- Stephen Hunt Special to The Post
Sunday was indeed a special night for Derek Harper.
During halftime of a game with the York Knicks at American Airlines Center, the former North Shore High School and University of Illinois star had his jersey retired by the Dallas Mavericks during an emotional ceremony featuring a former coach, teammates and members of his family from West Palm Beach.
Harper played the majority of his 16-year career in Dallas (1983-1994 and 1996-97). He also played for Knicks, Magic and Lakers.
“Well, I’m humbled, I’m grateful that this is finally behind me,” Harper said during a postgame press conference. “It’s nerve racking. This is the first time I’ve been singled out individually like I was tonight. I don’t necessarily like it, it’s not totally comfortable, but it doesn’t happen to everybody, so I feel very fortunate and grateful for it.”
Harper’s is the third number retired by the Mavericks, joining former teammates Rolando Blackman and Brad Davis, who were both in attendance and spoke glowingly about their ex-teammate and friend.
The ceremony opened with words from Dick Motta, Dallas’ coach when Harper was selected 11th overall in the 1983 NBA Draft. “In life, there are some moments that are so cherish-able,” Motta, 86, said. “Derek Harper is a man among men. He was loyal, he was on time. I consider it one of the greatest tributes to call Derek the man a friend, and I love Derek Harper.”
During his nearly seven-minute speech, Harper credited his former coach, who led Washington to the 1977 NBA title before becoming the Mavericks’ first coach in 1980, for laying the foundation for him to succeed, first as a player and then as a broadcaster after retiring in 1999.
“You were really tough on me, but I always felt like it was for a reason,” Harper said about Motta. “You actually set me on the right path to be a hard-nosed basketball player. The one reason I was able to move on from the game is because Dick Motta taught me how to leave it on the floor every single night, and that’s important to me because I think that’s what it’s all about. It’s about giving 100 percent for the fans.”
Harper began his speech by first thanking God. And after thanking his family, especially his children and mother, along with Motta and his former teammates, he took a few minutes to honor his childhood friends from his days growing up in West Palm Beach who were in attendance.
“West Palm Beach in the house. I have some childhood friends, guys I’ve known since I was 4 or 5-years-old and could barely walk,” said Harper, who was named Player of the Year for the Post’s 1980 All-Area team (which included future NBA star Otis Thorpe of Lake Worth High) after averaging 27 points per game. “Those guys have been there. We’ve been friends since I can remember. These guys are honest with me. They tell me when I’m wrong. You guys don’t really know, you’ll never know, how much you have meant to me. You traveled a lot of miles to get here and I’m glad that you all made the trip. I’m very grateful to you guys.”
After he retired, Harper gave back to his hometown by starting a basketball camp and an annual basketball tournament that bore his name.
The ceremony also featured video tributes from former teammates. And since the Mavs were hosting the Knicks, the biggest applause came when former New York big man Patrick Ewing, whom Harper played with on the Knicks’ 1994 Eastern Conference champions, offered his congratulations.
“Playing with Patrick for a championship in ’94 against the Rockets, we have a bond. We didn’t win, but we played for it,” Harper said. “That’s what the league is about and that’s what you miss the most. When you’re retire, you’re not sitting in the back of the bus with those guys, making up stories, telling a lot of lies, just enjoying each other.”
Once the ceremony concluded, Harper returned to his normal courtside broadcast position with the Mavs and called the second half of a close loss to the Knicks. During a second-half timeout, “Harp” admitted to those on the broadcast crew that he will look at his No. 12 in the rafters every time he walks in the arena, his own way of being grateful for receiving such an honor.
“It’s a surreal feeling,” Harper said. “I know where I’m from. I just feel like making it from there to here, after going through some downs in life, going through a divorce, life is good. I feel good about where my life is and the direction that it’s going.”
Stephen Hunt is a freelance writer based in Frisco, Texas.