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Ron Harper Jr. talks March Madness push, wanting to surpass dad, Rutgers legacy


Senior Rutgers forward and Franklin Lakes, N.J., native Ron Harper Jr. is the son longtime NBA player Ron Harper. The leading scorer for the Scarlet Knights takes a shot at some Q&A with Post columnist Steve Serby.

Q: How often have you watched the replay of your buzzer-beater to beat top-ranked Purdue, 70-68, on Dec. 9?

A: I’ve definitely watched it enough, I can tell you that. I kind of try to avoid it now. I remember one time I was watching a YouTube video in my dorm room, and then literally the fan reaction popped up as an ad before the video, and I was like, “I can’t escape this. There’s no way.”

Q: Why would you want to escape it?

A: (Laugh) I see it too much. It was such a great moment for me and my teammates, but I gotta move on, there’s so much to accomplish. My season wasn’t made or [broken] on that shot, so I just gotta keep a level head and just keep moving past that. It’s definitely a memory I’d love to remember, but I can’t let it get me too excited.

Q: Did anything funny happen during the storming of the court?

A: I think of one thing when you say that. I’m watching the video later on, and I just see Jalen Miller, he like ran my girlfriend straight over. They collided at like a little over half-court, and she was running towards me and he was running towards me, and they just ran into each other and they both just dropped. And you kind of see Jalen like hovering over her so nobody steps on her.

Q: What’s the rivalry like between Rutgers and Seton Hall?

A: It’s crazy, it’s hostile, it’s everything that everybody writes about. That rivalry is great. Two great teams going at it every year, and I hope that they continue playing for many, many years because New Jersey needs that game.

Ron Harper Jr.
Getty Images

Q: What were your emotions walking off the court after losing to Houston, 63-60, in the NCAA Tournament last year?

A: I was just heartbroken, because that team was a team that broke the drought, 30 years, and we would have made March Madness the year before. And so that journey was just so tough and so special to me because I remember how I felt when the NCAA Tournament got canceled in 2020 [for COVID-19], and I remember how me and my teammates felt because we felt like we were finally gonna be the Rutgers team to break that. And then last year, we had a season with ups and downs but we ended up making it to our end goal, which was to make it to the NCAA Tournament, and we won a game. We were a couple of baskets away from a Sweet 16. I think back on it now and it was my last time playing with a bunch of those guys. You definitely have regrets when you look back on a game like that, but it’s always a lesson instead of a loss.

Q: What do you recall about the postgame locker room?

A: I just see a lot of grown men crying. It was very emotional. Coach [Steve] Pikiell came in and told us that one of our beloved staff members [radio announcer and former coach and athletic director Joe Boylan] had just passed away, and it just broke us in so many different ways.

Q: How long did it take you to get over the loss?

A: It took me a couple of days, maybe even a week, to get over it. It kind of sucked watching the rest of the NCAA Tournament unfold.

Q: Why can this Rutgers team be dangerous in March?

A: When we’re really locked in and really focused, we can beat anybody in the country. I feel like we have one of the best defenses in the country, it’s just about bringing it every night, and it’s just about just keep competing and keep fighting and keep chipping away. Somebody told us in every month that our season was over — in November, in December, in January and even February — and we’d never make the Tournament. We know what we have in the room, we know what we have on the court, and we just stick together and band together when stuff gets tough and we just try to get through adversity together.

NCAA
Rutgers’ Ron Harper Jr. dunks the ball.
AP

Q: How much will last year’s Tournament experience help you guys?

A: We kind of know what to expect. I would say that we got like half of the experience because we were locked up in our hotel rooms, it was only like half-capacity fans. But we know how intense it is, and we know what it’s gonna take to win.

Q: How much noise do you expect your team to make in March?

A: I expect this team to make a lot of noise. We gotta finish strong and we gotta finish like we want to get to the Tournament in order to get there. But I feel like once we get there, it’s gonna be a whole different beast. Once we get out there we’re gonna go out there with a chip on our shoulder with something to prove.

Q: Describe coach Pikiell.

A: Coach Pikiell’s a great guy, I feel like he’s a players-first coach. He wants to make sure his guys are satisfied and happy with their situation, but he also wants you to know that you’re gonna have to work for everything and that nothing comes easy and everything is gonna be earned. He’ll fight for us any day of the week, he’s a great coach, most importantly he’s a great guy. You can just tell coach Pikiell’s a great guy ’cause all the players that he’s coached along the years, they always come back on their free time in the summer or if they can get to a game, and no matter what year it’s from, they all have great stories about coach Pikiell and how good of a guy he is.

Q: Senior guard Geo Baker?

A: Leader, clutch. I think of that step-back a lot when he’s on the court. He’s kind of raised his own legacy, no one expected him to be what he is, and I feel like that’s the common theme with a lot of our guys around here.

Rutgers
Geo Baker
Getty Images

Q: Senior guard Caleb McConnell?

A: Defensive Player of the Year. He’s the best defender that I’ve ever played with. He’s just tenacious on the defensive end. He always tells us before the games that no matter what happens on offense, you gotta play defense, we gotta lock up, and while some of us might have a hard time grasping that concept and struggling to pull through during the game, he never shies away from that.

