Derek Harper was one of the best players to ever put on an Illini uniform, and he made the program proud during a 16-year career in the NBA.
Harper was the first of five first-round draft picks that Lou Henson sent to the league between 1983 and 1990. After three seasons in Champaign, Harper finished his collegiate career as the program's all-time leader in assists and steals.
As a freshman, Harper teamed up with Eddie Johnson to lead Illinois to their first NCAA tournament appearance in 18 years. As a junior, Harper was an Associated Press second-team All-American with 15.4 points, 3.7 assists, 3.5 rebounds and 2.2 steals per game.
Following that season, Harper was selected No. 11 overall in the 1983 NBA Draft by the Dallas Mavericks. He totaled more than 16,000 points and 6,500 assists during his NBA tenure. He was also a two-time selection to the NBA All-Defensive Second-Team in 1987 and 1990.
Harper currently ranks fourth all-time in career points (12,597) in Mavericks history, and he is first in assists (5,111) and steals (1,511).
With the NBA Draft coming up on Thursday, lead basketball reporter Derek Piper caught up with Harper to talk about his draft experience and much more.
Derek Piper: You're heading into the NBA Draft in 1983. Just kind of set the stage for me. What was that like leading up to draft day and what were your emotions?
Derek Harper: It was nerve-racking, yet exciting. I think anybody that plays at a certain level when it comes to basketball, one of your goals is to be drafted into the NBA. I was no different. I was kind of torn at the time between staying at Illinois and going hardship. I remember like it was yesterday when I made up my mind. It didn’t matter who I talked to afterwards because my mind was made up. After the season ended, I kind of revisited the season and just realized that it would be hard to duplicate the season that I had, and mentally and physically, I thought I was ready for the next level. Once I made my mind up, I really became excited about the opportunity. I really worked hard on my game. It was just an exciting time to think that a dream might come true. But it was hectic and very exciting.
DP: Talk about your preparations for the draft between the time you decided to leave Illinois and leading into draft day.
Harper: You try to find an agent. George Andrews was the agent that I found—a very established agent at the time. He represented Magic Johnson, Isaiah Thomas, Dominique Wilkins—a lot of guys that were already in the league at the time. So he does his due diligence on where you’re projected to be drafted. And after talking to him, I had no doubt that he felt that I was going to a top-10 pick. It made the decision easy. He told me that he’d focus on that and for me to just focus on working on my game and ready myself for the next level. That’s what I did, and the rest is pretty much history. When you’re in that position, you know whether you belong at the next level regardless of what all the experts may say. The process for me from there was to work and get better. It put me in a position to take care of my family, of course. It was just the right thing for me to do at that particular time.
DP: These days, everybody is about their get-up for the draft. Do you recall what you wore?
Harper: I do. I had a pair of jeans and a t-shirt on. I was at my agent’s place in Chicago. He had a nice apartment down on Wacker (Drive), in that area. Doc Rivers and I were clients of George at the time, and we both sat, watched and listened to the draft together at his place. I remember it like it was yesterday. I remember Doc being fired up because there were guys going in the draft before him that we both knew were not on his level as a player. But the ball takes some funny bounces when it comes to teams drafting you. We sat there and talked, and laughed and joked, and laughed and joked some more. It was very unlike how things go today. I’d refuse to go to the draft today with the fear of being embarrassed and all that stuff. I was very comfortable and relaxed during that time.
DP: You hear your name get called. It’s a dream that so many have but only a few get to feel. Take me through that experience.
Harper: After being drafted, I simply fell on my knees and thanked God. It’s surreal. It’s a situation where you hear it and you know that it’s happened but it doesn’t sink in right away. I think it takes time to absorb being drafted as a professional basketball player into the NBA. All I can really remember thinking about was that I was going to be in the league just like Clyde Frazier, Jerry West and Oscar Robertson. I used to write those guys’ name on a t-shirt after the NBA would go off on Sundays, and I’d go out to the court and try to emulate those guys. So all I could think about was getting an opportunity to rub shoulders with guys and players that I had admired from afar all of my life. Like I said, it was surreal, man. I get goosebumps thinking about that moment because, obviously, basketball has made you who you are. You’re excited, and yet, a little bit discombobulated about the whole dynamic of it all coming together and it coming to fruition.
DP: You get the call from the team. How does that conversation go?
Harper: In tears, I simply thanked the Mavericks organization for drafting me. They talked about when they wanted me to be in Dallas for a press conference. From there, it was pretty slow motion. I went home after my visit, and that’s where all of the real excitement started because nobody had ever been drafted into the NBA from my hometown. I was a hero for a day or two down in West Palm Beach.
DP: Going into the draft, did you have any idea where you might go?
