Ron Harper Jr. being himself is being loyal. He played at one high school – Don Bosco Prep in New Jersey – on one AAU team – coached by his mother Maria – and at one university. He was an undervalued, two-star recruit that head coach Steve Pikiell wanted. And Harper Jr. wanted to help build a program in his home state, which helped bring top-100 Jersey recruits Paul Mulcahy and Cliff Omoruyi to Rutgers.
“I could never imagine myself going out there and playing a collegiate game with any other name on my chest, in any other jersey in any other state,” he said. “This place feels like home to me.”
Dayton has a second-home feel. Harper Jr. visited the city at least once a year while his grandmother was alive. But this is first time back since he was in the eighth grade. Harper family members and friends will certainly be in the arena Wednesday night when Rutgers plays Notre Dame at 9:10. But Harper Jr. doesn’t know how many. He said others are handling the tickets and that his dad told everyone to let Ron Jr. be.
“It’s a place that I hold near and dear to my heart, and I have a lot of family here, so it’s great to be back here,” Harper Jr. said. “All roads kind of lead back to home. I consider this place to be a big part of me.”
Reminders of Dayton are never too far from Harper Jr. Teammate Caleb McConnell, who came to Rutgers as a freshman with Harper Jr., played at Dunbar High School through his junior year and has played at UD Arena. Harper’s dad also played in the arena, but this is Harper Jr.’s first time.
McConnell said some of his older cousins and uncles grew up around Ron Harper and played basketball with him.
“They’re very familiar with Ron’s family,” McConnell said. “It’s kind of funny how me and Ron went to the same school, and both of our families are from here. It’s just crazy how life is taking us into full circle.”
While the attention that surrounds Harper Jr. this week is about his dad and being in Dayton, he says he wouldn’t be here if not for his mom. Maria Harper played college basketball at the University of New Orleans and ran his AAU team. After 15 NBA seasons in Cleveland, Chicago and Los Angeles, Ron Harper was ready to spend time outside of gyms.
“I feel like my dad would agree when I say I get more inspiration from my mom,” Harper Jr. said. “He really gave the keys to my mom in being able to teach me to play basketball, but he’s always been there for advice. She always made sure I knew I was good enough. Without her, none of this is possible for me.”
The basketball bloodlines, however, don’t end with Harper Jr. His brother Dylan is a sophomore at Don Bosco Prep. Harper Jr. is also following his father’s example in his relationship with his little brother. Just like he heard from his dad, Ron Jr. tells his brother that he will be a better player.
“I tell him all the time that I want him to be better than me in everything he does,” Harper Jr. said. “That boy a lot better than me.”