Reader Chris Hanneke emailed me his final farewell to James Harden and I liked it, so I thought I’d pass it along.
I became a Thunder fan around the time that James Harden became a member of the team. To be fair, the two events weren’t linked in any way, shape or form. I was new to the NBA, I needed a team, I didn’t want to pick the best team in the league, so I went with the young and fun one.
Still, while the Harden pick had nothing to do with my decision to root for the Thunder, it’s hard not to look back on it as representative of why so many people, including myself, were drawn to the team in Oklahoma City.
Harden wasn’t supposed to become a part of it, either – at least not according to most draft experts. There were better options that could help this team that had been building so successfully the previous few seasons. Taking a bench guy didn’t seem to make sense for a team that needed one more playmaker to finally start winning.
Of course, this is exactly what has made Sam Presti one of the most well-respected executives in all of sports. It turns out, Harden was exactly what the team needed. He balanced everything out. And while he wasn’t fully appreciated until the Jeff Green trade, you got the sense even early on that this was a special player.
But we don’t root for these guys based on skill alone. Once it became clear that Harden was more than just a bench guy, but a premier scorer, we started to appreciate all of his quirks – the ones that landed him in commercials for Foot Locker.
The Thunder before Popular James Harden were almost too perfect. They were media darlings to the point that fans of other teams began to resent how squeaky-clean Kevin Durant, and his entire team, really, were always portrayed to be. “Oklahoma City is a small town, but it’s so perfect for a humble guy like Kevin!”
Harden was different. And it seemed like after the Green trade, when he was allowed to come out of his shell a bit more, the rest of his teammates – including Durant and Westbrook – began to follow suit. As Harden’s beard grew more and more out of control, it seemed like the team, and the fans, rallied behind it. As cliche as it may sound, it translated to the court as well.
The Beard was now more willing to handle the ball in crucial situations and show off the playmaking skills that many knew existed, but few knew were so wildly effective. Meanwhile, Westbrook was able to relax a little and take more chances, almost swapping positions with Harden at times as the aggressive, shooting guard to Harden’s reserved, point guard.
Heck, even Durant seemed looser alongside the free-spirited Harden. He began appearing in public without a shirt, revealing a surprisingly-tattooed body that threatened his previously squeaky-clean image (no matter how absurd that may sound, it was the case). Only, he didn’t really care. He was having fun, the team was having fun, and it became fun for even the casual fan to root for them.
Of course, there was also the biggest myth of all – The Westbrook/Durant feud – that an annoying amount of sportswriters began to run with. Even throughout all of that, Harden continued as the stabilizing force. When you saw Durant and Westbrook laughing together with James, you knew that no amount of bad shots by Westbrook could derail the special culture the Thunder had created.
With Harden, you also got the sense that even though Durant and Westbrook were clearly the better players, Harden was the real life of the party – the one that brought the girls to the table while the other two sat and sipped their drinks in the booth. This may seem trivial, but in times when Durant and Westbrook were being put under a microscope for every little thing, it was reassuring to know that Harden was right there to lighten the blows for both of his teammates.
All of this is what makes this trade so baffling. Look, no one should ever blame another person for chasing the largest amount of money they can possibly attain. We can’t know how we would react in a similar situation. So if Harden wanted to leave purely based on financial purposes, then he certainly had every right to.
But as Barry Tramel so brilliantly illustrated in his column on the trade, there’s a good chance Harden never expected it to play out like this. Maybe he enjoyed the idea of finally being the biggest story in town. Instead of sharing the screen with Westbrook for a Foot Locker ad, or instead of watching Serge Ibaka get taken care of with his latest deal, for those few days, Harden was all the talk. Newspapers and blogs would write things like: “Could this team survive without Harden?” and maybe that let Harden feel like the superstar we all already knew that he was.
This is where Harden may have been misguided. Because for the past year, he has been a star. He was part of a Big Three that outscored the far more publicized Big Three in South Beach. He played on an Olympic team because his two best friends, his coach and his GM put him in a situation that perfectly highlighted his skills without ever overexposing his weaknesses.
If the solemn press conference and the ponderous tweets by Harden in the aftermath of all of this are any indication, Harden recognizes this too.
And yet, here we sit, two days before the season that was supposed to end with a Western Conference championship at the very least, and all of a sudden it has an entirely different, almost ominous tone. The free-spirited, Big Three Thunder have been replaced by the icy, “We got this” Durant/Westbrook Thunder.
None of this is an indictment on any of the parties involved. There are ugly sides of sports, and Oklahoma City was just exposed to the absolute ugliest side.
Still, even though Westbrook and Durant may reach levels we never even thought possible and carry this team back to the Finals, it’s hard not to think how different all of it will feel without Harden standing beside them, his smile radiating through the Beard that brought such life to basketball in Oklahoma City.