I Went to Philly for James Harden’s 1st Game Back & the Arena Was Rife With Emotional Landmines

No one had higher hopes for my favorite basketball player’s time on the Philadelphia 76ers than I did. But his fruitless stint in the City of Brotherly Love ultimately bred only bitterness, and I got to see it up close.

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I Went to Philly for James Harden’s 1st Game Back & the Arena Was Rife With Emotional Landmines

It’s no secret James Harden is my favorite basketball player and human being—I’ve gone through great pains to make sure of that. For the last 10ish years, I’ve watched him flit between teams, forced by a string of bizarre circumstances, downright tragedies, and Shakespearean betrayals. Each time, the internet and media trotted out one vicious narrative about his decision to leave after another, railing against his “body count” of teams he’s played for and left, and, above all, calling him a quitter. So, I should have known what to expect when I found myself at the Wells Fargo Center on Wednesday night for Harden’s first game back at the home court of his old team—his ex, if you will—with his new team. Still, somehow, the events of the evening and all the ensuing emotional landmines managed to shock me.

In November, Harden left the Philadelphia 76ers after one-and-a-half odd years of, at different points, shining hope and crushing defeat. He pushed for a trade after a highly publicized, highly dramatic conflict with Sixers general manager Daryl Morey—the star executive credited with launching Harden’s career, who once called his decade-long relationship with Harden a “mutual love fest”—over breaking an alleged agreement to give Harden a super-max contract. After a prolonged, vitriolic process that last summer saw Harden declare to a room full of children at a charity event that “Daryl Morey is a liar and I will never be a part of an organization that he’s a part of,” he was traded to the Los Angeles Clippers on Halloween.

So I didn’t exactly expect Harden to be welcomed back to Philadelphia with open arms. It’s a city famous for its, err, passionate sports fans (something I respect deeply) and, as a Ben Simmons apologist myself, I’ve seen what happens to former players during their first games back. (In Simmons’ case, ex-fans camped outside the Brooklyn Nets hotel to boo him once he arrived, and they did not stop booing him throughout the game, even as he was injured and spent the entirety of it on the bench.) But the first alarms went off for me when I stepped out of my Uber and saw the merchants waving their main offering: t-shirts featuring a drawing of Harden’s head, with his iconic beard in the shape of male genitalia, and the caption, “MOVE OVER SIMMONS. THERE’S A NEW DICKHEAD.” 

When it comes to my favorite basketball player’s good name, I am and will always be the DPOY (Defensive Player of the Year). But I kept walking, understanding that this was enemy territory and not the place to litigate who the real dickhead was between Harden and Morey. Next thing I knew, inside the stadium, I bumped into at least a handful of people wearing the phallic shirt, with a couple of odd Harden jerseys interspersed across the sea of bodies. 

As we watched the players warm up I found myself buzzing from anticipation and Twisted Tea, curious about what would happen when the Clippers starters were introduced and Harden was called forth. Then it happened. I bore witness to a crowd of angry men, women, and children rising to their feet in an out-of-body, almost feral furor to scream at and boo the man I love. Sure, it wasn’t exactly surprising, but it was still downright surreal.

The rest of the game, the booing didn’t go anywhere; every time the ball landed in Harden’s hands, even if only for a millisecond, like clockwork, the stadium erupted. For the most part, I was thankful to be there; as someone who mostly watches these games via a stream on my 13-inch Macbook, lying in bed with a glass of wine and bowl of animal crackers, it never gets old for me to see my favorite players take form as real human beings on the court, and it didn’t hurt that I was able to snag lovely seats close to the action. It’s hard to be that upset when you get to watch your favorite man in the world shrug off his sweatpants within a couple dozen feet of you, leap onto the court, and catch a basketball. 

But I was still upset! Even if irrationally! I can vaguely understand Sixers fans’ vitriol toward Simmons, whose, err, lackluster performance in the 2021 play-offs cost the team their clearest path to a championship in recent history, who then refused to play for the team ever again. But Harden wanted to stay on the Sixers—his departure, according to him, was squarely a consequence of Morey’s deceit. I’m not exactly an impartial source on any of this, but even from an objective standpoint, I don’t see how you look at any of this and walk away hating Harden, a legendary former Sixer who helped mold the team’s bright young star Tyrese Maxey into the dominant player he now is. In a postgame interview, asked why Sixers fans were booing him, Harden put it best: “If you ask them, they probably don’t know why they were booing.”

Of course for all the fan fervor, I didn’t clock any drama or pettiness among the actual players: Former teammates Harden and Maxey both fouled each other at two different points, with Harden affectionately patting his young, former protege’s chest after fouling him. (This, after playfully putting his young, former protege in a headlock at their Sunday game in Los Angeles!) 

The Clippers trailed for most of the game, which is deeply foreboding given that the Sixers’ key player Joel Embiid has been out for months. Here Harden was, parading out his new team, and for most of the game, they embarrassed him in front of his ex. Still, the game shaped up to be a highly competitive nail-biter in the final stretch. The booing and cheering reached a fever pitch. Harden and his teammates Kawhi Leonard and Paul George wound up making key plays after otherwise lackluster performances. But the game was ultimately decided by a missed call in the final seconds, denying Sixers shooting guard Kelly Oubre two free throws that could have won them the game. Instead, the Clippers narrowly won by one point, and with tensions running high, Oubre pointed at each of the refs like pieces on an assembly line and said to each one, “You’re a bitch.” Sorry, but how do you not love to watch basketball???

After the game, Harden fielded questions about where he stands with his Philly exes today: Can his relationship with Morey ever be repaired? “No. No. Hell no.” (Tell us how you really feel!) Has he stayed in contact with Embiid and does he still have a relationship with him, the Sixers big man whom Harden gifted with a gorgeous Rolex watch last year upon winning the MVP award? “No” and “no.” (That one hurt, honestly.) But Harden had only the kindest words to say about Maxey, emphatically expressing that he’s not just “very, very proud of him” but “extremely proud.” Maxey, meanwhile, credited Harden with his development as a player and joked about messing around with each other on the court: “Much love to James. It’s funny, just messing with him throughout the game, I was telling him that when I fouled him, I didn’t try to hurt him. He was like, ‘No, you tried to hurt me!’ I said ‘No, never bro. Never try to hurt you, man’, but it was great.” OK, and now I’m crying!

All told, I didn’t know if I’d make it through a game of such high emotional intensity and pronounced booing. But being present for it ultimately reminded me what I love about basketball—it’s the combination of a sport that is just very fun to watch and the thorny, cult-like, frankly irresistible web of fandom politics. That’s the true, unfiltered power of fandom—it can bring a stadium to rise to its feet to boo and jeer at a total stranger, just as it brought me on a two-hour train ride to sit in a crowd of booing strangers on a Wednesday night to watch my favorite person throw a ball around.

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