Linnae Harper has accomplished quite a bit in the world of basketball.
The 27-year old is known around Chicago as one of the city’s most successful local athletes in recent years, having racked up an impressive list of honors and championships in high school while also representing the United States internationally as early as 2011. Harper played Division I basketball at the collegiate level and even made it to the WNBA, staying local and signing with the Chicago Sky in 2018.
For all of her on-court accomplishments, though, Harper has perhaps made an even bigger impact in the community. She’s founded her own non-profit organization, sustained its operation throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and continued to invent new ways of helping Chicago’s youth, both through basketball and other community-led efforts. Swish Appeal caught up with Harper to discuss these efforts and spread the word of her growing foundation.
The rise of That Harper Kid
Harper’s story begins innocently enough. Born and raised on the south side of Chicago, Harper attended Whitney M. Young Magnet High School, starring as one of the most instantly recognizable players in Illinois high school basketball. Harper earned WBCA and McDonald’s All-American honors, competed for Team USA in FIBA U16, U17 and U18 competitions and was ranked by ESPN’s HoopGurlz as the nation’s No. 5 overall recruit in 2013.
It’s a time that Harper remembers fondly, though in hindsight, she thinks something was missing.
“When I was younger, I didn’t have many opportunities for camps, clinics and mentorships,” Harper recalls. “And if I did, it was with all boys.”
As Harper’s basketball career, which included playing collegiate basketball at the University of Kentucky and Ohio State University, advanced, she began to get a broader idea of what it takes to be a full-time athlete — and, in turn, which resources young, aspiring athletes may be lacking. She always wanted to give back to the Chicago community in some capacity, and during her first WNBA season, she made the big decision to start her own non-profit foundation.
“That Harper Kid,” commonly abbreviated as THK, was named after a phrase one-time Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel unknowingly coined during Harper’s days at Whitney M. Young: “Hey, you’re that Harper kid!”. Its mission: give back to the community Harper was raised in by any means possible.
Winning the day
Every non-profit organization needs a goal, and when asked what THK aims to do, Harper is quick to answer.
“Our goal is to provide resources and opportunities for underserved youth in Chicago,” Harper explains. “There’s a lack of recreational activities for kids.... Beyond that, our mission is to educate all girls and boys on how to win each day through education, sports and health.”
This multi-faceted mission has shaped THK’s schedule of events, sending Harper to more and more places in Chicago as the foundation grows. What once started as an annual back-to-school event for Chicago public schools, in which Harper and a group of volunteers collect backpacks and other supplies for CPS students, has blossomed into a year-round effort involving local colleges, businesses, vendors and health care companies, all with the same goal of providing for Chicago’s youth and helping them grow into healthy, fulfilled young adults.
The next step in this process is an after-school program called Hoops 4 Homework, which Harper says will begin either this school year or next, depending on available funding. As part of the program, THK will offer tutoring services to CPS students, as well as mentorship to help them develop life skills and mental wellness. If all goes according to plan, Harper and her volunteers will raise enough funds to open 529 plans for the students, with the ultimate goal of sending students to college.
It’s quite an ambitious project — one that never truly ends — and Harper readily acknowledges the challenges of running a non-profit organization. She points out the difficulties of raising funds and getting volunteers, especially during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and admits that running THK was more difficult than she had originally anticipated. The foundation itself consists of no more than five board members, and they spend the majority of their time trying to secure the resources necessary to execute their vision.
Harper has found support in the community, however, and emphasizes that for each challenge THK has encountered, there’s been an unexpected and pleasant surprise, especially via social media platforms. It’s common to see Harper speaking to large groups of CPS students and running local basketball camps, and that’s beginning to pay off; businesses are starting to reach out to her, asking how they can help, which she attributes to social media, saying “people eventually tag along.”
Harper’s Haven: A sports consulting firm
The gradual increase in support for THK has encouraged Harper to think bigger and bigger when brainstorming ways to give back. Her most recent project is a sports consulting firm called “Harper’s Haven,” which will take Harper’s own experiences as a professional athlete and condense them into an accessible resource for youth basketball players.
“I’ve experienced everything that an athlete can possibly go through when it comes to being a professional,” Harper says. “I played in high school, I went to college, I transferred colleges ... but a lot of people don’t know I walked on. I really wanted to go to Ohio State, but they didn’t have a scholarship until the spring semester, so for the fall, I enrolled as a walk-on. So I know what it’s like to have to take out financial aid.
“After going pro, I didn’t get drafted. I went through the undrafted stage, I went overseas, I’ve been cut and all of that. So I think my knowledge can really help athletes, because I’ve truly been through it.”
To test the waters of sports consulting, Harper will be releasing a 36-page handbook that covers critical information for young athletes, including the collegiate recruiting process and tips for financial literacy. While Harper calls the book a “guinea pig,” she wrote it for as wide of a range of readers as possible, and she hopes its accessibility will eventually lead to more opportunities for her own foundation.
“We’re pretty much a third party. If [players] come to us and say, hey, can you help us with marketing or branding, we’ll educate them, but also connect them with marketing and branding agencies,” Harper says. “If young kids are looking for agents or trainers, that’s what we can do. We’ll also have workshops where I’ll go out and work with high school teams or college teams, and we’ll have seminars for parents and athletes. That’s where we’re starting.”
Harper’s handbook is currently being printed and will be available for purchase online within the next two weeks, as well as at any in-person events THK and Harper’s Haven are hosting.
A well-rounded approach
The growth of THK matches Harper’s own advice when speaking to young basketball players, a holistic approach that branches out in several directions and emphasizes personal growth just as much as on-court training.
“The biggest advice that I would give to [students] is to be well-rounded,” Harper says. “I think that will take you as far as you want to go. Use basketball as a leverage to go to school for free and get your education; if you do that, everything else will fall in line.
“I tell kids it’s extremely hard to play. It’s extremely hard to get a job [in basketball]. There are no guarantees in the WNBA and there are no guarantees overseas. Yeah, anyone can go out and score 20 points, but when you get to college, the rest of your teammates can do that too. What’s going to make you different from the rest? That’s how I’ve gotten as far as I have because I haven’t always been the best player on my team, but I’ve been able to do little things like defend, rebound or be a good teammate. And I think that’s more important than anything.”
As for Harper herself, she’s currently competing in 3x3 basketball circuits as a part of Team USA and the independently-owned Force 10 3x3 division, and she’s signed to play international ball in Puerto Rico this winter. She’s also continuing her education at Ohio State, studying for a master’s degree in sports coaching, which she hopes to earn by next spring.
All of this won’t impact her off-court contributions, though — if anything, it’s inspiring Harper to dedicate even more time to her community.
“I feel like when you get to the pro level, at that point, it’s about giving back. You’re not playing for the next level, you’re playing for your career,” Harper explains. “So now, how can we provide for the younger generations? Who’s gonna come after us?”
Both are fair questions — questions that Harper answers on a daily basis through her philanthropy.