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Many struggle with the transition once the lights fade and fame recedes. Rising from high school ball to the collegiate and professional ranks makes sense there's a clear path to follow, goals to achieve and plateaus that allow for rest. But leaving the game can be a hard fall. Power and prestige quickly wane, and few find an immediate soft landing once they jump into the unknown.
Matt Harpring is one of the few.
Harpring spent 12 seasons in the NBA, wearing a Jazz uniform from 2002-09. He entered the league on his own terms, played in it the same way and walked off the hardwood as soon as the magic was gone.
"I don't think I ever became that 'NBA player,' " Harpring said. "I always knew that the NBA was a very finite career and I'd be lucky to play 10 years. … By the time I'm 35, that's still really young to do nothing for the rest of my life."
The opposite of doing nothing? Being Matt Harpring.
He just finished a month's worth of basketball camps in Salt Lake City and Atlanta, instructing children age 7 to 15 on the right way to play the game and the best way to live. Drills were interspersed with inspired speeches, as the 35-year-old Harpring drew on the teachings of everyone from longtime Jazz coach Jerry Sloan to former Yellow Jackets coach Bobby Cremins in an attempt to move the game's next generation onto a more fulfilling path.
Coach Harpring in action: "You can be MVP all you want. But if you have a bad attitude, it's not happening."
Then the ex-Jazzman returned to his new job. Harpring has a full year of TV work at the top of his résumé after serving as the Jazz's color commentator during the 2010-11 season. Self-critical as a player, Harpring is just as demanding of himself as an analyst.
He felt that he was inefficient and unprepared during the first 25 contests of the year, still adapting to a foreign world.
But an 82-game season allowed Harpring's confidence to soar, and he earned the admiration of Jazz play-by-play man Craig Bolerjack and president Randy Rigby along the way.
"Matt was a perfect fit for our organization on the court, with his blue-collar, hardworking attitude, and he has replicated that as a broadcaster," Rigby said. "He works and studies just as hard now to apply his talents behind the mic as he did during his years as a Jazz player."
Part of Harpring's progress comes down to homework. He's evolved from not knowing how to prepare for TV broadcasts to watching 25 digitally recorded Utah games this summer, taking notes and making mental improvements.
Part of it is just Harpring being himself. Teammates during 2009-10 were players ripe for criticism in 2010-11, and Harpring quickly learned how to walk the line. He was a confidant to Deron Williams, Mehmet Okur and Raja Bell. He was also one of the few in the Jazz organization who didn't coddle or cater to Williams, offering well-placed criticism that, in turn, earned the All-Star guard's trust and respect.
"He appreciated the fact that, after a game, I could go to him and say, 'Hey, you know, you kind of let your emotions get away from you at this point,' " Harpring said.
He added: "I can't lose credibility as a broadcaster. So I choose to be honest. And I'll call someone out if I feel like they're not giving their best effort. … I have to say to myself, 'You know what? This might hurt our personal relationship, but this is what needs to be said.' "
One year into his new career, Harpring is saying the right things. He's not allowed what-ifs to enter his mind and has refused to rely on the past. Harpring went through the fire of the Jazz's 2010-11 season and came out ahead. Sharper, smoother and more assured. Funnier than most ever imagined.
Harpring was a basketball player. Now he's an announcer.
"I hope he can stay and do this for a long time. I think he has a passion that even surprised him he liked it better than he thought," Bolerjack said.
"And I told him, I warned him. I said, 'Matt, once you call a couple of games and you get those buzzer-beaters … you're living it, but in a different way. And the athlete comes out of you and you want do another gig, and you want to do another game [the next] night, and it becomes that addiction.' And I think he's fully addicted."
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Matt Harpring file
Age • 35
Job • Utah Jazz television color analyst
NBA • 1998-2009 (Orlando, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Utah)
College • Georgia Tech
Web • mattharpring.com
Jazz play-by-play announcer Craig Bolerjack on Harpring • "He's a crack-up. He's dry. But I like to set him up, and he likes to take the bait. We just have fun. … You can X and O all you want, but you still have to entertain and have fun and camaraderie with your analyst."
Coach Harpring? • Harpring is open to the idea of coaching in the future but plans to focus on his family during the next few years.