Harper: My agent was told by Marty Blake at the time that I would be the first point guard off the board. It was between myself and Darrell Walker. I think if Dallas didn’t draft me at 11, the Knicks had the 12th pick. I talk to (former Knicks head coach) Hubie Brown when I see him in different cities. I got him to admit that if I made it to 12, he was going to draft me at 12.
DP: Obviously, your life changes after that moment. What’s one thing you didn’t know on that day that you wish you did heading into the days, months and years after?
Harper: That people think because you get drafted into the NBA, that you’re filthy rich. You’re not. I got a signing bonus of about $150,000 in 1983-84. Clearly, not rich. Not even close to rich. In the league, there’s a misconception of being in the NBA. I don’t think people realize the taxes that come into play with NBA contracts, and all of the things that come into play. That was the biggest thing that I didn’t know—that people would think that I was rich. And because of that, they would treat you different. I can’t tell you how many people that tried to weigh whether or not I was the same person. How do you change because you’re drafted into the NBA? Something that you’ve worked your heinie off to do. How do you change from that? There’s no way humanly possible. But I think a lot of guys spend a lot of time trying to prove that they are the same person and all those kind of things. That was the big thing for me. People’s perception of me changed then and it forced me to change a little bit myself. Just go about your business more or less.
DP: How do you feel Illinois helped prepare you for taking that next step to the NBA?
Harper: It’s the Big Ten. The Big Ten is where everything was happening at the time. Magic had just left. Isaiah Thomas had just left the Big Ten. I was fortunate in playing for Coach Henson that he gave me right off the bat—he gave me the basketball. That’s one of the reasons I chose Illinois because I didn’t want to get lost in the shuffle as a freshman. I wanted to play right away. I didn’t care about what was on the back and the front of the jersey as much as how much playing time I was going to get as a freshman and all of those things. Just going to Illinois, just getting an opportunity to play right away. I was overconfident leaving high school coming to Illinois. And Illinois prepared me because Coach Henson was an old-school, no-nonsense type of a coach. No insubordination. He used to always say ‘the mustard came off the hotdog’, because I’d attempt a behind-the-back pass when all it took was a simple bounce-pass. I think from a fundamental standpoint, Illinois is what prepared me for the next level. I think it’s a forgotten art—the fundamentals of the game. Once I honed in on that and practiced and worked at it, I became an even better player with the talent that I had by going to Illinois and playing for guys like Coach (Dick) Nagy, Coach Henson and Tony Yates.
DP: In recruiting, certain programs sell that they produce NBA players. It's the 'if you want to go to the league, you should go here' narrative. What are your thoughts about that and do you think that is necessarily true?
Harper: I don’t think universities get you in the league. They didn’t at that particular time. Maybe they do now. I think Kentucky, Carolina, Duke—those teams right now, obviously they’re at the forefront of getting high school talent. Certainly through relationships and resources, Kentucky in particular, has had a lot of first-round NBA can’t-miss prospects to come into the league. But back then, not so much. You really had to be able to play. You were scouted from your high school all the way up until you were drafted into the league. I think if I had gone anywhere and I continued to work, I would have been drafted into the league. I was ready for the NBA skill-wise, and physically and mentally. Overall, I think that’s a little bit overrated personally.
DP: Including this year, Meyers Leonard is the only selection from Illinois in the last 10 drafts. Is that concerning to you as an alum and former great at that program?
Harper: To some degree. From afar, you always root for your alma mater to do well. I do. I don’t get back to Champaign as much as I’d like to. But that doesn’t mean that you don’t represent from afar and you don’t care. In order to get talent now, you’ve got to be good. You were just talking about it. You have to have something to entice players to come there. Just not getting the best kids from the state of Illinois—a lot of the big-name guys out of Chicago—I think that certainly has a play in players not getting drafted from Illinois. The Big Ten is always going to be a spot for scouts to go and check out. Sooner or later, things get turned around. I think it goes in cycles, to be quite frank with you, when it comes to talent at certain universities.
DP: Last question. What advice would you have for those who are about to be drafted and have their lives changed on Thursday night?
Harper: There are a lot of young guys that are going to be in the draft. They’re mostly one-and-done kids. The advice I would give them—more than one set of advice though. Number one: Limit your circle. Make sure you surround yourself around the right people. I think preparation, in anything as far as sports is concerned, is extremely important that you make sure that you’re prepared for the next level because it’s the best level in the world. There’s only about 450 NBA players in the league. So you’re going to be going against stiff competition, so you’ve got to be prepared for that. But more importantly, put your head down and stay focused on your craft, and just don’t forget what got you to that level. And what gets you there is the hard work. It’s the coming to practice early, staying late, finding a veteran that you can learn from and grow from. And if you have the ability and the talent, you’ll have a long career in the league.