Ron Harper Jr. established his legacy
The visit lasted nearly four hours.
Ron Harper Jr. and his mother, Maria, visited the Rutgers campus and met with members of the basketball program. Harper, who was about to start his final year at Don Bosco Prep, was not heavily recruited at the time.
Yet there he was, an hour away from home, with an opportunity to play in the Big Ten for a coach and program that saw his potential.
When they got back to their car, Maria said Ron should give a one-sentence reaction and then she would give hers.
“Hers was, ‘I like it here,'” Maria recalled. “I paused and said, ‘Me too. “”
The next day, she called Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell and told him she trusted him with her son.
It was the start of a remarkable journey.
Harper bought into Pikiell’s vision of reviving an underdog program, making it a program New Jersey could be proud of, and he ultimately became a central figure in the resurgence.
He established an undisputed legacy.
Harper and Rutgers seniors on Sunday will be honored at a Senior Day ceremony ahead of their regular season finale against Penn State at Jersey Mike’s Arena, potentially the last time Harper will dress in front of Rutgers’ raucous crowd.
Harper could return for another year, but said he doesn’t know what his future will be beyond this season. He said he is approaching this as his last home game as it is the last he will have with this current team.
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“Who knows what the future holds for us?” Harper said. “I’m just worried about finishing strong with these guys who have sacrificed so much to be here.”
Harper, currently ranked 14th on Rutgers’ all-time scoring list with 1,475 points, helped the Scarlet Knights break their 30-year NCAA Tournament drought. He knocked down killer shots — from his half court, beating the buzzer to beat then-top-ranked Purdue in December to its game-winning three-pointer against Indiana on Wednesday — and he showed why recruiting rankings can be so tenuous.
“He just wanted an opportunity”
Kevin Diverio remembers the telltale plays Harper made occasionally as a sophomore in high school, but it was the following year that the head coach at Don Bosco Prep knew Harper had the potential to play at a high level.
These parts have become common.
“For me, his best attribute is his ability to play inside out, a really versatile player at both ends of the pitch,” Diverio said. “I thought he could be really good.”
Harper averaged 10.1 points per game as a junior. He helped lead the Ironmen to a state championship and an appearance in the Tournament of Champions final.
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Harper was clearly an impact player, but major college programs didn’t notice him.
“I felt like when I had the chance to show the world what I could do,” said Harper, who only got two stars.
Maria Harper recalls that only a handful of Division I schools showed interest. The only major program to do so at the time was Nebraska. The idea of playing so far from home appealed to neither Maria nor her son.
“But when Rutgers came on the scene, we were flattered,” Maria said. “We knew what they were trying to build at Piscataway, and having the opportunity to help build a program and get it going again was something he was really interested in.”
And Pikiell, who is not a coach who invests much in recruiting rankings, was interested in Harper.
Pikiell watched Harper play and witnessed the versatility Diverio saw every day. He saw Harper’s frame and imagined what he could become under the tutelage of strength and conditioning coach David VanDyke.
Pikiell also liked that Harper played for only one high school and one AAU program – Ring City, founded by Maria.
“That set him apart from 95% of the kids I recruited,” Pikiell said.
At a time when so many kids are on the move looking for situations they think will help them stand out the most, Harper took on the challenge of earning her future.
“He just wanted an opportunity,” Pikiell said. “We believed in him. I loved his skills, I thought he had a chance. But all the work he had to do, that’s part of it too.
Rutgers presented the perfect fit. It also offered an opportunity.
“He was so excited to be a Scarlet Knight, excited to represent his state and hopefully before his time at Rutgers is over, it will be a place more New Jersey athletes want to attend and stay in. home and wanting to represent their state,” says Maria. “I think in a nutshell, he was able to do that.”
After Harper arrived, Bayonne native and Gill St. Bernard product Paul Mulcahy chose Rutgers, while Roselle Catholic grad Cliff Omoruyi also opted to stay in New Jersey. The Scarlet Knights also signed Lenape High School guard Derek Simpson as part of their 2022 recruiting class.
“We’ve got a lot of great talent in New Jersey, so I just want the kids to stay home and make Rutgers a serious choice when they do eventually sign up,” Ron said. “Coming from New Jersey, I’m very proud of that.”
Building his legacy
Harper, along with point guard Geo Baker, has been a catalyst in Rutgers’ resurgence over the past three seasons.
By helping the Scarlet Knights emphatically break their NCAA tournament drought, Harper simultaneously became one of college basketball‘s most formidable players.
“I think a lot of people wondered if he could play at this level,” Diverio said, “and I think he answered that question and beyond.”
His last name drew its own attention, its own pressure. Harper wanted to show he’s not just the son of five-time NBA champion Ron Harper Sr.
“When it comes to respecting his dad’s name or legacy, he has a competitive edge and has always wanted to prove that ‘Hey listen, even though my dad had a great career, I’m my own man’ “, said Maria. “As he started to mature and because of some of the moments of success he had, I think he was able to understand now that it’s like the best two worlds.”
Maria said she and Harper share a saying after every game: Never too high, never too low. It keeps Harper grounded and humble through the ups and downs of a season.
This season, in particular, has included a lot.
Rutgers suffered surprising losses, but won remarkable victories. Harper gained national attention for his shot against Purdue — he still went to his 8 a.m. sports media class the next day.
But Harper remembers this game for more of her own exploits.
“Beyond the blow, beyond what happened, seeing that final score that we beat the No. 1 team in the country, we proved to ourselves a lot that we could play with anybody. in the country,” Harper said. “I think that win, in the moment, changed the perception of how we honestly thought about ourselves.”
Harper helped the Scarlet Knights relaunch their season, the same way he once helped relaunch the entire program.
Rutgers is aiming for a second straight appearance in the NCAA Tournament. A few years ago, given the program’s downfall, such a feat would have been unfathomable.
But Harper stayed home, stayed in New Jersey. He trusted Pikiell’s vision.
Harper’s place in Rutgers lore is cemented.
“I’m just happy to be a part of it,” Harper said. “I have seen this program make progress in the right direction. And I always say when I come here, I want to leave knowing that the kids in New Jersey think it’s cool to go to Rutgers again. I think I do exactly that.