It was at the Nike Gold Cup, nearly two decades ago in Chicago, when Gary Harper knew his son Daniel was destined to be a coach.
Taylor Hardemann had scored a go-ahead bucket with about 15 seconds left in the championship game. Gary was celebrating with his team when Daniel, about eight years old, came up and started slapping him on the chest.
“Dad, dad, Gabrielle in to guard the big girl,” he said.
Gary recognized the oversight and immediately subbed the sister of former Sooner Ebi Ere into the game.
“And we won,” Gary said. “That stuck with me. He sees match ups, things I haven’t seen.”
Fast forward to the present, as Daniel, a former Norman High Tiger and Oklahoma Sooner, hones his coaching skills as a Southmoore assistant and the 16-under coach for the Buddy Buckets AAU program. His father is still there at his side as the president and 14-under coach at Buddy Buckets.
“We have butted heads a little bit, in a positive way where we are talking basketball,” Gary said. “He’s made me think of things that I hadn’t really processed the same way because of his experience at OU.”
The younger Harper’s coaching career is still in its infancy.
It didn’t start with a full-time job; most rarely do. Instead, it began with the choice to walk on at OU instead of a scholarship and playing time in the Division II or III ranks.
The 6-foot-1, 190-pound guard aspired to work his way onto the court, maybe even earn a scholarship in Norman. While Harper didn’t have the impact he wanted, appearing in 22 games and scoring just three points, the experience with the coaching staff, led by Hall of Famer Lon Kruger, was invaluable to his current career.
“The practices became his games, and the brotherhood at game time was enough to keep him going,” he said. “Being around that was almost like a four-year internship. Certainly, good Lord, look at the opportunity, you can’t buy the opportunity to work under coach Kruger and study under his tutelage for four years.”
Every advantage is key in the competitive world of basketball coaching. Harper’s relationship with Buddy Hield — the two played together at OU — led to his position with Hield’s AAU program.
When Harper first considered coaching, his father advised avoiding the prep ranks, adding, “they don’t pay high school coaches peanuts.” But Harper said he enjoys this first step, getting to develop players that remind him of himself.
“It’s a blessing that every day I have an opportunity to invest in a young kid’s life,” Harper said. “I just fell in love with it. I fell in love with the kids, and it kind of took me back to my past, when I had the dream of walking on to OU. Hopefully I can help them get to where they want to go.”
Yet, he’s also aiming a step higher, with the goal of reaching the college ranks, and perhaps even the pros.
As he was finishing his degree at OU, Harper had to say no to a few of those opportunities. Gary remembers one time where he went to an NBA training facility in Florida, and the CEO of the franchise offered a lower-level job.
“I was like, ‘You’ve got your degree, get back here and finish it,’” Gary said laughing.
With that out of the way, Harper hopes to work his way back into those circles. His playing experience might be limited, but his coaching aspirations and work ethic are not.
In many ways, this describes countless young coaches across the country. The goal is moving up, but the path isn’t always so clear.
“I have decided that one day I want to get to the college level,” Harper said. “But I’m patiently waiting. I’m paying my dues. Hopefully one of these days, I’ll get an opportunity to be a graduate assistant and work my way up from there.”
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