LOS ANGELES -- Between the excitement and the buildup comes the reality: A player named Ron Harper, 27, in his fifth National Basketball Association season, was scheduled to return to the lineup last night at the Los Angeles Sports Arena, at once confronted by his basketball mortality and the notion that he is supposed to be the parachute in the Los Angeles Clippers' free fall back to the lottery.
The Clippers, if not Harper, have practice at this.
A season ago, Danny Manning came back from reconstructive knee surgery against the Milwaukee Bucks at the Sports Arena, on a night that seemed more like a celebration than a game. There were towels for fans to wave and posters around the building, and Manning culminated the evening with 7-of-10 shooting and 21 points.
The Bucks were in town again last night, but no events were planned.
"[Harper] brought a great deal to this team when he came here a year ago," said coach Mike Schuler, who has considered putting Harper in the starting lineup but had not decided as of Friday night. "I was not here, but everyone told me that. The players said that. They respect him. He sets the tone."
Harper was activated Friday, when the Clippers also placed Tom Garrick on the injured list with inflammation of his right knee. Harper will be limited to 15 minutes a game for an undetermined time as his doctors, Tony Daly and John Bergfeld, and trainer Keith Jones monitor flexibility and watch for swelling in his rehabilitated right knee. When that test is passed, he will return to full-time play.
The injury to the ligament that stabilizes the knee and helps control movement cuts to the heart of Harper's slashing, driving, open-court game. If the knee doesn't work right, his effectiveness is reduced. Allowing him the weeks needed to regain timing and full strength, a true reading might not be known until a couple weeks before the end of the season.
"I haven't really thought about what I've done in the past," said Harper, who averaged a team-leading 23 points and 39.5 minutes in 28 games with the Clippers last season, during which time they were 14-14 in a 30-52 season. "What I'm concerned with is what goes on out on the court now and hearing the crowd cheer. I know there will be some things I won't be able to do right off the bat, but it will come back.
"I don't have any doubts. If I had doubts, I wouldn't be playing DTC now. I feel pretty comfortable and have a lot of confidence in the leg."
Having Manning around has helped. The two shared experiences in the rehabilitation process, with a couple of differences. They react in their own individual ways, and Harper's injury was more severe. Manning, who also relies largely on quickness and open-court play, tore his anterior cruciate ligament and made it back in a little less than 11 months, while Harper had the same ligament rebuilt but also tore cartilage around the knee. His injury happened last Jan. 16 against the Charlotte Hornets at the Sports Arena; the operation was in Cleveland on Jan. 23.
"At this point in his rehab, I don't think he'll have any hesitations," Manning said. "He's too close to making it back. If there were something to worry about, it wouldn't be at this position. I know it's going to be a great feeling for him to step back on the the court with the crowd helping him.
"If anything, [the injury] made me a smarter player. Now, maybe because of the time I put in to get back, I try to prepare a little more for every game and try to get every advantage I can."