Aug. 29, 2008
By Jack Wilkinson
Following is the fourth in a series of profiles on the members of the 2008 class of the Georgia Tech Sports Hall of Fame. Jack Wilkinson is catching up with each of the six members in the weeks leading up to the Annual Hall of Fame Induction Dinner, which will be Sept. 19 at the Georgia Tech Hotel and Conference Center. Tickets are $50 and can be purchased by calling 404-894-6124.
A decade after his number was retired, on the eve of his induction into the Georgia Tech Sports Hall of Fame, Matt Harpring plays on. Plays hard. Defends ferociously. Still runs non-stop. And, tapping his personal fountain of youth, he still splashes his face with cold water.
All these years later, now it can be told. The insatiable appetite for hard work? That eye-popping publicity poster, with a team of nine identical Matt Harprings surrounding Bobby Cremins? His well-deserved status as The Hardest Working Player in America? You thought that was all earned by the sweat of his brow? Nope. Not just perspiration. Tap water.
“Every halftime, Matt would go into the locker room and wet his hair with water from the sink,” laughed Drew Barry, once Harpring’s point guard and roomie, now the guy who’s spilled the beans on him. “I said, `So THAT’s why people think you play so hard. It’s not sweat. It’s water from the sink.'”
“I not only still do it at halftime, I do it on the bench,” said Harpring, who seldom sat on the Tech bench but occasionally sits still for the Utah Jazz, his fourth team in a stellar NBA career. “That’s something I do from football at Marist. Water on my face, it cools me down.
“It was a habit, my own little quirky thing. Sometimes, when I do it, I don’t even know I’m doing it. To this day, my teammates get mad when I get water on them,” Harpring said. “Before a game, or at halftime, it gets me ready, gets me focused: `Okay, it’s game time.’ If I don’t have my hair wet, I’m not focused and not ready to play.”
That’s an accusation no one’s ever leveled, on any level, at Harpring. Not at Marist, which he led to a 32-0 record and a state championship as a senior in 1994, and was named Georgia’s Mr. Basketball. Not at Tech where, despite being – how shall we put this? – belatedly recruited, Harpring started all four seasons and joined Mark Price as the Jackets’ only three-time, first-team All-ACC honorees.
And not in the NBA: not in Orlando (as the 15th pick in the ’98 draft), then Cleveland and Philadelphia, and not now in Utah, where the 6-foot-8 Harpring was last seen chasing and defending Kobe Bryant in last season’s playoffs. And sweating real beads of perspiration all over the floor.
His next appearance? Friday night, September 19th, at the Georgia Tech Hotel and Conference Center, where Harpring will be one of six people inducted into the Tech Sports Hall of Fame. His coach, Cremins, who once said, “Give me a team full of Matt Harprings” and inspired that nine-Matt poster, will present him.
“I feel honored,” said the Atlanta native, selected in his first year of eligibility. “It’s one of those things when I first came to Georgia Tech, I never set my sights on. But a lot of people [eventually] said, `Hey, you’re going to get into the Georgia Tech Hall of Fame.'” Upon being notified, Harpring thought: “This is going to be pretty cool for my son and others in our family, a legacy to leave behind.”A legacy for Luke, who’ll turn 3 in November, and also his sister Kate, 7 months.
“It’s not [just] important for me,” Harpring said. “But for Luke to be able to come back, or for his son, and say, `Hey, that’s Grandpa.’ My Dad made his high school hall of fame. It was cool to go there when I was young.”
Jack Harpring, a Hall of Famer at heralded Moeller High in Cincinnati, went on to play football at Michigan for Bo Schembechler. Now, his son’s entering the Tech hall, a most-worthy first-ballot selection.
“Matt’s one of the hardest-working players I’ve ever been around and one of the greatest competitors I’ve ever been around,” said Barry, who played _ and roomed _ with Harpring in the 1995 and ’96 seasons. “He’s one of those guys who you could speak about in front of 15- to 18-year-olds,and say, `Hard work pays off.'”
Cremins knows, even if he _ like most coaches _ was slow on the recruiting uptake. Harpring was a 6-foot-8 Marist quarterback, from a football-rich family, and seemingly bound to be a QB at Northwestern or Wisconsin. At least until his mid-winter recruiting visit to Northwestern, which includeda Northwestern Big Ten basketball game.
Sitting in the stands, Harpring thought, “You know what? I can play against these guys.” “It changed my perception,” he says now. “I liked football, but I love basketball.”
Back home, he changed others’ perceptions, too _ even if Cremins, whose son Bobby Jr. was a Marist teammate of Harpring, wasn’t interested at first. “Bobby came to see me play, and right after the game he said, `Hey, I got some bad news. I don’t think you’re a Division I player,'” Harpring recalled. “He said, “I got some friends, at small Division I schools, that you could play for. Furman. Davidson.’
