LOS ANGELES - In his previous life, Ron Harper was a scorer.
In college, at Miami of Ohio, Harper was the guy who took the big shots, including a dunk that nearly beat Maryland in the 1985 NCAA tournament during his junior year. In his first eight seasons in the NBA, split between Cleveland and the Los Angeles Clippers, Harper helped keep his teams competitive.
Heck, the Clippers even made the playoffs twice with Harper.
It seems so long ago. It was so long ago.
But in the past two games of the NBA's Western Conference finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and Portland Trail Blazers, Harper has stepped back in time. His long jumper in the waning seconds helped the Lakers beat the Trail Blazers, 93-91, in Game 3 on Friday night in Portland. He scored 18 points in a 103-91 victory in Game 4 there Sunday.
When the teams resume their series tonight at the Staples Center with the Lakers leading three games to one, the Trail Blazers will be faced with the same dilemma: Should they continue to double-team Shaquille O'Neal and concentrate on Kobe Bryant while allowing Harper to roam somewhere off the radar screen? Or should they play a more conventional man-to-man defense?
In his 14th NBA season, Harper, 36, is accustomed to the role he is playing with the Lakers. He played a similar one with the Chicago Bulls, an afterthought in an offense that featured Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, as well as Toni Kukoc and Steve Kerr at times. He has clearly been overlooked by the Trail Blazers. Pippen went as far as to say after Game 4 that he "could live" with Harper beating Portland more than O'Neal or Bryant. Asked to explain Portland's decision not to guard him, Harper said, "I'm on my down years. I'm a past-tense thought."
The role Harper has played for nearly half his career requires a player to adjust his ego. In other words, he can't have one.
"This is great," Harper said yesterday as he sat in his car outside the team's practice facility in El Segundo. "When you're young, when you first came into the league, that [scoring] is what you did. I came into the league as a guy who they knew would score, slam. Everyone knew the young Ron Harper. I got to a phase where I said, 'Everyone's still playing [in the playoffs] and I'm at home.'"
Expected to take up part of the scoring slack left by Jordan's first retirement after signing as a free agent in 1994, Harper struggled in Chicago's triangle offense. He found himself coming off the bench for the first time in his career, his scoring average plummeting from 20.1 points to a then career-low 6.9 a game. But a funny thing happened to him after the season.
At the request of coach Phil Jackson, the Bulls protected Harper in the 1995 expansion draft.
"Every year after that, he always played a vital role for us," Jackson said.
Harper was part of three championship teams with the Bulls, splitting time with Kerr. He stayed last season, after Jordan retired for good and Pippen, Kerr and Dennis Rodman all left for other teams. Contemplating retirement last summer, Harper was about to leave for the golf course one August day when Jackson called.
"I said, 'What do you want?' He said, 'Are you in basketball?' I said, 'No I'm not, I haven't looked at a basketball, haven't trained, haven't done much of anything,' " Harper recalled. "He said, 'Do you want to play basketball?' I said, 'I don't know.' He said, 'Get off the couch and go train.' "
Jackson wanted Harper's experience, and because Jackson always liked big guards, he needed a player with the 6-foot-6 Harper's size. Early in the season, it was Harper who helped the Lakers accustom themselves to intricacies of the triangle. As much respect as they had for Jackson's six championship rings, there was the same amount for Harper's three.
"He's been where we're trying to go," said fourth-year guard Derek Fisher, whose minutes Harper took. "He doesn't run off at the mouth, brag a lot, say what he's done. What he does is point out little things. He's always under control. He's not going to do many things to hurt this ballclub."
Said Bryant: "Harp gets himself to be in position to do something positive for the ballclub. He knows certain spots to get to in the offense, to make other teams pay. Guys have been doubling off him all year long. He's there where you need him to be. Some players call that luck. I call that experience."
On Friday night, it meant being on the left wing for a wide-open jumper to give the Lakers the lead with 29.9 seconds to play - and ultimately the victory. On Sunday afternoon, it meant sneaking behind the defense for layups and follows. And yesterday, before practice, it meant telling his younger teammates not to get cocky about their commanding lead.
What will he tell them before tonight's game?
"Be ready to play," he said. "The series is not over. Let's go ahead and do what we have to do. It's up to us to close the series out."
Harper remembers when he was with the travelling rock show known as the Bulls, when he was one of the so-called Jordanaires. It is not much different now, and the spotlight will grow brighter should the Lakers advance to the team's first NBA Finals in nine years.