Dec. 12, 2011
By Jon Cooper
Long before "Matty Ice" -- the nickname for Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan -- was thrilling Hotlanta crowds, there was another Matt in Atlanta with ice water running through his veins that was bringing fans to their feet.
Only this Matt played basketball and created his thrills on the courts of Thriller Dome and throughout the ACC. That was Matt Harpring.
Harpring, who played his high school ball at Marist, was a dominant forward in his four seasons starting for Georgia Tech (1995-98). He was a three-time All-ACC First Teamer, a two-time Academic All-America and a Third Team All-America in 1998. He left Tech as the school's career leader in free throws made (508) and attempted (675) and was second in points (2,225) and rebounds (997). His number 15 is one of six retired by the school, and, in 2002, he was voted to the ACC 50th Anniversary Team and was named one of the conference's 50 greatest players.
Fittingly, he was the 15th pick in the 1998 NBA Draft, selected by the Orlando Magic. He'd see 11 years in the NBA with Cleveland, Philadelphia and Utah, where he played his final seven seasons, retiring in 2009. After a year as an analyst, he retired and moved to the Atlanta area, where he currently lives with his wife, son and daughter.
Harpring has never lost his passion for Georgia Tech basketball and has found that passion renewed now that he is back in Atlanta and at the behest of first-year coach Brian Gregory, who has made efforts to get back in touch with alumni.
He spoke with Sting Daily about being back in touch with the program, looking back on his favorite moment as a Yellow Jacket and going back to being a regular at Jackets games, especially in years to come at McCamish Pavilion.
STING DAILY: How closely have you been able to keep up with the Georgia Tech program?
HARPRING: It's tough because I just got out of the NBA. The basketball season was always during Georgia Tech's and then last year, my first year to where I could really step away, I did the Jazz games, like 65 of those. So I was constantly traveling. I didn't really get down there as much as I'm looking forward to going in the future. Now that my kids are getting older, I want to start bringing them to the games and have them start seeing things. The new plan, I heard it's unbelievable. I'm looking forward to it.
Now that you're back in Atlanta, are you planning to get to more games?
I want to. I'm coaching my son's basketball team, too, so that kind of takes priority now. He's six years old, but he's playing on a seven- and eight-year-old team but I'm coaching. When the schedule permits I'm definitely going to be coming to them.
SD: What are your thoughts on Georgia Tech putting an emphasis on the school's history as far as decoration for McCaminsh Pavilion?
MH: It's meaning more as I get older with the kids. When I first got my jersey retired and I was up there, it was a nice honor. It didn't hit me until now that I have a six-year-old that looks up there and says, 'Daddy, what are you doing up there?' It's kind of funny. The older he'll get the more he'll understand what that means and so I get more of a kick out of it because my kids get a kick out of it. It's not so much myself but hopefully my daughter and son know that their daddy was okay at basketball.
SD: What was your favorite memory of Thriller Dome?
MH: Mine had to be when I got my jersey retired. That's something that will never leave me. That was before the Duke game, it was nationally televised. Then the ACC Tournament, when I got that standing ovation. Those two things really in my career, were things that I never thought would happen. When I went to Georgia Tech, I never dreamed that they would happen, but they did. It's not just a tribute to me, but a tribute to Coach [Bobby] Cremins, for sticking with me, and my teammates. That never happens by yourself.
SD: How important is it for you and other alumni to come back and be around the team?
MH: I hope that we can see more and more. Georgia Tech, you're talking about tradition. There are a lot of players that played in the NBA from Georgia Tech. It would be nice to get some of these guys to come back. I know when I played, I would have loved to have had an NBA player come down [to practice]. Sometimes I would rub shoulders with Mark Price and I would bounce things off him. I would work out with him. I would practice with him in the off-season. I enjoyed that because those are the guys that have been through it and knew what the next level was like. I'm sure the players now, they probably all want to go to the NBA. If you went into the room now and asked, 'Who wants to go to the NBA?' everyone would raise their hands. So you've got a guy or many guys that have been there that can give their stories on how they did it, you can't beat that.
SD: Do you sense that enthusiasm for Georgia Tech is coming back?
MH: One of the best things about the old Thriller Dome was it was live. It was exciting. It was loud. I talked to my friends on other team and they hated coming to Georgia Tech to play. It was so loud. In the last couple of years I would go to a game and it wasn't the same electric atmosphere. You miss that because it's fun for the fans, too. As a fan, you want to go to a game that has electricity. You can feel the atmosphere, you can feel the excitement. It makes it fun for your little kids that you're bringing, it makes it fun for everyone that's in the stands and it's fun for the players. As a player, you want that, too. One of the big things is getting the student body back because they're going to be the loudest of all the fans. So, I think winning takes care of that and putting a product on the floor that people want to watch will take care of that.
The basketball landscape is changing. I think everything is getting more diverse. When I was getting recruited, the ACC, it just felt like it was just the pinnacle of basketball. Now there are a lot of conferences that are good. Even small school. Look at Butler and what they've been doing. So the parity in basketball is getting unbelievable, which makes it good for a fan, because in the end, fans want to see good games.