Q&A: Ron Harper on Bulls vs. Lakers, today’s NBA, Raptors

Kobe Bryant and Ron Harper, right, embrace after defeating the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 4 of the 2001 NBA Finals. (Rusty Kennedy/AP)

Ron Harper won five NBA championships during his 14-season career. He’s still recognized all over the world for being the glue guy playing along side the likes of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen with the Chicago Bulls and Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant with the Los Angeles Lakers.

Where he never thought he’d have a fan base is in the Maritimes.

Harper was in St. John’s, N.L., on the campus of Memorial University for Air Miles NBA Campus Pass, a pre-season tour by NBA Canada stopping in the most passionate basketball communities in the country.

It was in the basketball hot bed of St. John’s, before he sat down to sign autographs and take pictures with local fans for an hour, where I talked to Harper about the legendary teams he played on, the difference in the game today and his affection for Toronto as a basketball city.

Sportsnet: What’s it like for you to be in Newfoundland for NBA Campus pass?

Ron Harper: Newfoundland! I would never have thought I’d be in Newfoundland. I’ve been a lot of places around the world. Who ever thought I’d be in Newfoundland, Canada? It’s a great experience. The game of basketball will take you a lot of places. It’s a global game.

SN: What’s it like in retirement being remembered for being on arguably the greatest team off all-time?

RH: You know what, it’s the weirdest thing. You know, being a role player and being on a great team, we accomplished so much as a team and as individuals. It’s now I get to sit back and see it all. I just got back from Milan, the crowds there were crazy. I’ve been to Bangkok, Singapore and the fans have been great to me. The last time I played was 2003 and I’m still doing my thing with the NBA and having fun.

SN: How often during those travels do people stop you to talk about Michael Jordan?

RH: Every day. He’s the hottest topic. How was M.J.? How did he play? How did you get along with him? Is him or Kobe the best? He was an awesome teammate who had tremendous fun. He’s a guy you could talk to about anything.

SN: Who would win: your best Bulls championship team or your Lakers championship team?

RH: The Bulls would win. It would be a close ball game. We were a little better defensive team. But when you have a guy like Shaquille O’Neal that’s a game-changer and anything could happen.

SN: The current day team compared to those teams is the Golden State Warriors. Can you compare those teams given the difference in eras?

RH: The game has changed. The eras have changed. The rules have changed. Our game, it was more half court, hit, hold, grind. This game is more free-flowing and shoot threes. It would have been a great contest to see.

SN: Who would you guard?

RH: I would guard anybody. From Steph, to Klay, to Kevin. On our Chicago Bulls team our three guys — M.J., Scottie and me — we were interchangeable. We aren’t going to give you the same look. We all could play defence. Now who are they going to guard? Who is Steph Curry going to guard?

SN: I don’t know? Paxson?

RH: Paxson ain’t going to be on the court.

SN: You? That’s a good question. You tell me.

RH: I’m going to go down low. He can’t guard me down low. So that’s the matchup.

SN: You were a three-and-D guy before that was a term. Would your game be more appreciated now?

SN: Yeah. The funny thing is we played for our teammates. M.J., Scottie, Coach Phil, Kukoc, they respect things that I brought to the team. Everybody wants to be the scorer. But you need to have guys like me, Dennis Rodman, Randy Brown, guys who did the small things. The guys who play defence. The guys who dive for loose balls. Those are big parts too. It’s a team game. It is not always going to be the main guy who scores even though we had that dude. It was really good to play with guys who would give you a pat and say you played a great game.

SN: Who are the current players that remind you of your style of game?

RH: Kawhi Leonard, Trevor Ariza. Them guys play the whole floor. They don’t just play on the offensive end, they get down on the defensive end too.

SN: The best example of that is LeBron James.

RH: Oh yeah, you can never take him out the game.

SN: How would you attempt to guard him?

RH: Help, help, help, help (laughs). I’m not going to let him get to the hole. Every time he puts up a shot I’m going to put up a hand. You can’t let him get easy scores. It’s just going to make for a long, long game.

SN: Were you surprised Kyrie no longer wanted to play with him?

RH: It is surprising what these young kids think about in our ball game. It is a team sport. Whatever team LeBron is on is going to be in the NBA championship, every year. Kyrie, you have been to the NBA Finals three years in a row. How many guys can say that?

SN: You.

RH: Yeah, true (laughs).

SN: Why has your former coach Phil Jackson struggled as an executive?

RH: When you are an executive of the wealthiest team in the NBA you can’t just build a team off of free agency. You don’t have draft picks. They never got the top free agents and the three years he was there they had two draft picks. You can’t build your team off of two draft picks. He was trying to get the triangle off in there. He picked two guys who wasn’t fond of it. If you are going to run a team, you need to get your guys who believe the same things you do. He really didn’t have any draft picks or any parts that you could trade up for. I mean what guys does anyone want to take off that team?

SN: Your former team, the Lakers, was recently fined for tampering. Was that fair?

RH: That rule is over. They should take that rule and throw it out. Tampering has been going on since the cave man days. It’s like AAU. Everybody is good friends. Players are close now. What did they say that one of the players on the team didn’t tell LeBron or tell guys? That’s a bad call.

SN: What do the Raptors need to do to make the jump to championship-level contender status?

RH: They have one of the best backcourts in the NBA. They need to add a couple more bigs. They relied on the three-point shot too much. They aren’t Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant. It looks good when the three ball is going in but you can score in different ways and share the basketball a little bit more.

SN: You’re always up in Toronto.

RH: We love Toronto man. Great city, great place. We love it up there.

SN: Have you noticed the difference in basketball culture since your playing days?

RH: Canada has produced a couple great basketball players and had some great teams. It was sad the team didn’t last longer in Vancouver. It was a great place to play too. It survived here in an ice hockey town as they say. Now it’s turning into being a NBA town. It’s good to see they still have faith in their basketball team and their fans are tremendously behind them.

SN: Is it true Americans didn’t want to play in Canada?

RH: Something wrong with them guys then. They aren’t educated to know about the town and what the city has. Everyone is concerned about their taxes. You are going to get taxed either way. That’s one thing you can’t avoid. It’s a good place to play.

SN: What is your best Shaq story?

Shaq is a funny guy. When I first got to L.A., me and Phil were standing on the sideline and they were going five-on-five. Shaq got a defensive rebound and turned out, makes a 360-spin move, does a crossover between his legs at half court, gets to the free-throw line and just explodes and dunks it hard. And Phil looks at me, I look at Phil and I say, “We’re winning a championship this year.” And we won it the next two years and they won it the next three years. I ain’t never seen a guy 365 pounds move the way that he moved.

SN: What is your best Jordan story?

RH: I cannot tell those. I cannot tell those (laughs).

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