Tide basketball legend dies

TUSCALOOSA - The Southeastern Conference and the University of Alabama has lost a basketball legend. Jerry Harper, who has held the SEC's career rebounds record for 46 years, has died in Montgomery. Harper died Sunday night following a lengthy illness.

Harper, 67, was inducted into the state's Alabama Sports Hall of Fame in 2001.

"We have lost a legend," said University of Alabama men's basketball coach Mark Gottfried. "Jerry Harper was at the heart of one of Alabama's greatest teams, the Rocket 8 who went undefeated in the SEC. There are Alabama fans today who have followed our basketball program since before the 1950's, and, if you asked them who the greatest player or who the greatest team was, they'll point to Jerry Harper and the Rocket 8.

Harper's career rebounding record in the SEC has stood since 1956.

"That he has held the SEC's rebounding record since 1956 is phenomenal, particularly when you step back and realize that some of the game's greatest players played in the SEC, guys like Shaquille O'Neal when he was at LSU, Charles Barkley at Auburn or even Reggie King or Antonio McDyess here at Alabama. We're very proud of the legacy Jerry Harper has left in our program. And our thoughts are with his family and those who loved him, including his former teammates at Alabama."

Harper, standing 6-foot-8, was a two-time All-American at Alabama. He was a four-time All-SEC center and ranked among the nation's top ten in rebounding as a freshman in 1953 and a junior in 1955. Harper, who was a consensus All-SEC pick by the Associated Press, United Press International and the league's coaches in 1956, was the youngest player in the league to be named All-SEC in 1953 on an All-SEC list that included only juniors and seniors and Harper, then a freshman.

Nicknamed "Moose", Harper came to Alabama to play for Johnny Dee's Crimson Tide team from his hometown of Louisville, Ky. He was an immediate hit, averaging 17.8 points and 17.0 rebounds in 21 games as a freshman. He averaged 17.8 points and 14.9 rebounds as a sophomore, 21.0 points and 19.0 rebounds as a junior and 23.2 points and 21.5 rebounds his senior season.

His 1,688 career rebounds still stands 46 years later as the SEC's all-time record. The only player who has come close to it was Alabama's Leon Douglas who grabbed 1,279 rebounds during his Alabama career from 1973-76.

Harper also holds the league record in single season rebounds per game at 21.5 in 1956 when he had a total of 517 rebounds in 24 games. His 19.0 rebounds in 1955 ranks fourth all-time in the SEC and his 17.0 rebounds in 1953 ranks tenth all-time in the league. Harper also leads the SEC in all-time career rebounds per game with his 18.2 rebounds per game average which totaled 1,688 rebounds in 93 career games. His 33 rebounds in a 1955 game against Louisiana College ranks third all-time in the SEC.

Harper was a member of Alabama's famed "Rocket 8." That 1956 squad was a perfect 14-0 in SEC play.

Harper played center on an Alabama team fans dubbed "The Rocket 8," named after the popular Rocket 8 Oldsmobile model and drawn from the fact that Coach Dee typically relied on just eight players. "By the time we were seniors, we knew what everybody was going to do before he did it," Harper said in a 1992 Birmingham News feature on the Rocket 8. "We could anticipate somebody shooting and get that little half step toward the board."

Harper and his teammates made history, particularly on February 26, 1956 in Montgomery's Garrett Coliseum when they became the first team to ever score 100 points on Kentucky and Adolph Rupp en route to their 101-77 upset of the Wildcats. Harper scored 38 points and had 26 rebounds in that win. The team finished 21-3 and a perfect 14-0 in the SEC.

Harper dominates Alabama's rebounding record, holding four of the top seven single season marks. He is the only player in Alabama basketball history to top the 400 rebounds in a season mark, a feat he accomplished twice.

His 20.1 career points per game average is also an Alabama record as are his 1,723 career field goal attempts and his 784 career free throw attempts. His 473 career free throws made ranks second all-time at Alabama (behind Reggie King's 484).


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