Misfortune, by now familiar enough to the Clippers to be on a first-name basis, came calling again Wednesday when test results showed that Ron Harper, the team's leading scorer and a major reason for the transformation from perennial losers into playoff contenders, will miss the rest of the season.
Harper hurt his right knee during Tuesday's game against the Charlotte Hornets at the Sports Arena, collapsing after catching a pass from teammate Gary Grant under the basket. Harper stayed on the floor for a few moments, clutching the knee, then got up and walked to the locker room. The preliminary diagnosis was a sprain, and the scene was reminiscent of Danny Manning walking off the court at Milwaukee last January and going from a hyper-extended knee to surgery.
Manning underwent reconstructive surgery on the right knee and was unable to return until 11 months later, after this season had begun.
But Harper's injury may be even worse than Manning's. Harper tore the anterior cruciate ligament, as did Manning, but the fourth-year guard also has torn cartilage, according to team physician Tony Daly.
"It's disbelief," Coach Don Casey said. "I've been in this game for 25 or 30 years and had never been associated with that injury. Then to have it happen twice, back to back?"
No determination was immediately made as to when Harper would have surgery.
Harper, who turns 26 Saturday, averaged 23 points and 39.5 minutes, both team highs, as well as 5.6 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 2.39 steals, since coming to the Clippers Nov. 16 as part of the deal that sent Reggie Williams and the rights to Danny Ferry to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Harper had five games of 30 points or more, including 33 in the victory over Charlotte.
Players and coaches left Tuesday night, hopeful that the postgame diagnosis would hold true. They were buoyed by the fact that Harper said he felt good enough to return to the game. He probably would have, had it not been for the pop he reported hearing upon impact with the floor. That sound was enough for Daly to hold him out.
Players spoke of shock when they arrived at the Sports Arena Wednesday for a light practice in preparation for tonight's game against the Seattle SuperSonics.
"The void will be felt," Casey said. "But these players are the type who will recover. We have to. We have no choice."
Said center Benoit Benjamin, the team's most experienced player: "Life's a funny game. Things like that happen. It just so happens it's to this organization. Maybe it is a test."
Passing this one will take a unique cram session. The new starting lineup has the rest of the grade-A players, but it also has one guard.
Beginning tonight, the starters will be Grant and Ken Norman at guard, Manning and Charles Smith at forward, and Benjamin at center.
The switch, of course, is Norman moving from forward. Has he ever played shooting guard?
"Sure," the 6-foot-8, 219-pounder said.
"Today in practice."
Also, with Tom Garrick questionable because of a bruised knee, the first guard off the bench figures to be rookie Jeff Martin. Michael Young, formerly Norman's backup at small forward, will get some time at guard, where he played for three years in college.
"I don't think it will be an adjustment for me at all, especially in the transition game," Norman said. "Defensively, I think I can check anyone."
Beyond Harper's scoring, though, was his defense. He blocked more shots than any guard in the league last season, and more than eight starting centers. And there was his attitude.
"Nothing has changed," General Manager Elgin Baylor said. "We're still trying to make the playoffs and we're still trying to win every game we can. But it's hard to put into words. The person himself, aside from the basketball talent, brought great charisma that all the other players picked up on. That's one of the intangible things we're going to miss."
The marketing department will also miss him. Since starting a new publicity campaign, which centered on Harper, the team sold 403 season tickets in the first 16 days of January. That's about one-third of the total number of new clients during the five-month off-season.
"Obviously, we feel bad for Ron and the team because things were really jelling," Norman said. "But the people I feel the most sympathy for are Elgin and the owner (Donald T. Sterling). We had really established ourselves as a playoff team. I missed a bunch of games (with a strained groin), I come back, and now Ron. That's the type of thing that will drive people crazy."
For the most part, though, the Clippers weren't interested in the ghosts of bad luck past, or present. They said they were more concerned with continuing on the course Harper helped set.
"I'll give it to you in a nutshell," said Smith, now the Clippers' leading scorer among active players at 18.9 points a game. "I'm disappointed for Ron, I'm disappointed for the team. But we have to continue to play. We're all right and we have got to move forward. We've got a game tomorrow."