Harper's Not the Retiring Type Yet

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ron Harper doesn't want to leave the NBA now, not when it's getting so interesting again.

With old friend Michael Jordan and big friend Charles Barkley mulling comebacks, the 37-year-old Harper said Tuesday he has reconsidered his retirement and would like to play at least another season, preferably with the Lakers. He could have options, however.

"I've already made my mind up," Harper said. "I'm going to play. Hopefully it's here, because I'm having fun and I can play. I come to the gym every day and doing this is fun still.

"I felt good this season and I feel good now, so I'm going to play. I'm going to have fun."

Harper has won four NBA championships, three of them alongside Jordan in Chicago. The two remain close friends and golf partners.

Asked if he had rethought his retirement plans because of rumors of Jordan's return, Harper laughed and said, "Whatever he does, I'm gonna do. Put it that way. Whatever he does, I'm going to do. If he plays somewhere, I'm going to play in the same place he plays."

If not the Lakers, then, the Washington Wizards?

"Whatever he does, I'm gonna do," Harper said, grinning.

Recovering from arthroscopic surgery on his left knee March 21 and suffering from arthritis in both knees, Harper has not played since Feb. 13. After a five-on-five scrimmage Tuesday at the Laker practice facility in El Segundo, his first since the surgery, Harper said he felt well enough to play Thursday against the Portland Trail Blazers in Game 2 of their best-of-five playoff series.

Coach Phil Jackson said Harper would not play Thursday, a decision he could reconsider if Harper recovers well from Tuesday's practice, and did not rule out Game 3, Sunday in Portland. Harper said he's only waiting for the word.

"I'll probably wait until the third game," Harper said. "It depends on Phil. Whatever Phil wants. If Phil wanted me to play, I could play. But he wants me to wait until the third game. So I'm going to wait until the third game."

Jackson also must decide how to employ Harper, whose rickety knees have not allowed him to play off the bench. Jackson has started him, giving him adequate preparation time, then started him again in the third quarter.

He also has to consider the play of point guard Derek Fisher, who sat out the season's first 62 games because of a stress fracture in his right foot. The Lakers are 16-5 since his return, and have won their last nine games. His steady offensive hand, unexpected scoring and frenetic defense have added life to an often emotionless team, and the Lakers are playing their best basketball with him in the lineup.

Harper said he doesn't want to mess up any of that.

"He's doing everything," Harper said of Fisher. "He's scoring with the ball. He's having guys do their jobs. The team's doing good. So, I don't want him to think when I return, I'm going to take some [playing] time. The main thing for him to do is to keep doing what he does best. He's playing good basketball. If that means I've got to be on the sidelines, that's fine with me."

More likely, Harper will be Jackson's situational guard. He'll spell Fisher, defend against the likes of Steve Smith, finish quarters, and calm the offense when necessary.

"It was nice to see him out there with the rest of the group, playing basketball," Jackson said.

As for Harper's being available in Game 3, Jackson said, "I'm going to have to leave it up to Ron a lot. We'll see how he feels [Wednesday]. Just getting back into a crowd after a major injury like that, playing in a group, is an adjustment level. You have to get your body back into that variety of activities that create contact. He did a good job today. He looked comfortable."

Jackson loves what Harper brings to a lineup, particularly when paired with another big guard. With Brian Shaw and Harper on the floor, Jackson probably is more comfortable having Kobe Bryant on the wing, where Bryant did much of his scoring Sunday against the Trail Blazers.

"It changes our rotation in the guard position a lot, and in the small forward position," Jackson said. "It allows us to put a lot of players on different spots on the floor. He's a defense player. And Ron hits big shots and runs the offense better than anybody else on the team, because he's been in the system for seven or eight years now. He has that part of his game down so when we need someone to get us organized and back functioning as a five-man unit, he's good."

Immediately after Harper's surgery, there was some sense that his career might be finished. After all, there is no fixing the arthritis. And the surgery came so close to the end of the season, the one he'd said would be his last, it seemed unlikely he'd recover in time to play again.

Then he stood in the sunshine Tuesday, dressed in Carolina blue slacks and cap, and said he's not ready for it to end.

"I'm not that old. I can play some basketball still," he said. "I am proud of these guys. I have to feel that once I step on the floor, I'm not going to slow them back down. My job is to keep the game flowing, I think, and I'm fine at that."

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Money Player

Ron Harper's career playoff statistics:

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Season Team G FG% 3 pt. FT% Avg. pt. Reb. Ast. 1987-88 Cleveland 4 .476 0-2 .688 17.8 5.0 3.8 1988-89 Cleveland 5 .565 20-26 .769 19.6 4.0 4.2 1991-92 Clippers 5 .448 1-9 .786 18.0 4.6 6.4 1992-93 Clippers 5 .474 5-10 .647 18.0 3.2 4.0 1994-95 Chicago 6 .429 0-0 .000 2.0 0.7 1.0 1995-96 Chicago 18 .425 15-47 .690 8.8 2.5 3.7 1996-97 Chicago 19 .400 21-66 .750 7.5 3.0 4.3 1997-98 Chicago 21 .459 5-19 .615 6.7 2.3 3.7 1999-00 Lakers 23 .431 9-39 .702 8.6 3.2 3.7 Totals 106 .449 56-191 .697 9.4 2.8 3.9

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LAKERS vs. PORTLAND

Lakers lead best-of-five series, 1-0

GAME 2

THURSDAY

at Lakers,

7:30 p.m., FSN

ALSO

Philadelphia 116

Indiana 98

Utah 109

Dallas 98

COVERAGE, D9

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