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Taking a break at All-Star Weekend

It’s All-Star weekend, and James Harden is having a great time. He’s jumping up and down, shouting at the court and smiling openly. He and Kevin Durant finally have a chance to be fans at the Rising Stars Challenge, and they’re as rowdy a pair of courtside spectators as you’ve ever seen. Terrence Jones is on the court, repping the Houston Rockets, and James cheering him on with every dunk. This isn’t NBA basketball, but it’s still important. For one weekend, the players get to be fans.

The Rockets have a small contingent in attendance, led off by Dwight Howard and James Harden. Neither player won a starting berth via fan voting for the All-Star Game, but James Harden gets a starting spot anyway. The Lakers’ Kobe Bryant will sit out with a knee injury, meaning that a starting spot opened up. The head coach for the team gets to pick the replacement out of the pool of reserves, and this time Scotty Brooks chose James to start. Brooks may have let Harden come off the bench in Oklahoma City, but now that James is an all-star representing Houston, it only made sense to give him a chance to start alongside his longtime teammate Kevin Durant

As Harden’s spotlight grows, so too do his detractors seem to pile up. Last year was a honeymoon in the national eye, but the honeymoon seems to be coming to a close. Perhaps now that it’s impossible to ignore James and Houston, people are seeing Harden’s game for what it truly is: an offense-first spectacle of efficiency, a far sight different from that of other shooting guards they may be expecting. He draws fouls, he shoots free throws and he launches threes. His Eurostep is a thing of beauty but is inexorably linked via Manu and Wade to the idea flopping. Harden, for his part, does little to break this connection.

It’s easy to understand why fans feel culture shock when watching him play, just as Manu Ginobili commands more respect than affection. But up close and personal with James Harden, it’s also easy to see how he became a superstar in the first place. He’s bashful, playful and quick, and he answers every question as though nobody’s watching. He’s part of a new generation of sports stars, players raised on twitter and social media. The old guard is starting to clear out, and the dichotomy of canned answers vs brutal frankness is breaking down. Harden isn’t brash, and he’s not reserved. Hes coy.

“Make sure you care to it,” James says, “if you love it, it’ll be good to you.” That’s his number one beard tip, even more important than grooming or conditioning, which he also mentioned. It doesn’t take much to get him to smile underneath that beard and lean into light-hearted questions. If he likes a question, he gets playful and asks questions back. Some questions he passes over. He looks away and barely gives a sentence in reply. He doesn’t say everything he’s thinking, but it’s clear nonetheless. He’s quiet but earnest, and the exact opposite of the man sitting next to him.

Dwight Howard is big. He’s physically big, obviously, but he’s also big in personality, in presence and in affect. Dwight doesn’t operate on the normal canned answer system, because he obviously has his own internal canning factory. Someone mentions Steph Curry’s three point shooting, which prompts him to note that he can shoot from the corner. Is that going to be a secret weapon come playoffs? He’s not just ready for the joke, he’s has a go-to answer. “Coach knows… if you need a three, give it to D,” Dwight smiles, mirroring an earlier comment in the season after one of his three pointers. Dwight’s a veteran of All-Star weekend, answering everything he’s asked, but sidestepping questions he doesn’t like.

Dwight Howard most resembles a salesman in the way he interacts. He looks people right in the eye, smiles broadly and takes control of conversations. Everything is a performance and the audience is supposed to like him. Like Harden, he’s a player on the wrong side of a public honeymoon. He was a media darling in Orlando where he played for the first eight years of his career, but became a public enemy when he asked for a trade. A move to the Lakers seemingly helped his image slightly, but a disappointing season and an ugly end to his tenure there kept things sour. In Houston he’s gotten out of the limelight a little bit and he’s in a better mood. “I love candy,” he tells someone. It’s hard to imagine him liking anything else.

These two opposite now play on the same team, at complementary positions. The huge center intercepts everything that comes his way and shoves other players around. His power is felt and his presence is known. The crafty shooting guard steps around problems and flirts with disaster every trip down the lane. He doesn’t demand your attention, but he makes you pay if you ignore him. This weekend, however, is not about the pick and roll, the defensive efficiency, the plays drawn up in timeouts.

This weekend is All-Star Weekend, and it’s about stars. Today, two personalities are more important than two games. James and Dwight don’t need to dominate the box score to raise Houston’s chances of winning it all. In fact, for this weekend they don’t have to be NBA players at all. Sure, they’ll play some basketball on Sunday, but that’s not NBA basketball. All they have to do to make the All-Star Game and the All-Star Weekend fun is to be big, be coy, be flirty and loud. The world is watching them, and for once they expect them to be only one thing: themselves.

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