there who could use a player like me to help them get over the top," he said. "I love to play, but I want to win. I want to go somewhere where that can happen."
The impasse in the negotiations appears to be money, with Harper's agent asking for $4 million a year for five years.
"I believe we will sign him," Clippers general manager Elgin Baylor said. "We're trying to work it out now."
Baylor won't say, but the Clippers may be concerned about Harper's play at the moment. Except for a couple of games, Harper has struggled this season, averaging 17.3 points while shooting a woeful 37.4 percent from the field. Not the most accurate of outside shooters, the 29-year-old had begun to find his range and had a career-average of 19.4 points and a 45.7 career shooting percent entering this season.
He can't explain his shooting woes and doesn't try to, preferring to flash his usual shrug and wide smile.
"I'm a shooting guard," he says. "I just have to keep shooting."
To his credit, he is one of the team's hardest workers and maintains a solid, playing-shape physique. When he is not out early shooting before a game or late after practice, Harper is working the fragile knee in the weight room.
He may go half-speed at times during practice, but when the buzzer goes off, he doesn't want to leave the floor. He did not complain about being exiled to the bench with the rest of the starters after halftime during a Clippers loss to San Antonio on Monday, but from the look on his face it was clear sitting out was uncomfortable for him.
Not so that chair at Widney.
The session two weeks ago ended in a flurry of hugs and tears and smiles and thank yous and, of course, autographs.
As he said his goodbyes, Harper flashed that mischievous grin he uses when on the court after he's slashed through the lane for two and a foul.
"I'll be back," he tells them. "I'm not going to tell you when, but I'll be back to see how you're doing, you hear?"
0 They have heard every word and they believe.