Written by Hayden Gray (@haydenmgray)

Basketball is unlike any other sport. It’s personal. The NBA has staked its claim as a player-friendly league where stars are encouraged to be themselves and to let their personalities carry the narrative of the game. And because fans are able to get to know them on such an intimate level, the truly great players amass their fair share of staunch supporters who will defend them no matter what. That is, up to a certain point. In 2016, the Thunder faithful all but excommunicated Kevin Durant when he signed with Golden State. Then in 2019, Anthony Davis unceremoniously left New Orleans as he got his wish to be shipped off to Los Angeles to play with LeBron. And in the past two months, there has been another interesting test case in how far a player can go before a fanbase turns on them, as James Harden has tried to force his way out of Houston by torpedoing his value.

In the beginning, no one could really blame Harden for wanting out. After all, it seemed as though he simply wanted to leave a sinking ship. In the few months since the end of the NBA bubble, the coach who helped him take his game to another level, Mike D’Antoni, had opted to move on from the team. Not long after, Daryl Morey, arguably Harden’s most ardent champion, stepped down as GM in order to “spend time with his family” only to sign on as the Philadelphia 76ers President of Basketball Operations weeks later. The optics were, in a word, bad. In the days and weeks after his trade request, Rockets fans took to social media to mourn the Harden era, and to express their gratitude for all that he had done for the city of Houston in the past eight years. After all, since Harden arrived in Houston, the Rockets are the only team that has made the playoffs every single year. Some fans even went so far as to advocate for trading Harden wherever he wanted, so that he could get the best opportunity possible to finally win a championship.

For Rockets fans, standing by Harden was par for the course. There had been multiple instances where Rockets diehards had to come to Harden’s defense. In 2017, when Harden was benched after a 2-11 shooting performance against the Spurs, Rockets fans stood by him. When the Rockets fell to the Warriors in 2018 and again in 2019 without Kevin Durant, fans took to social media to dispute claims that Harden was a choker, or only a regular season player. In fact, Rockets fans wore the task of standing up for Harden as a badge of honor. As if they knew a secret that NBA casuals could never understand.

That changed though in early December this year. As the Rockets began their abbreviated training camp leading up to the 2020-21 season, James Harden had still yet to report. While the rest of his team followed league safety protocol and attended practice in Houston, videos surfaced seemingly every night of James partying at a strip club in Las Vegas without wearing a mask. For some Rockets fans, this was a bridge too far. Not only was Harden shirking his responsibilities to the team, but he was also showing an indifference to a pandemic that to date has killed over 340,000 Americans. The problems didn’t stop when Harden finally arrived at camp either. As opening night inched closer, Harden once again was caught attending a private party with more than fifteen people, breaking NBA health and safety protocols and requiring that he go through another shortened quarantine. Each passing day, the fanbase that spent the past eight years defending Harden was feeling more and more disenchanted.

Then on December 26th, James Harden finally returned to the court. In the first game of the season, Harden put up 44 points and 17 assists, bringing a 9-man Rockets squad just two points away from an overtime victory against the Portland Trail Blazers. In a matter of hours, the fans who were ready to move on from the Harden era were reminded of the in-game magic he could make. In that moment, Rockets fans were reminded that, especially in the NBA, breaking up is hard to do.

Moving forward, Rockets fans are in uncharted territory. In the next few months they will have to ask themselves, just how far can loyalty to a player go? Can a fanbase forgive someone for their (hazardous) off-court missteps in favor of their on-court brilliance? Does James Harden even owe the city of Houston anything? The answer to these questions will undoubtedly be different for every person.

Basketball is unlike any other sport. When a fanbase wraps up their collective identity into one player, it can be a special thing. Look at the way that Bulls fans remember Jordan. How the Lakers faithful idolize Kobe. As of November, Harden was on track to reach the same kind of status in Houston. However, as Rockets fans are painfully learning, Harden’s implosion is putting that happy ending in jeopardy.

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