Harden homecoming tempered by tragedy
by Sam Amick, USA TODAY Sports
OKLAHOMA CITY – Oh yeah, the James Harden return.
While the Houston Rockets and their new franchise centerpiece were pulling a classy, bigger-than-basketball move by attending the Wednesday funeral of Sasha McHale, the 23-year-old daughter of coach Kevin McHale, in Minneapolis at mid-day, Harden’s old Oklahoma City Thunder teammates were preparing to face him tonight for the first time since he was so shockingly traded back on Oct. 28. The tragedy of Sasha losing her fight with Lupus on Saturday changed the tone here even before the Rockets had arrived, with players and coaches alike agonizing over what the McHale family is going through.
“We’re keeping his special family in our prayers during this time as an NBA family,” said Thunder shooting guard Kevin Martin, the former Rocket who slid into Harden’s super-sub spot as part of the Harden deal.
So this reunion of sorts was kept in its proper place, as a compelling subplot to this early NBA season that won’t be hyped quite as much because of the real life events that so tragically unfolded leading up to it. Harden is back in this place where he became such a fan favorite and a fascinating character, the creative and versatile role player turned masterful man in the middle of all things Thunder.
Their rise and his were one in the same, with Harden – with that smooth lefty stroke, the playmaking instincts and underrated explosion and athleticism – offering a special brand of basketball that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the league, let alone on this new-look Thunder. There was a definite personal component in play, too, strong friendships born between the likes of Harden, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and their small-market bunch as they embarked on the sort of rapid ascent not often seen in pro sports.
There was first-round loss to the Lakers in 2010, followed by the Western Conference Finals appearance against Dallas a year later, then the Finals loss to Miami in June. Then, thanks almost entirely to the more-restrictive collective bargaining agreement put in place during the 2011 lockout, there was the break-up.
After failed negotiations on … [For more on Harden homecoming hype tempered by tragedy in McHale family, click here.]