Derek Harper: What You Get Is What You See, 1993

[Here’s a short profile of the outstanding Derek Harper during his run with the Dallas Mavericks. The profile ran in Street & Smith’s 1992-93 Pro Basketball Yearbook. Fran Blinebury is the writer. Enjoy!]

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He once drove his coach Dick Motta crazy when he was the first member of the Dallas Mavericks to show up wearing an earring. He once had an entire sellout crowd at Reunion Arena thinking he was crazy when he stood at midcourt and dribbled out the clock in the final seconds of a tied playoff game with the Los Angeles Lakers because he thought his team was ahead by one point. The Mavs eventually lost in overtime. 

But these days there isn’t anybody crazy enough to say Derek Harper isn’t among the best in the business. He’s a marvelous mixture of hot enthusiasm and cool confidence. He can be both a kid having fun playing a game and an assassin taking careful aim on his target. He is equal parts Magic Johnson and Walt Frazier, and maybe that’s why Harper has always been the Maverick that the fans in Dallas appreciate the most. 

It is a franchise that has had the all-star offensive talents of Mark Aguirre and the fascinating potential of the troubled Roy Tarpley. It has had the consistency of Rolando Blackman and the grit and determination of Brad Davis. Yet through nine seasons, Harper has been the backbone and the soul of the team.

“My popularity has come from just working hard and improving year in and year out as a basketball player,” Harper said. “I think the fans like the things I bring as a basketball player and an athlete.”

What Harper brings is a bottomless well of enthusiasm, along with abilities as both a point guard and a shooter that have long been vastly underrated. “Derek Harper gives me nightmares,” said New York Knicks coach Pat Riley. “He’s one of those players who can beat you in so many ways and is not afraid or hesitant to step up and make the big plays.”

Ironically, when Harper joined the Mavs as the 11th pick in the 1983 college draft out of the University of Illinois, all the advanced scouting reports talked about was his defense, and that certainly did merit attention. He was the type of defender who can’t be shaken off. But there is so much more to Harper than just defense. 

“When you come into the league, you’re labeled right away as a defensive player, an offensive player, a driver, a shooter, a rebounder, shot-blocker, or something,” Harper said. “That label stays with you until you establish yourself. In my case, it was defense. That isn’t a bad label, because you need defensive players in the league. Those are the guys who will be around a long time, the guys to go out and play defense and rebound. But I think slowly my image has changed through the years. I think people have seen that I can do a lot more.”

What they have seen is Harper’s own convincing argument. He set in NBA record by being the first player to improve his scoring average in each of his first eight seasons in the league. At the same time, Harper showed the kind of leadership ability necessary to run the Mavericks’ offense. He was probably the best player in the NBA never to be named to play in the All-Star game.

“People talk to me all the time about making the All-Star team,” he said. “I told them that as long as the fans and the players around the league can relate to what I do as a basketball player, that’s more important to me.”

“Derek can do all the same things that the other top guards do,” said Blackman. “He’s a great competitor who can play defense and score. You won’t find many guys who can do that. If you were going to start a team, you’d have to look at him, based on his talent and his age. And the biggest thing about him is he’s not afraid to take chances.”

No, Harper won’t ever back down from taking the crucial shot or taking a gamble to jump out and make a big steal that can turn a game around. It’s that headiness that has made other NBA clubs cast covetous eyes in his direction and repeatedly approach the Mavericks with trade offers.

During the past two seasons, as the Mavericks have fallen from the level of an elite team to one that can be found consistently at the bottom of the standings, it has been the drive of the backcourt pair of Blackman and Harper who have kept Dallas from total collapse. The losing has grated on Harper and he’s spoken out, because he’s been unable to accept it. That is the mark of the best athletes. 

Harper is also the kind of person you want to be a part of your organization, because he gives back. A year ago, the Mavericks received a letter from the father of a 15-year-old in Gainesville, TX, who had undergone heart surgery. All the man was looking for was maybe a phone call or a note of encouragement from one of the Mavs that would help his son through a difficult recovery period. What the young man got in return was a personal visit from Harper, who just jumped in his car one day after practice and drove for more than an hour to spend an afternoon with a fan who needed a lift. 

“It just hit me so hard,” he said. “If my own son had to go through surgery, it would drive me crazy. I would have lost the rest of my hair. I’d wonder, ‘Is he going to be the same?’”

The boy has since been Harper’s guest at several Mavericks’ games, made a visit to the locker room, and discovered that the emotions you see spilling out of this athlete on the basketball floor are genuine. And those emotions spill out frequently. He is a mini-Magic in the way he smiles and talks and plays the game like a kid at a party. 

“When you have one or two guys who get excited, I think the fans see that, and they grasp it,” Harper said. “A lot of nights, you don’t have it as a team and things aren’t going well, and that one little exciting play a lot of times can set the crowd going and really turn a whole game around. I think I’m the guy the opposing fans pick on, because of the way I’m always jumping around and pumping my fists and talking. I hear them yelling at me. I hear them telling me to go sit down. But that’s a natural thing when I’m playing basketball. I love the game, and I don’t hold anything back. I think a lot of players get excited, but they have different personalities than mine. They don’t show it.”

With Derek Harper, what you get is what you see. A little wild, a little crazy, but always the real thing. 

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