James Harden has never done wrong by Oklahoma City. He gave the franchise three years of great play, coming off the bench when he could’ve started elsewhere, improving in sync with Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. Over that stint, Harden established himself as someone who deserved a max contract and, in the right circumstances, could serve as a team leader. The Thunder knew this, and they knew Harden, a ball-dominant scorer, was somewhat redundant with Durant and Westbrook. So Oklahoma City traded him to a team where he could be a number-one guy. They got good players in return, and Harden was happy enough landing with the Houston Rockets to sign an $80 million contract with them.
Wednesday night, James Harden returned to Oklahoma City wearing the jersey of another team, as a budding superstar, the fifth-highest scorer in the league, the lynchpin of the NBA’s youngest squad and one half, along with Jeremy Lin, of an up-and-coming duo that has been featured all over magazines and TV. He’s glamorous and fantastic and intimidating, and he no longer belongs to Oklahoma City.
I’m talking in the language of romance or whatever, which is weird, because ostensibly, we’re talking about basketball. The clothes-rending aftermath of one’s first big breakup, though, really gets at what it’s like for a sports city — particularly a pubescent, awkward-stage city like OKC, which is still not really sure how these things are supposed to go — to lose a player it loves. As far as sports-relationship-endings go, Harden’s was tame and relatively uncontroversial. It was an amicable split. And like so many amicable splits, the problems didn’t start until one side saw how famously its ex was getting along with someone new.
Fans cheered for Harden before the game, but cheering for a guy before the game is the kind of platitude that comes easy. You “just want them to be happy.” Once the game started, Harden did not receive the same respect, and got booed. And worse: Harden got booed for an altercation with Hasheem Thabeet.
Hasheem Thabeet has been in Oklahoma City for 16 games. A former #2 draft pick, he’s equipped with one skill and one skill only: being 7’3”. Oklahoma City BOOED Harden, and gave a STANDING OVATION to Hasheem Thabeet. When the Oklahoma City crowd booed, they took the immature way out. They were posting a snotty Facebook message about their ex, basically, and then running out and hooking up with Hasheem Thabeet, even though he peaked in college, just because he happened to be in town.
Which is not mature.
Is Oklahoma City a bad fanbase? No. By all accounts, they’re a great one, happy about what the Thunder mean for their town. But Wednesday’s game showed that OKC still has a ways to go in learning how to treat the people it loves.