James Harden Shouldn't Be Hated or Loved, Just Ignored

Note: It does not say "Go Harden!"
Note: It does not say "Go Harden!" Phot by Eric Sauseda
In the '90s, when the Rockets were winning back-to-back championships, I was a huge Robert Horry fan. He had loads of talent and we were roughly the same age. There was something cool about being in the same generation as one of the players on your favorite team.

When he was included in a package trade for Charles Barkley in 1996, I was bummed, but I got over it because, and here's the thing, I didn't pay much attention to him after that. Sure, I enjoyed when he threw that towel in Danny Ainge's face and I literally got up and walked out of the room when I saw him get that loose ball against Sacramento knowing he would drain a three pointer to win the game. Of course he did, cementing his legend status as "Big Shot" Bob.

But beyond a casual passing interest, that was really it. Well, except for getting awestruck years later when I got to meet and interview him. The truth is, I wasn't all that interested in Robert Horry after he left the Rockets because he wasn't playing for the Rockets anymore.

Growing up, of course there were players I loved on teams I didn't really watch. Julius Irving was among them. But, the vast majority of my favorites played for my favorite teams.

So, this past week, I found it a bit odd to imagine myself caring about James Harden now that he is a Brooklyn Net.

I certainly don't wish the man any ill will. He gave Houston some amazing performances and is likely the second best player ever to play for the Rockets. I often defended him in this space to people who didn't like his style of play and called out the league when they hated on him. It was disappointing he wasn't able to help the team win a title, but that's a tall feat for any athlete. I didn't even mind how he left. If he doesn't want to be here, I don't really want him here anyway. It's just business.

I get that passions run deep and there can be some hurt feelings when things end the way they did. I expected fans to be angry, particularly on social media, but, when I read reactions on Twitter after the trade with things like, "Go get a ring!" I was a little surprised.

As much as I enjoyed watching Dr. J as a kid, I didn't root for the Nets when he played for them (or for the Sixers later) and I'm absolutely not cheering for Harden now that he is in a Nets uniform. Like Irving, Harden is an incredible athlete who does some amazing stuff I cannot and that is fascinating. But, when I did watch Irving, I had no clue how many points he averaged or his teams's record. I could, however, quote you the stats line for Rodney McRae or even Billy Paultz. Why? Because they were Rockets.

Maybe it's a generational thing. When Michael Jordan became a sports and cultural icon, it definitely felt like a shift in sports fandom. Collectable cards were one thing, but we dressed like Mike down to the shorts length and high tops. Leagues picked up on this star making and took full advantage. It sold merchandise and tickets, never mind broadcasting contracts. National TV games became must-watch when MJ (or Kobe or Shaq) or any number of marquee names were on the floor.

Then came fantasy sports. If there was ever a reason to place the importance of the one above that of the many, it was when you were trying to beat your friends as a mock GM. The same way gambling can dramatically affect your interests, fantasy sports shifted a lot of people from team fan to player fan in short order.

Still, it surprises me when I see fans openly wish for Harden to not only be OK in Brooklyn, but to excel, to become dominant even if the Rockets aren't. That feels so out of context for me. As much as I liked the guy here in Houston, the most Harden can expect from me if he manages to win a title is a "hey, good for him" when I see the highlights. Beyond that, I honestly don't care.

And why should I? If you root for a team, you root for the team. The players are an extension of it, but they aren't the whole franchise. Their time as part of our sports lives is fleeting and can change at a moment's notice.

Players rarely remain in one place for their entire career. Those we now love will eventually move on or retire and be replaced by others. And guys we booed with fervor will end up sitting on our benches.

There is no better example of this in Houston sports than Carlos Beltran. He was an absolute hero with the Astros until he left in free agency. Abandoning the Astros for the Mets made him hated, booed at every game as if he were the devil himself. He was Judas, public enemy number one.

Then, a funny thing happened. He came back to Houston and played on the 2017 World Series team. Suddenly, he was lauded as a calming veteran voice that helped lead the team to the title they never had (cheating scandals aside). The hate gone just like that.

Players, coaches, management, broadcasters and even the owner changed between 2005 and 2017 but one thing remained constant: It was still the Houston Astros.

For me, and I would wager many who have been fans for more than a few years, there is a kind of wall around the teams we love. Beyond that wall are other teams who want to beat us. Whoever is on those teams is part of some dystopia I want no part of. They can do whatever they do out there. I'm staying inside the walls.

The Rockets are still the Rockets no matter who puts on that uniform.

If you are truly such a fan of James Harden that you would wish him success even at the expense of the Rockets, then by all means become a Nets fan. No judgment. Just don't ask me to join you. The best you can expect from me when you ask about him in the future is, "James who?"
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Jeff Balke is a writer, editor, photographer, tech expert and native Houstonian. He has written for a wide range of publications and co-authored the official 50th anniversary book for the Houston Rockets.
Contact: Jeff Balke