Q: Junior guard Paul Mulcahy?

A: He’s the best passer in the country, he’s a leader, he’s fearless, he’s daring, he’s tenacious. He’s everything you want out of a point guard.

Q: Your kid brother, Dylan Harper, is a 6-foot-5 sophomore at Don Bosco Prep. How does his game compare to yours?

A: We’re like polar opposites. Me, him and my dad, I feel like we’re all opposites in a certain way. I feel like I’m like a wing forward, those two were combo guards, I feel like they’re different. My dad was more athletic than Dylan, but Dylan has all the tools — he can create his shot, he can break you down off the dibble, he can finish in contact and he can play above the rim. He has all the tools to be a great player for a really long time.

Q: What advice would you give him when people compare him to you?

A: There’s one way to face it, and that’s to be better than me. I tell him all the time, I hope that he’s better than me. He’s a great player and he has all the potential in the world. He knows what it comes with. Growing up, I had to worry about my dad’s name and talking about my dad, and Dylan has it even worse now, every time he does something it’s gonna be my dad’s name and my name attached to it. That was something I struggled with growing up with my dad, and it’s probably gonna be something he struggles with, and we’ve talked about it, but keep playing, keep being yourself and keep being your own player.

Q: So you were driven to be better than your dad because people were comparing you to him?

A: Yeah, and my dad would always tell me he wants to me to better than him. We’re really competitive, us three, so I feel like we want to be better than each other at everything.

Q: What did you learn about you dad’s former teammate, Michael Jordan, watching “The Last Dance”?

A: I always knew he was a ferocious leader, but the stories don’t do it justice when you see it on the TV. … He was kind of ruthless in a way in that he wanted to win so bad that he would make you want it just as bad as him, and he would push you to work just as hard as him to get it.

Rutgers
Ron Harper Jr.
Duncan Williams/Cal Sport Media/

Q: Did your father tell you any stories about him?

A: He used to tell me how he would have guys at his house and they’d work out like 5 in the morning, and they just go like all day and they’d be there for a couple of days.

Q: What did he tell you about Scottie Pippen?

A: He told me that he could have probably chose to play for anybody other than the Bulls, but he kind of sacrificed to be a champion, and it definitely paid off for him in the long run.

Q: What did he tell you about Phil Jackson?

A: He told me that Phil was not a guy to mess with. You look at the best players in the league, you kind of think like they run their teams, when you thought of that Bulls team with Michael Jordan, even though Michael Jordan was the best player in the world, you knew that Phil Jackson was running the show. There was never any question about who was making the calls and who was telling who to do what. He knew how to connect with those guys.

Q: What is the biggest adversity or obstacle you had to overcome?

A: Being my dad’s son and being under-recruited, I feel like they kind of fall hand in hand. I was never like the first or second option for these schools across the country, but I think I ended up finding the right spot for me, and I think my career has gone well.

Q: Why do you think you were overlooked?

A: I don’t know. … I feel like I would always play well when there’s college coaches there, I just would never get a phone call, never get an offer. Honestly, I couldn’t tell you why that was the case ’cause I felt like I would showcase my abilities very well coming out of high school. It was just something that motivates me to work harder and just keep going.

Rutgers
Ron Harper Jr. goes up for a layip.
Getty Images

Q: So it fueled your fire then, right?

A: Definitely. If I saw college coaches the next game, I would want to play even better than before so I could showcase myself.

Q: Describe your on-court mentality.

A: I feel like it’s relentless, I feel like I’ll do whatever it takes for my team to win, and when I go out there, it’s never about me or my stats, it’s about what the team needs me to do to win.

Q: Describe your mother.

A: She’s very honest, caring, and she showed me that anything can be done. I’ve seen her make worlds meet, I’ve seen her come out in situations that were really dark, and for her to reach the light at the end of the tunnel, so she’s always just taught me to never give up, and no matter what you do just to put your heart into it and put your soul into it.

Q: What did you mean by really dark situations?

A: Experiences that me and my mom went through growing up on my AAU basketball team, because it was her team. … [I was] never like the best player on the team, so the other kids would make fun of me and talk down about my ability, and I never used to tell her ’cause I knew it would make her really upset. But I remember one day I used to open up to her and I was kind of upset about it and I told her, and she promised me that we’re gonna make it further than everybody that has something to say, and that we’re gonna do it the right way and we’re never gonna take any shortcuts. Without her motivation, without her belief in me, I definitely wouldn’t be where I am today. I told her what kids say about me, especially dudes that I thought were my teammates and my friends. She really took that to heart, she took it personal and she wanted me to be the best player out there that I could be.

Q: How old were you?

A: I was in eighth grade going into freshman year of high school.

Q: What drives you?

A: Like I told you that story when my teammates who I thought were my friends were making fun of me, I definitely still think about that all the time, and it drives me to be a better player, and it drives me to just keep going, to prove the doubters wrong, ’cause in my life I had a lot of doubters.

