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‘Return of the Beard!’ How will Rockets fans react to James Harden?

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Brooklyn Nets v Houston Rockets Photo by Cato Cataldo/NBAE via Getty Images

On Wednesday night, on national television, James Harden returns to Houston to face his old team, the Houston Rockets, for the first time since forcing a trade to Brooklyn. How will he be greeted by the 3,000 fans expected Wednesday? Like Kevin Durant his first time in Oklahoma City? Like Vince Carter for the first time in Toronto? Both were ugly, OKC more so.

Harden has apologized for “how it went down” in his last days with the Rockets when he was pushing for a trade to Brooklyn, but Harden hasn’t said he regretted his actions. (If you’re looking for a good tick-tock on how it went down, ESPN’s Tim MacMahon has it.)

“The Beard” isn’t talking much about how fans will react. He’s just said he’s “excited” to return to Houston — a place he still calls home — he hopes to be “received with love.”

“The love and the appreciation that I’ve given to that city and that I still give to that city, I’m hoping that the favor can be returned,” Harden told ESPN in a wide-ranging interview.

The 31-year-old won the Most Valuable Player in 2018, along with three scoring titles and two Western Conference finals appearances in H-Town. He finished his time as a Rocket averaging 30 points, eight assists, six rebounds, and two steals in 621 games over a little more than eight seasons.

“(My) time there was great. Obviously, we came up short to win a championship or even a Finals but just the work that I put in, hopefully, those fans will appreciate everything that I’ve done on the court and off the court,” Harden said after Monday’s win against the San Antonio Spurs. “I’m still continuing to do off the court because that’s a place that I call home.

“It’s always home and I feel like I’m still a part of everything and the struggles and everything they go through. I’m excited to go back there and see the familiar faces, see my family, and play a game and the last game before the break.”

Despite being in Brooklyn chasing that elusive first championship, Harden has donated thousands of meals, water, plumbing, and more to help Houston as the city continues to recover from a prolonged winter storm and collapse of its electrical grid. A week ago, Harden said he’d been working hard each day looking for ways to help the city. This is certainly not the first time the 31-year-old superstar has helped Houston as Harden donated $1 million to the Hurricane Harvey relief effort back in 2017.

“I’m literally on phone calls literally every day and all day trying to impact the city because they’ve shown me so much love and respect in the time I was there,” Harden said following the Clippers game. “I call Houston home. It’s devastating obviously and it’s probably worse than the hurricane because we don’t know how many people were affected in not having electricity, not having power, not being able to eat and be outside or whatever the case may be. Obviously, I have a restaurant in Houston that isn’t open yet but we are trying to feed as many people as we can. Lots of water.”

Tilman Fertitta, the owner of the Rockets, told the Houston Chronicle he plans on retiring his No. 13 jersey in the foreseeable future. Despite his growing legacy in Houston, the question remains how the Toyota Center crowd of about 4,500 fans will react following a messy exit with the franchise.

Since being traded, Houston is no longer a contender for anything other than the overall No. 1. Instead, the Rockets enter Wednesday’s game on the bottom of the Western Conference with an 11-22 record and on a 12-game losing streak - the longest active in the league.

“I’m excited just to go back to Houston where I basically had an unbelievable career there,” Harden said. “They showed me mad love and respect. I’m just excited to be playing in front of those fans. Yeah, I’m pretty excited.”

Of course, while the Rockets are struggling out West, Harden is having an MVP caliber season that has included seven triple-doubles and averages of 25.2 points, 11.0 assists, and 7.7 rebounds in 37.2 minutes per game - boosting the Nets to a 23-13 record (2nd in the East).

Harden’s head coach and teammates hope that he’ll get a warm welcome.

When Steve Nash was asked about whether this game to his superstar point guard meant something extra, the Nets coach believes it means a lot to him.

“Yeah I think the Houston game means a lot to James,” Nash said. “(It’s) a very special place for him. He had some unbelievable years, MVP years, and I think going back there is definitely something that is special to him and means a lot.”

Kyrie Irving, who had a similar experience in Cleveland (but not yet Boston), foresees his return as “just greatness on display” and is looking forward to it.

“Seen it all. Been through it all and experienced it all. There is not anything that we can’t power through. That’s the glory of God. We’re excited to play basketball, go back to where James had a great career,” Irving said of Harden’s return. “Looking forward to the experience, looking forward to having fun. It’s going to be highly competitive, a lot of great players, no animosity on the court. Just greatness on display.”

Irving added how there will be no disrespect for Harden in his presence. He is simply excited for his return and to play the game of basketball with him on a ‘special night.’

“Everybody at home, enjoy the game. There will be no tension and no [****]- talking going on, on the court or about James in my presence or anybody else’s presence. We’re coming to Houston to enjoy the game of basketball and play it at a high level on behalf of James and the rest of the guys. We know it’s a special night regardless - going back to where you started at all, or where he made a huge jump in his career. We know what it means for anybody on the outside but internally, we’re just going to have fin and play the game that we love.”

DeAndre Jordan praised Harden’s time in Houston noting his work on the hardwood and his ongoing humanitarian efforts. Jordan also praised Mike D’Antoni, the Nets assistant, who spent four seasons as the Rockets head coach, as he also returns to the Toyota Center for the first time since his decision not to return and instead join Nash on Brooklyn’s staff.

“I think that James did amazing things for the city of Houston and the Rockets organization for the eight years he has here. Mike the same. I think both did a tremendous job having record breaking seasons and deep playoff runs. James had an MVP season here and arguably a couple MVP seasons so I think he did an amazing job being a basketball player and a humanitarian in the city,” Jordan said.

The Nets veteran added how he expects the fans to give Harden some heckling in his return but he and the Nets will have Harden’s back “150 percent.” The same follows with D’Antoni. The end goal for them is to compete and end the first half schedule with a win.

“We know that the fans don’t really care too much about players personal wants. They really care about one organization, which is understandable but we wanted to change his career and that’s fine. Organizations do it all the time but I’m sure there will be some heckling and that’s fine. We are going to come out there, play basketball, and have James’ back 150 percent. Mike the same. We are going to come out here, try to compete, and win a basketball game.”

Despite the uncertainty over the ovation Harden will receive come Wednesday night on the NBA hardwood, his biggest assists will continue to go to Houston - a place he calls home.

“I’ve been there eight years and still reside there in the sense of a house. My plan is to touch as many people as I can,” Harden said. “Whether it’s food, whether it’s water, whether it’s rebuilding their homes, whether it’s making them smile - whatever the case may be, (I’m) just trying to touch thousands and thousands of people in that city because they’ve done that for me. They've shown me and my family that much love. That process is still going on as far as trying to give back to that city. Nothing but love and respect.”