LOS ANGELES — James Harden stepped into the gym and ducked beneath cameras, making his way toward the baseline at King/Drew Magnet High School. Harden had been here before. He’d played at the Drew League, the city’s premier pro-am basketball league, but not since he won the NBA’s MVP award.
So, as he walked toward the training tables to stretch out, fans whipped out their cell phones. Before he played, they had to take a picture, because of course they did. It is 2018.
Last year, Harden played in the Drew League with now Houston Rockets teammate Chris Paul. The goal that day as a member of the LAUNFD team? To put on a show in front of fans and kids. And Harden did that, draining 3-pointers and assisting teammates.
The goal on this day was different.
While the six-time NBA All-Star hoped to dazzle fans and kids alongside Rockets teammate P.J. Tucker, former Rockets guard Bobby Brown and Los Angeles Clippers forward Montrezl Harrell, Harden’s goal centered around beating the team named Birdie’s Revenge that had won 26 straight games.
“When I heard [they had won 26], I’m like, I’m on the way,” P.J. Tucker told Yahoo Sports. “I was like, we gotta get that done.”
NBA MVP James Harden is here at the Drew League. pic.twitter.com/wOaUzeWu0Q
— Alec Lewis (@alec_lewis) July 29, 2018
A little background: The Drew League has set rosters throughout its regular season, but it is a pro-am league, meaning teams can add players throughout the year. Over the years, NBA players have congregated to the league due to its competition and connection with Nike.
Birdie’s Revenge, the team that had won 26, is led by Jayceon “The Game” Taylor, a Los Angeles-based rap artist. The team also boasts NBA player Mike James and the league’s back-to-back most valuable player, Franklin Session.
After he finished stretching out, Harden strutted to midcourt and hugged Session. The smiles between the two MVP’s ended there. Once the ball was tipped, once Harrell slammed a putback a few minutes in, the competition was on.
“We knew it was coming,” said Tracey Mills, the coach of Birdie’s Revenge and former creative collaborator with Kanye West. “We’re all from L.A. We know James.”
Moments after the Harrell dunk, Harden knifed his way into the lane. He was fouled, so he stepped to the line to shoot two free throws. From the crowd, Darrell “Clipper Darrell” Bailey began to chant: “MVP. MVP. MVP.”
— Alec Lewis (@alec_lewis) July 29, 2018
Competition showed in the second quarter, when P.J. Tucker exchanged words with Birdie Revenge’s Marcus Bell. The two had battled on the post, and Bell’s emotions were running high — high enough that he had to be held back.
Ultimately, he was ejected from the game.
“You’ve got guys that want to come out here and compete,” Tucker, who finished with 10 points and 11 rebounds, said. “I love that, though. I love that.”
Harden hoisted a 3-pointer with 5:45 remaining in the first half and twisted his ankle on the way down. He stayed down for seconds, clutching the leg, but he then got up and walked it off. In the final seconds of the first half, he proved he was okay, scoring in Session’s face.
His team led 45-32 at the half.
Thanks to Mike James, who bounced in and out of the NBA last year, Birdie’s Revenge stayed in the game. He had 32 points on seven of 10 from 3-point range. Session, who finished with 23 points and nine assists, dished on a number of those buckets, especially leading up to the fourth.
In the final stanza, though, it was all Harden, Harrell and LAUNFD.
After James drained a 3-pointer from the top of the key to cut the lead to five, Harden dished to Harrell for the jam. The two jogged toward each other at center court, lept and chest-bumped. It was that kind of day — Harden, who finished with 26 points, led LAUNFD to a 91-81 win.
“That was something special,” Harrell told Yahoo Sports. “In this league, to win 26 straight, that’s hard. That was big for them to do that. But that’s something in the past.
Sunday’s win will not show up when fans and analysts discuss Harden’s greatness, but those in Los Angeles will remember it. They’ll remember he hooped locally on a random Sunday. They’ll remember he ended the league record 26-game win streak.
And, maybe more than it all, they’ll remember he stepped out of the gym afterward and into the Southern California sun to sign autographs for kids.
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