Q: If you could go one-on-one with any player in NBA history, who would it be?

A: I would want to go against my dad in his prime.

Q: Who should I bet on?

A: I’m betting on me. You can make a choice, a decision, or whatever you gotta go with, but I’m gonna tell you to bet on me.

Q: How does your game differ from his game?

A: I feel like he was more of like a point guard, where I’m more of just like a guard/forward. He was more comfortable bringing the ball up and directing the offense and stuff. I’m a little more versatile I feel like. He was a lot more explosive, athletic. I feel like we’re kind of similar on defense where we can guard multiple positions, he’s probably better at guarding smaller guards than I am.

Q: If you could pick the brain of any NBA player in history, who would it be?

A: Magic Johnson. He has elite basketball IQ, he guarded positions from the point guard to the center.

Q: Boyhood idol?

A: Carmelo Anthony. I just really liked his game growing up. I had like a signed Syracuse jersey from him and then, when he was on the Nuggets, I just thought he was like the best player in the NBA. And my favorite team was the Knicks, so when he came to the Knicks I was really excited.

Q: Before he came to the Knicks, did you have a favorite Knicks player?

A: Danilo Gallinari.

Q: Which NBA player do you think you’re similar to?

A: I think I’d say Paul Pierce. I feel like he really knew how to use his body to create shots, and I feel like I do the same thing, and he could guard multiple positions just like I can.

NCAA
Rutgers forward Ron Harper Jr. (24) browses on his cell phone while a team trainer helps him prepare for a game.
AP

Q: What do you think of NCAA players’ new name, image and likeness (NIL) rights?

A: I feel like it’ll keep a lot of great high school athletes going to colleges. I’ve seen so many dudes with a million different opportunities. I saw a guy post an ad for Butterfinger today. People get to be themselves, get to express themselves in ways other than on their field of play. It shows people your personality outside of basketball. … My favorite one was after I hit the buzzer-beater, we came out with the “Down Goes #1” shirt. It was cool that I’d be able to profit off something like that.

Q: What was your best Don Bosco Prep moment?

A: Winning the state sectional final my senior year, because we played at Rutgers, and we were down five with like 30 seconds left. And then we ended up winning the state championship the next game.

Q: What were your emotions when your Philadelphia Eagles won their first Super Bowl, following the 2017 season?

A: I had 103[-degree] fever, and I’m sitting on my bed screaming and I’m yelling. My mom was telling me it’s not good for the flu, but I didn’t care. That was one of the greatest days of my life.

Q: From your Instagram: “Sunny days wouldn’t be special if it wasn’t for the rain.”

A: I got that from a teammate, Akwasi Yeboah, my sophomore year. When I was struggling he would always tell that to me, and he’s right. The triumphs are nothing without the struggles and that’s what makes it so sweet and so great.

Q: The book “Intentional Mindset”?

A: [Author] Dave Anderson’s a great guy and he’s been working closely with [Rutgers teammate] Paul Mulcahy. He’s been to some practices, and he’s talked to us, he works with guys on their mindset and stuff. The book teaches you a lot about what your mind can do if you push it that far and just how far you can take it. He does a really good job with helping us subdue the pressure that we face as college athletes, especially at this level.

Q: Who are athletes in other sports you admire?

A: Tom Brady. He was overlooked, he came in, and he waited for his opportunity, and he seized the moment.

Q: Three dinner guests?

A: Kobe [Bryant], Barack Obama, Michael Vick.

Q: Favorite movie?

A: “Spider-Man.”

Q: Favorite actor?

A: Samuel L. Jackson.

Q: Favorite actress?

A: Gal Gadot.

Q: Favorite entertainer?

A: Kevin Hart.

Q: Favorite singer?

A: Usher or Ne-Yo.

Q: Favorite meal?

A: Steak, potatoes and asparagus.

Q: If I’m an NBA general manager, tell me why I should draft Ron Harper Jr.

A: You should draft Ron Harper Jr. because he’ll do whatever it takes — whether you need me to be a practice player, a scout guy, or you need me to go out there to play basketball. I’ll mesh with whatever the team needs me to do. I’m not gonna break character much, and I’m just gonna show up every day and work hard, and I’m gonna try to be the best player that I can.

Q: You have another year of eligibility, Your plans?

A: I’m not really sure. I’m taking it like a day at a time. I’m really focused on this season.

Q: Are you into visualization at all?

A: A little bit, yeah.

Q: Tell me what your Final Four visualization is.

A: I’m gonna go us, UCLA, Purdue and Baylor.

Q: What do you hope Ron Harper Jr.’s Rutgers legacy will be?

A: I hope it’s a hometown kid that believes in a coach that not many people believed in at the time, and he came here and he changed the culture. And I hope that after I’m done here, that more New Jersey kids will stay at home at Rutgers, which I think has happened already with Paul Mulcahy, Derek Simpson and Cliff Omoruyi. But I just hope to keep the trend going and keep our kids home. We have a great program here at Rutgers, we have great facilities, we have great academics and we have the whole package, and I want people to realize that you don’t have to go too far from home to find that.

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