“You’ll never make it to the bigs with fungus on your shower shoes. Think classy, you’ll be classy. If you win 20 in the show, you can let the fungus grow back and the press’ll think you’re colorful. Until you win 20 in the show, however, it means you are a slob.” — Crash Davis in Bull Durham
James Harden’s shower shoes are likely immaculate, but his talents have earned him the right to have them be as fungus-y as he likes. Or dress in outrageous outfits for GQ photo shoots. Or party with Lil’ Baby in Las Vegas.
He’s a star. He’s colorful.
It also gives him the freedom to behave like a superstar, showing up late to training camp, demanding trades, and generally acting like someone who thinks he can get what he wants whenever he wants.
And why not? Even his current team, the one he wants trading from, has given him it all.
Big man? Here’s Dwight Howard. Backcourt mate? We got you Chris Paul. Bestest buddy? Enter Russell Westbrook. Big contract? Name your price, super max? Input on decisions about coaches and players? Absolutely.
This is what star players get when they become one of the best in a sport like the NBA. They get it all.
Which is why when Harden finally sauntered into Houston on Tuesday, days after the start of an abbreviated training camp, to get his initial COVID-19 testing, the response was a mixed bag of relief from some, confusion from others and downright derision from a small but vocal group of fans and analysts who think the star guard has crossed a line.
After all, he hasn’t won a title. He’s never been to the NBA Finals in Houston. His playoff shortcomings are well documented.
But, there was another Houston Rocket who, at around this age, was wanted out. He was the same age as Harden is now and was widely considered one of the league’s best, though he had not won a title with his team and had only reached the NBA Finals once, while paired with one of the most unique front courts in history.
He was Hakeem Olajuwon.
Unlike Harden, Olajuwon wasn’t particularly flashy, but, he did have a temper and he did often sulk when his desires weren’t met. He openly jousted with management and reportedly would make life hell for those writing his checks. It took a heart-to-heart on a long plane flight with then owner Charlie Thomas along with the steadiness of coach Rudy Tomjanovich (never mind a deepening of his commitment to Islam) for Olajuwon to realize his full potential and give the Rockets two (their only two) titles.
Imagine just how different Olajuwon would be viewed through the lens of social media, sports radio and TV sports punditry. Think of how fans would doomscroll Twitter looking for the next Woj Bomb. Would he have remained in Houston long enough to become the beloved city icon he is today? Would we even have the two championship banners hanging in the Toyota Center rafters?
Now, no one should think for a moment that The Beard is The Dream. They are very different people in very different times in the NBA. Harden is a more efficient offensive player, but he isn’t the whole package that Olajuwon was. He may never be. But, he is the second best Rocket of all time, and that is significant. While many fans may be ready to dropkick him out of the city, we would do best to remember he isn’t the first to ask for this and he definitely won’t be the last. And there is no question the current drama has been inflamed by a 24-7 news cycle that engulfs everything from sports to politics, and everything in between.
Harden’s “demands” have played out in public with a running, minute-by-minute commentary. Videos posted online of him partying, responses from his own mother on social media, and plenty of “insider scoops.” But, the truth is, we really don’t know what’s going on. There were rumors flying when Olajuwon wanted out too, but not like today. Not remotely close.
On Tuesday, the team got closer to finding out first hand what they had only been able to decipher from rumors. Coach Stephen Silas said he wanted to talk to Harden face-to-face. Maybe this will be his version of the Olajuwon-Thomas meeting that changed everything for the franchise or maybe it will be the beginning of the end of Harden as a Rocket.
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No one knows.
Until we do, speculation is simply that and nothing more. For whatever frustration you have for James Harden over his recent behavior, try to remember he isn’t alone. Some of the greatest and most beloved players in sports history did the same thing.
Even the Dream.
Harden is just more…colorful.
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- Jeff Balke