Ron Harper's massive hands can do wondrous things with a basketball. So he keeps them out of harm's way, avoiding things like manual labor. His mother, Gloretha, who works on the assembly line at a General Motors truck and bus plant outside Dayton, was a good shooting guard in her high school days. She jokes that if she could trade places with her son, his first day at the plant undoubtedly would be his last. "He won't even mow the lawn," she says. "Ronald has always said, 'These hands weren't made for yard work. They were made to play basketball.' "
Judging from Harper's handiwork at Miami of Ohio, it's hard to disagree. Harper, a 6'6½" senior swingman for the 21-5 Redskins, is not only the best player in Miami history, he may also be the best ever in the Mid-American Conference. He's already the MAC's alltime leading scorer, with 2,251 points, and also its leading rebounder, with 1,048, making him the first male player in conference history to score 2,000 points and grab 1,000 rebounds in a career. (Caroline Mast reached that double for Ohio U. on Jan. 4.) "He does things so eloquently," says Northern Illinois coach John McDougal. "He's so relaxed and graceful that he shows no signs of effort. Put him anyplace on the court and he can hurt you. He hasn't let one phase of his game get ahead of another."
Harper is leading the MAC this season in scoring (24.3 points a game), rebounding (11.2), steals (3.2) and blocked shots (2.4), and he also takes a hands-on approach to defense. Before the season began, he inscribed the word DEFENSE on his left sneaker and DUNK on his right one because, he says, "those are the things I do best." With those prodigious pincers at the ends of 39-inch arms. Harper can strip his man with the ease of a professional pickpocket, then take off for a breakaway dunk. "When you pick a guy, you make him look bad," Harper says. "And when I'm on my way to the hoop, my eyes get real big."
NBA scouts drool over Harper and project him as a defensive demon in the mold of the Milwaukee Bucks' Paul Pressey. But unlike Pressey, who wasn't a big scorer as a collegian at Tulsa, Harper has already proved that he has the eye. "He's capable of scoring 30 points a night," says Barry Hecker, the Cleveland Cavaliers' director of scouting. "He's definitely a first-rounder. He's up with the best in the country. He reminds me of Julius Erving. He has that grace about him."
Funny Hecker should mention that. Harper has DOC written on one of another pair of sneaks. "I'm an Erving-type player," Harper says. "When the game is on the line, I want the ball in my hands. This is my senior year, and I'm trying to control the game more." When sophomore Eddie Schilling injured his left knee in Miami's 70-68 loss to Dayton on Dec. 21, Harper became the Redskins' playmaker, at times occupying the point-guard spot. "We give Ron a lot of freedom, but he doesn't force things," says Miami coach Jerry Peirson. "He creates baskets for the other players. He's the kind of player who's all over the floor."
Harper is normally an impassive sort who goes about his business with robotic consistency. "But if you give him a rash of crap, you'd better buckle your chin strap," says former Miami coach Darrell Hedric. Ball State's Dan Palombizio, Harper's four-year MAC scoring and rebounding rival, found that out last year when the Redskins and Cardinals met in the conference tournament semifinals. Palombizio, out to prove that he, not Harper, deserved the league's MVP award, scored 10 points to Harper's two in the first seven minutes, then barked, "Now we'll see who the best player in the MAC is!" To which Harper replied, "O.K., man, it's showtime." By the time the curtain fell. Harper had scored a tournament-record 45 points and grabbed 18 rebounds as Miami won 91-70. Palombizio ended up with 18 points. "Some players are just good players, and some players talk trash," Harper says. "Talk is cheap. You have to do your talking on the floor."
Talk has never come cheaply for Harper. A severe lifelong stutterer, he was so mercilessly taunted by neighborhood kids that by the time he reached high school he spoke only to his family and close friends. "The only two words I would say in school were hello and good-by," he says.
At Dayton's Kiser High, his speech problem was complicated by a reading disability. Although as a senior at Kiser he made first team all-Ohio and was listed as one of the nation's top 50 high school prospects. Harper's speech problem and a marginal academic record kept most major college recruiters away. Not even hometown Dayton would take a flyer on him. "Suddenly he was in a position where it seemed nobody wanted him," says Neal Reichelt, Harper's high school coach.
Miami did and enrolled him in a speech therapy program then under the tutelage of Dr. Paul J. Malott, director of speech pathology and audiology at Miami. "Ron had a great deal of confidence because of basketball," says Malott. "But like most stutterers he tried to get by saying as little as possible." While Malott couldn't totally eliminate Harper's stutter, he taught him to pace his speaking and also worked to improve his reading speed. More important, Malott forced Harper to speak before audiences. "The first time I did it, the cat got my tongue," says Harper. But afterward, says Malott, "Ron wanted to know when he could do it again."
By his junior year Harper, a phys ed major, had improved and grown so confident that he had begun helping children with learning disabilities get over their difficulties. He developed a friendship with Kevin Reeves, a withdrawn first-grader who, says Harper, "reminded me of myself as a kid." Says Marilyn Young, the boy's teacher, "Kevin was a non-talker who just put his head down and picked his fingers." During the class one day, Young detected giggling coming from the back of the classroom. "It was Ron and Kevin, on toy scooters, face-to-face, laughing." They see each other at least three times a month, and Kevin goes to many of the Redskins' home games. Says Harper, "Just by having a chance to work with someone, I learned that I could actually help somebody. Before, it was always me who needed the help."
Harper once cowered at the thought of facing postgame microphones and cameras, but now he is almost as comfortable meeting the press off the court as he is at breaking a press on the court. "He's a person who believes in himself," says senior Ron Hunter, the Redskins' sixth man and a friend of Harper's since high school. "This team is like the soap opera The Young and the Restless" says Hunter. "We can't sit still." When Harper gets restless, he and a few teammates might sneak off to Dayton at midweek to hang out at Mr. J's Magic, a disco owned by Harper's cousin, Mark Jones. Or Ron will drop by his mother's, where, she says, "He always has the house rockin'."
Harper also has Millet Hall rockin'. Or, rather, had. Oxford radio station WOXY-FM recorded a rap-music tune entitled Harper Valley. The refrain goes like this: "Jump up, turn around, up off the ground/This is Harper Valley/Slam-bam. Two more, coming back to even the score/This is Harper Valley." Proceeds from sales of the record were to go to the Miami Speech and Hearing Clinic. Although Harper lent nothing to the cause but his name, the NCAA declared that selling and broadcasting the song violated a rule prohibiting athletes from engaging in commercialization. Rather than fight, WOXY withdrew the tune. Leave it to the NCAA to figure out a way to stop Harper.