As he does for every Dallas Mavericks home game, Derek Harper sat courtside in the American Airlines Center Sunday night, flanked by Mark Followill and Jeff Wade, ready to start the television broadcast. The Mavericks were taking on the New York Knicks but the game wasn’t the primary draw. It took a backseat to the ceremony held at halftime. In it, Harper’s number 12 was retired and raised into the rafter, making him just the third player in franchise history to have the honor bestowed upon him.
“You know, I was quiet,” Harper said about calling the first half of the game. “I’m going to be honest with you. There were a lot of different things running through my mind at that time. I kept looking up at Brad and Ro’s numbers, believe it or not, during the first half of the game and just thinking that I was going to be up there joining those guys.”
Only Brad Davis’ 15 and Rolando Blackman’s 22 were the only numbers retired in the franchise’s 38-year history until Sunday. Both were on hand for the ceremony along with former Mavericks coach Dick Motta as well as Harper’s friends and family. Even surrounded by his peers and loved ones, Harper was weary of being the center of attention.
“I’m humbled,” Harper said after the game. “I’m grateful that this is finally behind me. It’s nerve-wracking. This is the first time I’ve ever been singled out individually like I was tonight. I don’t really necessarily like it. It’s not totally comfortable but it doesn’t happen to everybody. So, I feel very fortunate and grateful for it.”
Harper’s modesty is understandable but the honor is beyond tardy. The Mavericks drafted Harper with the 11th overall pick in 1983. He went on to play with the team for 12 of his 16 seasons in the NBA from 1983-1994 and again in 1996-97. In that time, he played in 872 games while averaging 14.4 points and 5.7 assists. He holds the team’s all-time record for assists with 5,111 and steals with 1,551. He is also fourth total points with 12,597.
“It’s great,” Dirk Nowitzki said. “Well deserved. Long overdue. He had to wait a long time but I’m happy for him. He was a warrior for this franchise and had a great run there in the ‘80s—every year in the playoffs. He was a great leader, a great defender, a great shot maker, and also he’s a good guy and he’s still around and I’m happy for him.”
Although the night was about him, Harper couldn’t help but heap praise on teammates like Blackman and Davis. He specifically singled out his time playing for the New York Knicks and his relationship with Patrick Ewing.
“Playing with Patrick for a championship in ’94 against the Rockets, we have a bond just like Dirk, J.J., and those guys,” Harper said. “They won a championship. We didn’t win but we played for it and had an opportunity the following year to get back, just didn’t happen. That’s what the league is about. That’s what you miss the most is when you retire you’re not sitting on the back of the bus with those guys making up stories, telling a lot of lies, just enjoying each other.”
Personal achievements don’t mean the most to Harper. It’s the comradery he experienced during his time in the NBA that matters most. However, it’s a combination of the two that helped him achieve everything he accomplished in his long career.
“I don’t need recognition to know what I was as a basketball player. I think my peers, if you talk to them—they’ll give it to you straight. That’s what you want as a player. You play 16 years in the league, you want to be respected by the people that you compete against and that’s enough for me.”
Harper is a humble man who earned the respect of his peers. The banner bearing number 12 now hanging in the rafters is a testament not only to his performance on the court but also to his character.