PITTSBURGH — When Eric Harper went to a college basketball game at Akron and saw individuals handing out water, he noticed something. Those people looked just like him and he wanted to find a way to get on Akron’s bench.
Harper, who played both basketball and football at McDonald High School, saw himself and realized that this could be him.
To accomplish this, there was research, some pulled strings and a shared connection, since at the time Akron’s director of operations was Dan Peters who used to coach Youngstown State, which is where Harper resided while having people that were able to get the two in touch.
“I came in and did not say a word, coach (Keith Dambrot) probably didn’t even know my name for six months,” Harper said. “Now he wants to know everyone’s name, but when I first started he would call me by the color of my shirt. I would hang out in the office and he didn’t even know my name. I took it and ran with it.”
Harper was able to work his way to serving as Akron’s video coordinator as an undergrad student and did that for four years, two of those coming as a grad student.
Now, after a year with the Milwaukee Bucks in the NBA, Harper is back with Dambrot and has returned to Duquesne serving as both director of player development and video coordinator.
Reflecting on both his playing days and drawing comparisons, Harper believes that high school competition had served him well.
“I was always the smartest one, knew where I needed to be, always knew what the other team was going to do so I guess that correlates to what I do now,” said Harper. “Going back to when I watched that game at Akron, you wouldn’t walk by me and think that this dude plays basketball. I would say, I was always the most prepared. That was how I took basketball too. That didn’t make me the best player but it got me into the game and it got me jobs too.”
When Dambrot was hired as Duquesne’s coach, he brought his staff to Pittsburgh and Harper was part of that, but in the fall something changed.
Harper met then Milwaukee Bucks assistant Joe Prunty at the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas and the pair kept in contact. These efforts paid off as the Bucks were looking for a third person to help with their video department, basically an assistant video person. While college basketball teams normally have one person be part of the video department, the NBA has anywhere usually from 3-5 individuals working the video department, so they were looking for a third person and decided on Harper.
When Jason Kidd was fired as Bucks coach, Prunty was named interim coach.
Though Harper was in the NBA for one year, he was working every day through the season, as there always was a game to scout.
“Every single night my day was broken up with practice late morning, free in the afternoon and working at night,” he said. “At Duquesne it is here really morning, all day and free at night. When I started back here I was wondering what I was going to do with my nights and I hadn’t had a free night, not Thanksgiving, not Christmas from late September when training camp started to when we lost to Boston in game seven of the first round, maybe one night. Every night I would break down games, so that’s the biggest deal.”
With there being 82 regular season games in the NBA, there are many more games which of course means more to scout whereas at Duquesne, this is the busiest time of the year and there are two games a week.
Dambrot is not afraid to use his connection to LeBron James to where the players hear it all of the time and the media as well, but Harper has a connection as well which was to Giannis Antetokounmpo, who is considered one of the best players in today’s NBA.
For Harper, he was able to bring the message of consistency to both the coach and team.
“No matter what minutes he was playing or road trips we had, Giannis was always very consistent,” said Harper. “Guys need to rest, he took care of his body and ate right and it is noted publicly that he is very dedicated to his craft. One thing I’ve seen with him behind the scenes is his consistency with preparation. He’s not working on anything he will not do and then he works harder on things he is not good at on his own time. There’s a time for practice and then post and pre-practice, that is the time he works on stuff he will do in the game to help the team. On his own time if he wanted to work on something he wasn’t good at, that’s what he did. He was always prepared, asking questions, wanted to do more.”
BACK TO DUQUESNE
During the offseason, the Bucks re-evaluated a lot of different facets in regards to how their team runs and this offseason hired Mike Budenholzer as coach. Prunty went to Phoenix to be the leading assistant coach for the Suns. Harper also evaluated and that was when Dambrot called.
Dambrot has been loyal to his coaching staff and wanted its missing piece back.
“Part of it is him knowing me and trusting me with his loyalty as well,” Harper said. “Personally for him, he’s the CEO of this organization and I think it is a business decision as much as a personal decision. He knows me as a person and knows that even with just one season out there, I have learned a lot that can benefit everyone.”
On a game day, Harper will arrive to the Palumbo Center an hour or two before practice, meet with whichever coach has the scout and then organize video based on individual edits, sets, some defense and specialty plays. The players pick what they want for their video and Harper trims it up. Then he helps out at practice and shows film to the team.
During games, Harper tries to use something he was tasked with doing in the NBA, trying to get play calls from the opposing team. He sees signals and hears words and writes those down, which is especially helpful when Duquesne plays a team twice.
The NBA is very play call heavy, so every play had a label. When Milwaukee played Golden State for example, the team had the entire Warriors playbook and every play, with Harper playing a role in that.
After games, whether Duquesne wins or loses, Dambrot likes to talk about the game with his staff, Harper included. Though Dambrot normally does not watch film after the game, Harper is known to skim through or mentally takes notes of plays he wants to watch. Dambrot also gets a plus/minus report after each game and though he takes it with a grain of salt, it is clear that it is a stat the team likes, as are the Energy Generated Behaviors which have been charted since being at Akron.
If Duquesne loses, Harper can expect to be at the Palumbo Center for anywhere from 2-to-4 hours and conversely a win means staying 1.5-to-3 hours after the game, which is not much difference but does provide an opportunity to reflect back on the game.
Harper has seen his life take him from the field to the court, to the stands and now back on the court, where he feels he belongs.
His daily activity while on Duquesne’s staff involves a lot of critical actions that impact both the coaching staff and players alike and he would not want it any other way.
“I enjoy it because I feel like I affect the wins and losses,” said Harper. “One thing for me, is if ever felt like I did not affect wins and losses, I wouldn’t do it, I would be done, like that. I really enjoy winning anything, from tomorrow’s game, to arm wrestling, anything, I enjoy competing and winning.”