“I said, `Wow,'” Harpring says now. “I was devastated.”
Then Hugh Durham, the Georgia coach, offered him a scholarship. Harpring: “I was happy, elated: `Hey! I got a basketball scholarship!'” Then another, from Wake Forest, where Harpring’s host was Tim Duncan. Finally, at a Marist baseball practice, Tech assistant coach Kevin Cantwell asked, “Hey, can I talk to you? Bobby wants to talk to you.'”
Harpring, again. Laughing: “Bobby’s like, `All right. I’m getting all this media attention and criticism. Do you want to come to Georgia Tech? What if you’re a walk-on? I’ll give you a scholarship, but you’ll be a walk-on, you won’t play. Or what if you’re the 10th, 11th player off the bench as a freshman? That’s pretty good for the ACC.'”
Harpring paused. “I said, `Coach, I don’t want you to tell me what I’m going to do. Just tell me I’m going to come in and have a fair shot like everyone else.'”
The rest, literally, is history. “My first couple of days of practice,” Harpring recalled, “changed Bobby’s whole demeanor and opinion of me. He said, `Hey, why don’t you guys play like Harpring? He’s kicking everyone’s [butt].’
“Bobby became my biggest supporter,” Harpring said. “He’s the biggest reason why I had such success at Georgia Tech.”
Not that it surprised Drew Barry. “Matt had a mindset of somebody that was very confident in himself and his abilities,” he said. “It didn’t matter that he wasn’t a so-called stud – the typical Georgia Tech recruits. He played with this…, well, I don’t want to say arrogance, but this confidence. “In the summer [before Harpring’s freshman year], on a 3-on-1 [break in a pickup game], Matt pulled up and shot a 16-footer,” Barry said. “And I said, `I was open for a layup.’ He said, `I was open for a jumper.'”
As a freshman on the Flats, Harpring finished a close second in the ACC Rookie of the Year voting. Over the next three seasons, he was sensational, averaging 18.6, 19.0 and finally 21.5 points per game as a senior. With Barry and one-and-done freshman Stephon Marbury, Harpring took Tech to the 1996 ACC regular-season title and the NCAA Sweet 16.
He repeated as an All-ACC first-teamer as a junior, on a Tech team that staggered home 9-18. Harpring considered leaving early for the NBA, but earned Cremins’ eternal gratitude for staying put. Then he earned himself a Mount Rushmore-sized place in Tech hoop lore.
For the second straight year, Harpring was a finalist for the Naismith and Wooden Awards and an Academic All-American. For the third straight year, he was a first-team All-ACC selection. To this day, his career numbers are mind-numbing:
Second in career points (2,225, just seven shy of Tech’s record held by Rich Yunkus). No. 3 in total rebounds (997), fifth in field goals made (753), No. 7 in 3-point baskets (211), 13th in assists (289), sixth in steals (176) and No. 3 in minutes played (4,472). In his last three seasons, Harpring averaged 36.9, 37.6 and 36.1 minutes played. He still holds the Tech career record for foul shots made (508).
He made such an indelible impression in Alexander Memorial Coliseum that before his last home game, Harpring’s No. 15 jersey was retired – just the sixth player in Jackets history to be so honored. “That was really special, emotional, ” said Harpring, who displays few of his awards or mementoes, but has his framed jersey hanging in his Atlanta home.
Yet the defining moment of Harpring’s greatness and grit came in defeat. In the first round of the 1998 ACC Tournament, in the last minute of Tech’s 83-65 loss to Maryland, Cremins sent in a sub for his All-American. That prompted the most genuine, appreciative, nonpartisan curtain call in tournament history.
As Harpring walked slowly to the bench and dejectedly sat down, the cheering began: First in the Tech section, then emanating throughout the Greensboro Coliseum as fans from each ACC school stood to honor a player who’d always honored the game. Cremins and some Jackets finally persuaded Harpring to stand and acknowledge the applause. In his Salt Lake City home, he still has the framed photo of himself on his mantel: a towel over his shoulders, his face and hair soaked with sweat – not water -, waving thank-you and goodbye.
“Unbelievable,” Cremins called the tribute. “I’ve been in this league a long time, and it’s one of the nicest gestures and best compliments I’ve seen.”
“To this day, I still get chills when I think about it, talk about,” Harpring said. “And for Bobby to say, `This has never happened to another player in ACC history,’ well, you’re like, `Oh my gosh.'” But then, few players in ACC history have made a splash – in every sense – as did Matt Harpring.