Thirty-Four Years Later, Ron Harper Trade Still Stings Cavs

If I remember correctly, Nov. 16, 1989, was a pretty snowy night. I do remember being on State Road near my home in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, headed to get the latest Basketball Digest magazine at a small bookstore called the Newsstand.Ron Harper looks to pass vs. Michael Jordan

That’s when I heard it on the radio — the Cavaliers had traded dynamic shooting guard Ron Harper and multiple picks to the Clippers for rookie forward Danny Ferry and shooting guard Reggie Williams, a former star at Georgetown.

Frankly, I couldn’t believe it. Harper was the Cavaliers’ answer to the Bulls’ Michael Jordan at the time, a high-flying and ultra-athletic guard who could slash alongside the likes of center Brad Daugherty, point guard Mark Price, and power forward Larry Nance, all of it taking place under coach Lenny Wilkens.

Of the group, Harper was the most likely to bring you out of your seat with a dunk or other highlight-worthy play. His style perfectly complemented Price’s perimeter shooting and ability to split defensive double-teams.

Yes, the Cavs lost to Jordan in the Bulls the previous season in The Shot series. But people forget that Price missed Game 1, at home, the Cavs lost, and never fully recovered.

They beat the Bulls all six games in the regular season that year, finished 57-25, and were considered a team on the rise. Lakers legend Magic Johnson even called them “the team of the ’90s.”

Harper was a big reason why.

And the Cavs inexplicably traded him away, just a few months after that run, when he was still very much in his prime.

Meanwhile, Ferry was a big-time star at Duke who refused to play for the Clippers. He chose to go to Italy instead. He made it clear he intended to finish the season overseas.

That’s when then-Cavs GM Wayne Embry, still a beloved figure in Cleveland sports, said that Celtics star Larry Bird was “worth the wait,” as was Spurs center David Robinson, and Ferry would be, too.

Well, it didn’t exactly turn out that way. The Cavs did make it to the Eastern Conference finals in 1992, where they lost to Jordan and the Bulls in six games.

But they just never felt the same after Harper. The Cavs were fantastic without him plenty of times, yes. Still, you can’t help but think what might have been.

Harper was the one guy Jordan truly respected when Harper was with the Cavs. The two even played pool together on a few occasions. Jordan was very selective when it came to fraternizing with the competition. It was a short list that included then-76ers star Charles Barkley, a couple of others …and Harper.

That’s respect.

And a lot of people likely don’t remember that Harper scored 36 points for the Cavs against the Bulls in the 1989-90 season opener. A few weeks later, he was gone.

Anyway, I can also remember the first Cavs-Clippers game after the trade. It took place on Dec. 7, in Los Angeles, just a few weeks after the deal. Harper scored 29, including a dunk in which he hung on the rim and glared at the Cavs bench.

Wilkens publicly stated that wasn’t necessary, he didn’t care for Harper trying to show up his former teammates. That’s because Wilkens and Harper’s former teammates weren’t the ones to blame. None of them were in favor of the trade. It was just the opposite. They all still wanted Harper on the team.

At any rate, we all know how the story unfolds from there. While a serviceable big man, Ferry never became a major part of things with the Cavs (until he became GM, anyway). Harper blew out his knee in the second half of the season, and while he remained a productive player and top-notch defender, was never quite the same as he was with the Cavs. 

But he went on to win five championships, including three with Jordan, coach Phil Jackson and the Bulls, followed by two with Jackson, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant and the Lakers.

The Cavs of the late 1980s and ’90s remain among the most beloved in franchise history. Yet it seems we never got to see what they truly could’ve been, and the Harper trade is a massive reason why.

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