New York City is always filled with surprises and interesting encounters and this week the city delivered once again on the strange tip. Oddly enough, I ran into five-time NBA champion Ron Harper while he was playing at TopSpin, a charity pingpong tournament that raises money for education.
Harper had a mean backhand on the tables but he also had a lot to say about the recent coaching changes of his former team, the Los Angeles Lakers. Harper got all of his rings under the tutelage of Phil Jackson, so when Jackson's name got tossed into the list of possible coaches to fill Mike Brown's shoes, Harper's eyes were once again focused on the City of Angels. However, things didn't quite work out how everyone thought they would and Harper had something to say about it.
espnW: Why is it that every time something goes wrong, the Lakers go running back to Phil Jackson like an old ex-girlfriend? This would have been his second return to Lakerland if he came back. That's not healthy behavior.
Ron Harper: Ex-girlfriends are not that bad, I hate to tell you. But no really, the man is a very good basketball coach. He has only won 11 world championships. He will probably go down as one of the top five guys around the league. He knows the game and knows how to get the most out of his guys and when you get Phil, you know you're getting a championship-caliber coach.
espnW: As a player, you played for lots of coaches. When you were on the Los Angeles Clippers you changed coaches twice in the same season. Does a coaching change upset the chemistry of the team and how do you think it will affect the Lakers this season?
RH: This is so early, it's going to be fine. If it were midway, it would be too hard for them. Plus, this is an older basketball team so it's not like you have to show them new things. The guys know how to play. They have got probably the best basketball player in this game. They have got the best two big men in this league. So, they have a very good basketball team, they just have to find a way for that to come together as a whole.
espnW: But Mike D'Antoni isn't just some regular ol' coach coming off the street. He has a history of quitting on one of his teams. He quit on the New York Knicks midway through the season and left them to fend for themselves. Do you think that reputation will follow him into the Lakers' locker room and cause trouble for him?
RH: The thing is the guys will give him a chance to be a part of the team and show the worth he has. If he comes in there and is a good basketball coach, guys will forget about what he did a year ago. It's all about what can you do now for this basketball team. The thing is, he has to go in there and demand respect from all the guys and say, "I know what I'm going to do and I know the job that I have to do and I'm here to be a part of this basketball team."
espnW: Let's be honest, though, does demand respect really mean, "get on Kobe's good side?" Because you can't succeed in Los Angeles unless the Black Mamba is behind you.
RH: The thing for sure is he's definitely got to have [Kobe] in his saddle. He knew him when he was 5 and [Kobe] had a chance to play for him, too. So he knows the job he can do. So the thing now is to get him to feed in and get all the guys to feed in, too. He [also] had Steve Nash, so Steve Nash knows the job he has to do, too.
espnW: Kobe is one of the best offensive players of my generation so the Lakers are straight on offense. But what about the defensive side? What are the Lakers going to do with a coach that folks call "Antoni" because he has no D in his plans?
RH: Yes. Ever, ever. Kobe is one of the best offensive players ever. But, we are never going to talk about that other side because Mike D'Antoni is known for outscoring basketball teams. He has never been known for holding basketball teams. He's been known for outscoring basketball teams. On that basketball team he got a defensive player who has been on the first defensive team for four years [in Dwight Howard]. So he has guys who know how to play on the defensive side. So the only thing that they are going to ask him is, what is your defensive scheme and how are you going to teach us to play the style you ask us to play?
espnW: Now, you know Phil Jackson. When you heard about some of the demands he supposedly made in order to take the coaching job like wanting ownership in the team, travel restrictions, a ton of money and power over personnel, what crossed your mind? Would he do such a thing?
RH: Phil knew this was going to be a short-term job. This job was only going to be for two, three years. That team is built to win right now. Not built to win in three or four years. It's built to win right now. So he knew it wasn't going to be a five-year job so I don't think all the stuff that we heard about demands are the facts. And I know Phil.
espnW: You know Mitch Kupchak, too. Phil said Mitch would give him until Monday to make a decision on the job. Mitch says he told Phil he would still be looking at other candidates. Then boom, much to his surprise, Phil receives a call Sunday night saying they hired D'Antoni. There seems to be five sides to this story. What do you make of it all?
RH: There are always three to four sides of a story when that team is involved. But it's five sides when you got Phil involved. And so everybody got their own side. I'm sure they said some things and Phil's folks said some things but you don't ever know the real side. Only thing that we know is that Phil is a great basketball coach and they were trying to find a good basketball coach.
espnW: Kobe has been rumored to say that he will be done with basketball soon…
RH: Kobe is done in two years. It's over for him.
espnW: Ok, so if you are Kobe Bryant and you know you are going to retire soon and you want to reach Michael Jordan's championship status of six rings, how do you get this team to win right now with a new coach and an injured Nash?
RH: I say, I'm going to have to get these guys to play defense because that's the one thing they have not been doing. The last two or three games they have played really good but can they sustain it for a long haul? The NBA season is an 82-game marathon and as a basketball team, can they stay strong the whole year? That's going to be the thing. Can Pau Gasol play the whole year? Can Dwight play the whole year? Can Kobe play the whole year? Steve Nash is hurt now, so it's not how you start now but what goes on at the end of the year.
espnW: And if at the end of the year, the Lakers aren't lifting the Larry O'Brien trophy, how do you think your old home of Los Angeles will react?
RH: That's a failure. They already know if they don't win the NBA championship it's been a bad year. That team is built for now. That team is not built for anything else. They are built to win a championship now. And that's how they have to see the whole thing. We have to win now, we can't wait. We have to win now.