After a few games of basketball one day last summer in a gym in his hometown of Dayton, Ron Harper stepped outside and discovered his '94 Range Rover riddled with bullet holes. Somebody had apparently randomly shot up several cars in the parking lot, Harper's luxury sports utility among them. "I guess my car was parked in the wrong place at the wrong time," Harper says, laughing off the incident as just a part of city life.
Fortunately for the Bulls, their easygoing guard is usually in the right place at the right timenot that most people would notice. You could say that the 33-year-old Harper was the Bulls' MUP (most underrated player) during their '96-97 championship run. His regular-season numbers6.3 points, 2.5 rebounds and 2.5 assists in 22.9 minutes per gamedon't begin to tell the tale of his contributions as the backcourt starter alongside Michael Jordan. In the postseason his stats increased across the board, and he was a little harder to overlook as he hit clutch shots and played stifling defense against smaller, quicker point guards. "Ron stepped up big for us, not only this season but last season as well," says teammate Scottie Pippen. "He's a guy who's willing to do the little things to help us win."
But for those who recall his first eight years in the league, with the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Los Angeles Clippers, the notion of Harper as a defense-minded role player still seems a bit difficult to reconcile with his previous image as one of the game's premier offensive talents.
Early on, Harper was a slasher, averaging better than 18 points per game for seven seasons. In some quarters he even became known as "the poor man's Michael Jordan." But after tearing his left anterior cruciate ligament in 1990, he lost some explosiveness, and by the time he signed a five-year, $19 million free-agent contract with the Bulls to replace the retired Jordan before the '94-95 season, he was no longer the flashy scorer he had been.
Harper struggled mightily in his first season in Chicago and eventually lost his starting job to Steve Kerr, but the veteran guard took a philosophical approach. He regrouped, sacrificed personal stats and found a way to help the Bulls win; in '95-96 he earned his starting job back. "I just wanted to be part of a championship team," Harper says.
The Bulls are glad he did. Although he has battled sore knees most of the past two seasons, which has forced him to the bench more than he would like, Harper is there when his team needs him most. And his game, unlike his car, has few holes.
At 7'2", 292 pounds and sporting a predilection for shapely waves, Bulls center Luc Longley could lay claim to the title of world's largest beach bum. And it's safe to say that the laid-back 27-year-old redhead from Perth, Australia, has made his mark on NBA history as the first player sent to the disabled list with a bodysurfing injury. Longley, in his sixth year out of New Mexico and his fourth with the Bulls, has become an integral part of Chicago's triangle offenseall the more reason for concern when the big center went headlong into the Pacific Ocean off Hermosa Beach, Calif., on Nov. 24 and came out with a separated left shoulder after being thrown into a sandbar. The incident happened on a Sunday afternoon following an early-morning Bulls practice, the day before the team was to play the Los Angeles Clippers. "I want to make this clear," says teammate Jud Buechler, who hit the surf with Longley that day. "He forced me to go in the water. I didn't want to go in. It was cold."
As a result of the injury, Longley, who also battled tendinitis in both knees early in the season, missed 22 games. "The guys were disappointed in my taking risks," Longley says. "Then, of course, there were a lot of bodysurfing jokes."
One prank came during a film session before Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Miami Heat. Coach Phil Jackson, with Buechler as an accomplice, spliced shots of a friend of Buechler's bodysurfing on the North Shore of Oahu into game footage. "I guess he didn't want me to go out in the surf in Miami," Longley says.
Kidding aside, the injury may have served as a rallying point for the Bulls on their way to their fifth title. "Everyone on the team likes to turn a negative into a positive," Buechler said during the Finals. "It gave Luc time to rest his knees. I think he's jumping better now than he ever has."
And Longley's role in the triangle offensepassing quickly to a cutter or back out to the perimeterhas gained importance as well. The Aussie averaged 9.1 points and 5.6 rebounds per game in 1996-97 and scored in double figures in 27 games. Equally important has been Longley's effectiveness on the defensive end. With 1.12 blocks a game, he often forced opponents out of the paint and into cold waterlike the way he shut down Utah Jazz forward Karl Malone in Games 1 and 2 of the Finals.
"I'm not the type of player who needs to facilitate my game," Longley says. "I take what I can get and help facilitate the game of the other players."