To Be (or Not to Be) a Fan: The Frustrations of a James Harden Apologist

May 3, 2023; Boston, Massachusetts, USA; Philadelphia 76ers guard James Harden (1) reacts after a play against the Boston Celtics in the third quarter during game two of the 2023 NBA playoffs at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports
May 3, 2023; Boston, Massachusetts, USA; Philadelphia 76ers guard James Harden (1) reacts after a play against the Boston Celtics in the third quarter during game two of the 2023 NBA playoffs at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports /

On my father’s birthday back in 2019, I bought myself a gift. With my wife in tow, I picked up a pair of black Adidas low tops with a white midsole and a multi-hued collar. Out of all the shoes that the sporting goods store had to offer — and trust me, there were a lot of good ones that day — why did I pull out my wallet for these? Two words: James Harden.

In the post-Yao Ming days of my beloved Houston Rockets, Harden became the face of the franchise and I’ve inexplicably adored him ever since. I’m not just any fan of The Beard — I’m a self-proclaimed James Harden apologist. For well over a decade, I cheered him on as he imposed an iso-heavy style in a sport that’s supposed to be a team game. At the same time, I celebrated his individual accolades that have not translated into any ring for any of the ball clubs that he’s been on.

Through it all, this apologist has staunchly defended Harden’s legacy against critics (read: basketball buddies and my Warriors-loving mom) and maintained that this often ostracized man is a great basketball player. Lately, though, I’ve been having second thoughts. Maybe the critics were right after all. Maybe my definition of greatness is seriously skewed. Maybe, just maybe, it’s about time to sell those shoes.

“Sellout” isn’t exactly what I’d call James Harden, but I understand that media pundits have had choice words for him as of late. Stephen A. Smith likened him to “a petulant child,” Mad Dog Russo called him a “poison” that destroys teams from within, and Skip Bayless blamed his zero-championship track record on “terrible loser intangibles.”

(Heck, even his fellow players are keeping it real. On a joint episode of All the Smoke and KG Certified, Matt Barnes bluntly put it: “The NBA doesn’t need him no more.”)

As a longtime Harden fan, I feel the sting of every verbal dagger that’s been hurled his way. Amidst the wave of anti-Harden sentiments online, it’s easy to forget the jaw-dropping brilliance that he has displayed in his 14-year career. This is the same man, after all, who won three straight scoring titles from 2018-20. This is the same man who averaged over 36 points in a single season — something that only three other players (Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor, and Michael Jordan) have accomplished. And, as Nick Wright pointed out, this is the same man who currently has more All-NBA Team inclusions than Stephen Curry and Damian Lillard combined.

But when I step back and reflect on the entirety of James Harden’s legacy, I realize that I can’t gloss over the eyesores in the stat sheets and the gaping holes in his teams’ playoff records. After making the 2012 NBA Finals as part of Oklahoma City’s young core, Harden — as the main man of the Houston Rockets — reached the conference finals just two more times over the next nine years.

After that, neither Brooklyn nor Philadelphia has made it out of the second round despite Harden being on the roster. (Philly die-hards, I’m sure, are still salty about that 2023 Boston series, in which Harden averaged a measly 11.0 points on 26.2% shooting over the last two games.)

And then, there are the off-season shenanigans that make me want to grow a beard just to rip it to shreds. Like any good apologist, I rationalized his calls to be traded from Houston at the onset of the 2020-21 season. I did the same when he wanted out of Brooklyn. The question is, do I have enough apologetic chakra left to put a decent spin on his latest trade request? How am I supposed to defend a guy who has publicly called to be traded from three different teams?

Harden’s latest antics in Philadelphia have pushed me to the absolute brink of my fandom. Instead of glorifying the 2,754 long-distance shots that he’s made in his career, I’m fixated on the verbal attacks that he launched against Daryl Morey from all the way in East Asia. Rather than re-watch highlights of his crafty moves and footwork, I read articles about his decision to step back from the 76ers’ Media Day, leaving his teammates to face questions about his ominous absence.

My frustration with James Harden makes me contemplate questions deeper than his 3-point range. These questions include (but are not limited to):

  • Does one ever stop being a fan of someone they’ve admired for so long?
  • Is fandom supposed to be rational or emotional?
  • Should fandom distinguish between the excellence of the player during games and the integrity of the individual off the court?

While I don’t have definitive answers right now, I do know one thing. If I strip away my passion for the players and teams that I currently root for, I am — at my core — a fan of basketball. Ever since I was a child, this sport has taught me to keep playing till the buzzer sounds. And if the final outcome is not favorable, there’s always a next game. A next season. Even a next league.

That’s an utterly sentimental way of saying that, no matter what headlines Harden generates, I know that I’ll continue to faithfully follow his career. At the end of the day, fandom is one imperfect person taking a liking to another. Every NBA player has a running list of transgressions on and off the court, and ultimately, fans get to decide who and what they’ll put up with. Fellow hoops junkies might look at my favorite player and say that the bad outweighs the good. Me? I won’t stop dwelling on the fact that there’s good in the first place.

I’ll tell you this much: Whether James Harden stays in Philadelphia, scurries off to the Clippers, or ends up on some other team, my fandom simply won’t fade away.

Next. NBA Trade Rumors: Predicting most likely trade candidates on all 30 teams. dark

It’s like a habit I can’t kick or — perhaps more aptly — a pair of shoes that I’ll never sell.