Matt Harpring’s ‘Back to Fundamentals’ basketball camp brochure reads: “We will concentrate on getting every camper better regardless of his/her talents coming into the camp. Campers will be taught the “right way” to play the game of basketball. My one desired goal is to pass on the unique knowledge I have gained from playing for coaches Ron Bell, Bobby Cremins, Chuck Daly, Doc Rivers, Randy Wittman, Larry Brown, and Jerry Sloan.”
I think that’s a pretty good summary of Harpring: ‘fundamentals,’ ‘concentrate,’ ‘regardless of talent,’ ‘right way’… Harpring is the player who most fascinated me during my brief stint as a high school coach (does that count as a high school memory?) because he is all fundamentals, smarts, toughness, effort – exactly what every coach wants in a player. I love watching him on the baseline when he sets up his man, heads up towards the screens on either side of the key, reads his defender’s chase to either curl in for a free throw jumper, or fade out for a 17-footer from free-throw-line-extended. (Korver gets this call a lot too.) This play is not about being the fastest, quickest, or strongest, it’s about smarts and execution. If executed properly, it’s an open shot (to make or miss) no matter what, and that is – and I think Sloan would agree – what is meant by “the right way to play the game of basketball.” We see his toughness on the other end of the court when he plays defense and gets rebounds with his hips. It’s not pretty, and the pretty-boys hate it (Carmelo, esp.), but that kind of defense is fundamental basketball too.
But he’s aging quickly. He’s 33 now. Surviving the NBA into your 30s is an aberration, not the rule, and those who do either have some freakish skill to keep them valuable (drop-dead 3s, for example) or they have freakish size (7’+), or they were a superstar to begin with and in their mid-30s they regress to mere “very good” status (Jordan, Malone, Stockton, Jabaar, etc.) Harpring’s hard work and hustle made him an overachiever in his younger years, so his descent is from useful journeyman to extremely awesome rec-league baller. By age 40, he’ll be on church ball levels. Moreover, since Harpring’s game relies so heavily on physicality, his body has taken a toll over the years. And this season, it showed.
Offseason ankle surgery to remove a bone spur turned to an infection and unexpected delays in rehabbing and returning to form. Like many of the injured Jazzmen this season, he showed flashes of contract-extension-worthy performances (the Hawks game, for example, when he endured a flagrant 2 from Josh Smith and then scored 15 points). But much of the season was spent in unfamiliar territory: little playing time (his first DNPs in seasons), missed layups, missed jumpers off that curl play I love so much, and losing races to rebounds. His role from now on, no matter the year, no matter the team, is to be a veteran presence in the locker room giving maybe 10 minutes of game time rest to younger beasts. He will have games where his presence is important – getting into the heads of Carmelos, and others like him. But he needs to be grateful for every dollar he is paid to dress. Another injury or surgery could mean the end of his playing days. He needs to begin to think about coaching, scouting, management or….full-time fatherhood.
I once read that the reason everybody hated JJ Reddick at Duke was because he was just like all of us, a 6’2”-ish white guy who wasn’t super fast or super strong….but lived this dream-life where he got to shoot 3’s all day for Duke. Pure jealousy was the root of the hatred. I think Harpring has that same kind of Everyman quality about him. He could be our brother, our pal from high school, or our neighbor. (You would never feel that way about Karl Malone.) But instead of jealousy, you have to like the guy.
More than once this year I got angry at a Harpring missed layup. But you can’t begrudge his effort, dedication, locker-room presence, attitude, etc. Harpring is our team’s ’87 Honda Civic that just doesn’t have anything left to give. If another big repair comes due, it will be more prudent to let him go, but not without our admiration and appreciation.