When it comes to high school basketball, 1979-80 was a pretty good year for Palm Beach County.
At the south end a long, lanky big man named Otis Thorpe was catching the eye of college scouts at Lake Worth High School. Farther north, a steady, all-around guard named Derek Harper was leading North Shore High to a state championship.
After both forged college careers – Thorpe at Providence and Harper at Illinois – in which they were named first-team all-conference and garnered All-American mention, they became the first area players to be chosen in the first round of the NBA draft.
Harper, who left Illinois after his junior season, was the 11th overall pick of the 1983 draft by the Dallas Mavericks.
Thorpe remains the highest drafted player in county history, going to the Kansas City (now Sacramento) Kings in 1984 with the ninth overall pick.
Harper and Thorpe should have company Thursday as former Cardinal Newman High standout John Collins is expected to be drafted in the middle of the first round.
Collins, a 6-foot-9 power forward, played two seasons at Wake Forest and emerged this season, finishing runner-up in the ACC Player of the Year voting and being named the conference’s Most Improved Player. He is projected to go as high as No. 13 to the Denver Nuggets and some mock drafts have him being taken 14th by the Miami Heat, the team he rooted for while growing up in West Palm Beach.
“I remember hearing my name called, I remember falling on my knees,” Harper said Wednesday recalling the night he was drafted. “It sticks out to me, ‘Oh my God, this is really happening.’
“If I had to pick one word, ‘excited.’ Excited as heck. I’m sure he’s going through the same thing right now.”
Harper and Thorpe, who are members of the Palm Beach County Sports Hall of Fame, made up 40 percent of the 1980 Palm Beach Post All-Area team. Harper, the player of the year, averaged 27.0 points per game with Thorpe tossing in 20.0 per game.
Sixteen years later, Harper and Thorpe would face each other in the NBA Finals where Thorpe’s Rockets defeated Harper’s Knicks in seven games. The two developed a bond that started on the playgrounds of Palm Beach County and continued during their days in the NBA. But as anyone who has ever been around Thorpe knows, Thorpe was very difficult to get to know.
“A very shy guy, it’s like pulling teeth to try to get him to befriend you,” Harper said. “Otis has always been a stoic guy, a guy who was very comfortable in his skin and let his game do the talking.
“I admire him in the way of him being his own man, being comfortable enough to be himself.”
At Illinois, Harper was named first-team All-Big Ten and second team All-American as a junior in 1983 and decided to get a jump start on his NBA career.
Harper had a 16-year professional career, the first 11 with Dallas before he was acquired by the Knicks, and coach Pat Riley, during the 1994 season.
When he left Dallas, Harper was the franchise’s all-time leader in assists, steals and 3-point baskets. He became the first Mavericks player to be named to an NBA All-Defense team, earning second team honors in 1987 and 1990.
In New York, Harper made an immediate impact as the starting point guard, helping the Knicks reach those 1994 Finals. Harper led the Knicks with 6.0 assist while averaging 16.3 points in the Finals. Thorpe led the Rockets with 11.3 rebounds and averaged 9.3 points.
Although he makes his home in the Dallas area, Harper frequently comes back to Palm Beach Country and in 1987 he became a sponsor of a high school basketball tournament played each December at Palm Beach Lakes High School.
Thorpe starred for three seasons at Providence College, earning first team All-Big East honors his senior year after averaging 17.1 points and 10.3 rebounds.
Thorpe played 17 seasons in the NBA and was an All Star in 1991-92 with the Rockets. He played for eight different franchises, including 51 games with the Miami Heat in 1999-00.
In Houston, Thorpe teamed with center Hakeem Olajuwon to help lead the Rockets to that title over the Knicks. He was traded before Houston’s 1995 championship.
Thorpe, who lives in the Austin, Texas, area, was honored by the Rockets in February as part of the franchise’s 50th anniversary celebration.