They always say praise from players means way more than kind words from anyone else, especially us folks in the media.

It shouldn’t take a moving story or funny anecdote to fully encapsulate what a great player Derek Harper was for the Mavericks. From 1986-93 he averaged nearly 18 points, seven assists, and two steals per game, earning a reputation as one of the best two-way players in the game and setting several Mavericks records along the way, some of which still stand today. He’s the franchise’s all-time leader in assists and steals, and ranks top-five in points, games played, and games started.

Numbers tell quite a tale of one of the greatest players this city has seen, and that’s part of why his No. 12 jersey will forever hang in the rafters alongside Brad Davis’ No. 15 and Rolando Blackman’s No. 22.

But set aside the numbers for the rest of this article and listen to what the players have to say.

“It’s great, well-deserved, and long overdue,” Dirk Nowitzki said.

Davis’ reaction to Harper supplanting him in the starting lineup — “What took you so long?” — and Rolando Blackman’s utter relief any time he didn’t have to go up against Harper in practices tells you all you need to know about Harper’s competitive spirit and the respect he gained from his teammates. Rick Carlisle, who played against Harper in the 1980s and then coached against him as an assistant, still admires his defense, intensity, and competitive edge.

Then there’s Nowitzki, who wasn’t around for the glory days of the Reunion Rowdies and those battles with the Lakers and Sonics throughout the 1980s. But the Big German has learned the history of this organization while writing chapters of his own.

“He was a warrior for this franchise,” Nowitzki said after the game Sunday night. “They had a great run there in the ’80s, every year in the playoffs. He was a great leader, a great defender, a great shot-maker. He’s also a good guy, and he’s still around. I’m happy for him.”

Carlisle pointed to Harper’s defensive tenacity as something for rookie point guard Dennis Smith Jr. to learn from. Harper certainly had qualities and abilities Smith should emulate, but there are bigger but smaller, easier but more complex ideas Harper has helped Smith with since the Mavs drafted him last summer.

“He’s always trying to tell me to just go out there and be me,” Smith said. “That’s what got me to the league. If he ever sees me straying away from it, he tries to remind me. That’s what’s going to make me successful.”

On a night when the Mavericks looked back to honor one of the best point guards the franchise and this league has seen, celebrating his competitive spirit and the fact that he “left it all out on the floor,” as Harper said himself, there was a sense that Harper can give one more gift to this organization. He might not spend hours talking with Smith every day, but it’s clear the legend is there for the rookie.

You won’t see many players as universally respected as Harper is within this organization. J.J. Barea even took his son, Sebastian, to the floor during halftime to watch the former Mav’s speech. (Barea is Harper’s favorite player.) Shawn Marion and a host of other former Mavericks were at the game, too. It was a special night. There was an outpouring of love from guys who are 20 years old to guys who have been out of the league for more than 20 years, all of it deserved. And their admiration and respect appeared to mean more to Harper than we will ever know.

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