Houston Rockets guard James Harden said he wasn't sure what kind of crowd reaction would greet him during pregame introductions for Wednesday night's game at Chesapeake Energy Arena against his former teammates.
“Hopefully, I'll get some claps and hopefully I'll see some beards in the crowd as well,” Harden said 90 minutes before tipoff.
Harden received a warm ovation from the sellout crowd of 18,203 and a handful of beards were spotted.
Opposing players are introduced in a monotone voice and very rapidly.
Harden was introduced second, not last, and received a favorable reaction from fans, who already were on their feet.
Introduced fourth was former Thunder shooting guard Daequan Cook, who started in place of the injured Chandler Parsons (shoulder). Cook also received a warm ovation, though not as long or as loud as Harden's.
Seconds before the tip, Harden and Cook trotted quickly over to the Thunder bench and exchanged pleasantries with Scott Brooks, Maurice Cheeks and several players.
On Oct. 27, Harden, Cook, center Cole Aldrich and forward Lazar Hayward were traded to Houston for guard Kevin Martin, rookie guard Jeremy Lamb, two conditional first-round picks and a second-round pick.
Harden initially walked onto the court at 4:25 p.m. for pregame warm-ups, wearing a smile and yelling “YUUUUP” to Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook at the opposite baseline.
After exchanging greetings with several Thunder assistant coaches and members of the staff, Harden chatted at length at midcourt with Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka.
Eleven minutes before tipoff, a message was shown on the scoreboard welcoming back Harden, Cook and Aldrich. Aldrich is battling an ankle injury and Hayward was released from the team.
Ninety minute before tipoff, Harden held an interview session that lasted roughly 7 1/2 minutes. Here are excerpts:
What was it like visiting with your ex-teammates?
“Joyful. We all had some good laughs. It was the first time we've actually seen each other since the trade. It was just good to see them, kind of laugh and joke around.”
Was it odd entering the arena from the opposite tunnel?
“Just to warm up on the other side, it feels kind of weird. It is what it is.”
Have you been able to watch the Thunder this season?
“I've watched a lot of their games while I'm at home relaxing. They look pretty good. Kevin, Russell, Serge and all those guys are going to do what they do and the second unit looks pretty good as well. We're going to have to bring our ‘A' game tonight.”
You were in Minnesota earlier today attending the funeral for coach Kevin McHale's daughter.
“It was something we had to do. We felt like we had to go support Coach McHale and his family. I'm sure it's a lot of stress and he's going through a lot so we felt obligated to go and support him.”
Do you think the team being there helped?
“Just to see our faces I think kind of gave him (McHale) some kind of joy … basically our entire organization was there just to support him. No matter if it was for five minutes or three minutes, he just wanted to see our faces. I'm glad we got that opportunity to go out there and share that moment with him.”
Former Oklahoma coach Kelvin Sampson has filled in for coach McHale. How has he done?
“He's done a great job. It's not easy to come in and try to take over a team right away like he did, but he's done a phenomenal job and keeping us focused on what we need to do to win games.”
What kind of crowd reaction do you think you'll get?
“I'm not sure. Hopefully, I'll get some claps and hopefully I'll see some beards in the crowd as well. They were tremendous. They were unbelievable. I love them. They were really supportive of me and the Thunder.”
Do you expect them to boo you when you get the ball and it's not your arena?
“No, they're not like that. I don't think they will. They're some great fans.”
As far as your contract talks, in the end, was it about the money?
“No. I mean, obviously it was partly about the money. I was put in a tough situation where things didn't happen the way I wanted them to. It's in the past. I'm in my situation now and all I can do is focus on what I need to do to be a better leader and a better basketball player.”
Would you have said things differently about “making a sacrifice” to stay with the Thunder leading up to the trade?
“No, because I thought I did sacrifice. I thought I sacrificed coming off the bench. I could have tried to be a starter and messed the whole thing up, but I sacrificed and came off the bench for the better of the team. There were a lot of different things I thought I sacrificed to make the Thunder better.”
What's it like being s starter?
“It's different. I'm 14 games in and I'm kind of getting used to it. I'm having a lot more opportunities with the basketball in my hands. At first it was kind of weird not having those (Thunder) guys on the court with you. I've got some great guys (in Houston) who want to play hard and win some basketball games.”
Will you try to keep your emotions in check tonight?
“Just going to go out there and play basketball. I feel like it's a road game we're going to try to win. This game doesn't count for any more wins or losses.”
When was the last time you played the villain role? Do you have to go back to college (at Arizona State)?
“[Smiling] I don't think I've ever been in that role. I'm not used to this situation.”
Are you at peace the way the trade transpired?
“It happened very quick. … One minute I'm at dinner (at Cheesecake Factory) with my family. The next I'm headed to Houston.”