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Culture / Sporting Life

James Harden and Chris Paul Enjoy a Wild Houston Weekend

Missed Connections, Hanger-Ons, Famous Rappers and a Moment for Mom

BY // 08.21.17

The moment finally comes in the closing minute of the third quarter, turning a gym that could be straight out of the 1950s into a very 2017 scene. James Harden lofts a ball into the sky and Chris Paul goes up, catches it and throws it down with two hands. Yes, Chris Paul throws it down. And everyone crammed into Rice’s Tudor Fieldhouse who isn’t trying to record it on their iPhones, throws their hands into the air.

It is supposed to be the other way around of course. Paul is supposed to set up Harden to signify the unofficial start of this new NBA power couple’s Houston union. Paul is the Point God, the man with the flair for dramatic deliveries. Things don’t always worked out as planned, though. And after several missed connections in which Paul tries to set up Harden for showpiece finishes in vain, the Houston Rockets franchise player flips the script.

Harden welcomes Chris Paul with an assist. It’s the start of something — though no one can be quite sure of what yet, not even Harden and Paul themselves. This new-age NBA partnership — Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey’s counter to the Golden State Warriors historical super team brilliance — is fraught with potential complications. James Harden has never fully embraced a point guard before — not Russell Westbrook when they were both young in Oklahoma City, certainly not Jeremy Lin when the Rockets often dissed and dismissed an impressive talent.

Still on a boiling August Sunday in Houston, in a cool gym full of people who love him, the hope is real. Harden is as happy as anyone has ever seen him in the Bayou City — and seemingly more comfortable in his own skin than ever. Fresh off signing a $228 million contract extension this offseason that makes him the NBA’s highest-paid player, Harden seems determined to spread the love.

That is what this JH-Town Weekend, Harden’s two-day charity hoops fest at Rice University’s on-campus gym, is all about. Harden donates $100,000 to Texas Southern University’s scholarship fund — and becomes the type of ambassador that many people never imagined he had in him.

There is Harden wrapping up Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner in a hug. There is Harden, making sure his mom Monja Willis gets recognized and receives an ovation from the crowd. There is Harden signing his shoes after every quarter of Sunday’s showcase game featuring NBA stars (John Wall, DeMar DeRozen, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Clint Capella and more) — and flinging each of those shoes into different sections of the crowd.

Sometimes the shoes only last for one quarter.

This created several hilarious scenes. Harden had his own shoe man for the game — a guy dressed in all white — who’d bring over a new pair of Adidas for Harden, standing on the court in his socks after the crowd tosses, to put on before the start of the each quarter. Before the fourth quarter, the shoe man apparently gave Harden the wrong shoes. Good shoe men are so hard to find these days.

So Harden had to call over another guy — the guy actually lugging around a giant bag of his shoes — and dig out the preferred pair himself before the game could resume. Not that any of the other NBA mega stars minded. Not even Wall, who took umbrage at several referee calls (in a summer charity game). They knew this was Harden’s moment.

“We’re brothers,” Harden says of himself and the stars who showed. “This thing is bigger than basketball. We’re trying to do some good.”

The extent of Harden’s commitment could be found on Saturday, a day before the NBA players game.

Day One

James Harden shows up practically on time — incredibly on time by charity basketball standards. He cheers on the little kids in the oversized jersey race, tells a kid who falls it’s all right. He flings a few of the white giveaway T-shirts into the stands. Heck, at one point The Beard is literally rubbing a baby on the back.

This is a man who’s working a crowd. It looks like Harden is having a great time.

And this is before Chris Paul even saunters into the gym, drawing a bigger horde of curious gawkers, autograph seekers and star touchers than even Harden.

It’s always dubious to try and determine someone’s state of mind by a few interactions. Or even any one day. But Harden’s never seemed quite this relaxed or happy with Houston before. This is Harden with a smile.

“He loves this,” Rockets CEO Tad Brown says of Harden.

Brown is specifically talking about JH-Town Weekend and giving back. But Brown could just as easily be referencing Harden’s new life.

A tall blonde is here, happily contributing to his bliss. She brings over three water bottles for Harden’s mom, charms two little boys by calling them handsome.

And then there’s Paul, who shows before the second game of Saturday, even though he and Harden aren’t playing till Sunday.

“I’m just happy to be here,” Paul says as he poses for a slew of selfies, including some from media members who should know better. Wearing a backwards black baseball cap, a red Nike Jumpman shirt and black shorts, Paul is the picture of casual cool.

Chris Paul’s most important role with the Houston Rockets just may be how his yelling impacts James Harden. Paul will demand more.

Paul’s already put his Los Angeles mansion up for sale — even though he’s only signed for this season, he could be staying a while. As long as James Harden keeps it comfortable. Harden is not as natural a host as J.J. Watt — whose own annual charity softball game is now held at Minute Maid Park annually. But he’s clearly trying — and that’s all that counts.

“I was expecting this,” Harden says of a scene he envisioned, and more importantly, pulled off.

Summer charity basketball games are notoriously chaotic affairs. Harden’s first one is very well run by those standards. Sure the people who paid up to $50 a seat for Saturday’s action likely left disappointed that none of the NBA stars actually played. The fact that Harden, Paul, DeRozen and the rest would only play on Sunday wasn’t communicated in the ticketing process.

But at least Harden was in the gym, coaching one of the teams, playing the good host. The main stars (Harden, Paul) are in the building both days. The games actually start on time and they are largely played like near legit summer league games. The energy is high. There are no endless lines to get in because of poorly run operations, which you see at a lot of NBA player charity events. Even the bathrooms are clean.

Rice, the host of the event, deserves plenty of credit for this. But Harden and his team do too.

No one’s ever doubted Harden’s supreme offensive gifts. Whether he cares about certain things — defense, sharing the primary ball handling role, being a good teammate, winning, staying in shape — enough, often have been. Harden clearly cares about this event. His desire to do something for kids in Houston comes across as being extremely genuine. He looks like he’s in great shape — even without taking his shirt off this time.

James Harden is engaged like never before. Will it last? Let Chris Paul know if you know. On an August weekend, from shoe crowd flings to dunk setup, everything looks good. It’s a nice start.

Home, chic home.

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