This Is the Messiest, Most Heartbreaking Celebrity Divorce of All Time

Breakups are hard. That includes the implosion of James Harden and Daryl Morey's 11-year basketball marriage, which shows how power and greed can tear us apart.

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This Is the Messiest, Most Heartbreaking Celebrity Divorce of All Time
James Harden, left, and Daryl Morey have some fun at a February 2022 press conference introducing Harden as a Sixer. Photo:Tim Nwachukwu (Getty Images)

“This is life. When you lose trust in someone, it’s like a marriage. When you lose trust in someone, it’s like… You know, it’s pretty simple.” No, this isn’t Beyoncé airing out Jay Z on Lemonade, or Robert Pattinson in the aftermath of those 2012 photos of Kristen Stewart making out with her director, or Khloe Kardashian rage-tweeting after Tristan Thompson’s latest cheating scandal. This is now-former Philadelphia 76ers star James Harden talking about 76ers general manager Daryl Morey at a press conference in October. This week, following a months-long, deeply uncomfortable pressure campaign to exit the Sixers, Harden was finally traded to the Los Angeles Clippers.

As a passionate lover of basketball and, for as long as I can remember, a particularly passionate lover of Mr. James Edward Harden, I was always going to follow the emotionally raw, tempestuous falling-out of this former dynamic duo which has spent the last decade dominating the league together. But I do not anticipate everyone sharing my personal interests, so I am here to present the twisted breakup saga of a top NBA executive and the star he put on the map as this: the Messiest Celebrity Divorce of All Time.

After two seasons with the Sixers, over the summer, Harden declared he wanted out of the team, prompting a trickle of reports about why. In general, it seems he was dissatisfied with the contract he was offered this off-season and felt cheated, as he claims to have accepted substantially less money than he was worth last season because Morey promised he’d receive more this year.

This is where it all gets a little murky, muddled with possible tampering accusations and under-the-table rule-breaking mischief. But the crux of it is that Harden felt betrayed by Morey: a power broker who took a gamble and launched Harden’s career more than a decade ago; Morey: the man who’s publicly adored and doted on Harden for years; Morey: who was the first person waiting for Harden when he arrived in Philadelphia last year to meet him, fresh off a private jet, with the embrace of a father awaiting his son’s return from the war. In 2022, Morey called their relationship a “mutual love fest.”

In August, Harden, who was touring China to promote his varying business brands, shattered the timeline by addressing a crowd of Chinese children at a charity basketball game and declaring: “Daryl Morey is a liar and I will never be a part of an organization that he’s a part of. Let me say that again: Daryl Morey is a liar and I will never be a part of an organization that he’s a part of.” The comments, which resulted in Harden receiving a $100,000 fine from the league, were especially pointed as Morey is loathed in China after comments he made in 2019 criticizing the country. It was the sort of calculated attack that could only be pulled off by someone intimately familiar with his loved one’s exact pressure points.

The spectacular implosion of Morey and Harden’s relationship feels like a page out of an imaginative fanfiction piece, but somehow more dramatic. This is laid out in an, at times, awkwardly detailed ESPN report this week, which includes such treasures as this:

Every day he walks into his home in Philadelphia, Morey looks at a life-size portrait of Harden he commissioned from Croatian artist Filip Peraić after the 2018 season. It is a stunning piece of art: Harden towering over a basketball court, his hair ablaze in oranges, reds and yellows to reflect how monstrous his offensive output had been the year he won the league’s MVP award.

Elsewhere, the report drives home the loneliness of Harden and Morey’s new career paths without each other:

Morey has had months to reflect on why their basketball marriage fell apart and what it means for both of their legacies. Their offenses broke records. Their style of play changed the game and the way offenses and defenses are formulated. They never won a championship, though. And now their public, messy separation, after a cold-war summer of name-calling and uncomfortable silences, leaves both men with new paths to forge—alone.

Oh, love… cruel and fickle, devastating in its betrayal, permanent in its conclusion—wherever does love go when it leaves us?

Daryl Morey (left) and James Harden (right) talk strategy at a 2014 practice. Photo:Houston Chronicle/Hearst Newspapers (Getty Images)

Another report in Fox Sports this week, under the apt headline “Emotion vs. Analytics: Why James Harden and Daryl Morey were always destined to implode,” similarly reads:

“James Harden changed my life,” Morey wrote in bold letters in the Houston Chronicle in October 2020 after stepping down from his position with the Rockets, and he was right. He and Harden were true partners, each side giving, each side getting, each making the other better. … Both will likely one day have their names enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame. And, honestly, they should be enshrined together. Because you can’t tell the story of James Harden without Daryl Morey the same way you can’t tell the story of Daryl Morey without James Harden.

Some history for those who haven’t shipped Morey and Harden as long as I have, to really color in how bleak this breakup is: In 2012, Harden and Morey first linked on the Houston Rockets before Harden had fully developed as a player. Harden has described this period—being traded from the Oklahoma City Thunder and leaving former teammates and pals Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook—as a painful experience. In the 2017 documentary, James Harden: Behind the Beard, which I watched several years ago with tears in my eyes, he recounts crying when, at 22 years old, he received the devastating phone call about the trade.

But it was on the Rockets that Morey gave a young Harden his first big contract, invested in making him a bonafide basketball star, and empowered him to take over the Rockets and make them his team—an opportunity he might never have had on Westbrook and Durant’s Thunder.

Through the Harden-Morey era, which spans 10 seasons together, Harden shined. His accolades include making the playoffs every year; winning the 2018 MVP award; he was a seven-time All-NBA selection; a 10-time All-Star selection; became a three-time scoring champion; and, frankly, I could go on. (In my varying basketball group chats, trust, I absolutely will.) But through it all, a championship evaded the duo, and it appears to be their individual pursuits of a championship that have torn the two apart. Morey has a new charge to look after—the Sixers’ Joel “The Process” Embiid, who’s nearly 30 and also without a championship thanks to one devastatingly ill-timed injury after another—and Morey apparently didn’t see Harden as a valuable piece of the equation to help achieve this for Embiid. Or, at least that’s how Harden sees it. Harden, meanwhile, seems to like his odds playing alongside the Clippers’ Westbrook, Paul George, and Kawhi Leonard. At his first press conference as a Clipper on Wednesday, Harden accused the Sixers (AKA Morey) of holding him “on a leash”: “I’m not a system player, I am a system.”

The one thing Harden and Morey can probably agree on is how sad all of this is. Breakups are hard—there’s perhaps no more crushing example of this than the deterioration of their relationship, the ways power and greed and lust for that which evades us (in this case, a championship) can tear us all apart. And you don’t need to follow basketball to find this both fascinating and heartbreaking.

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