After Russell Westbrook announced he’d tested positive for COVID-19 prior to the Houston Rockets’ departure to Orlando, everyone assumed that James Harden also tested positive for coronavirus. With the quickness we’ve seen it spread, and how close of friends they are, it only made sense. Neither was on the team flight to the Orlando Bubble, both are vital to the team’s success, and both have been finding ways to work out to stay in shape in their time off. Without a formal response to the allegations, Harden’s people put out videos of him working out, in a gym, with shooting trainers.

So, this piece moves forward with one prevailing question; if he wasn’t quarantining due to a positive COVID test, where was James Harden? (Note: James Harden has said he was dealing with a familial issue. If James Harden, or his family, was in quarantine and healing and /or waiting the days out for a number of negative tests than yes, this article is in bad taste… but if that never comes out, this is an important question. Or at least a semi-important question in the scheme of the Houston Rockets and the Orlando Bubble.)

(It may not be a semi-important question in the scheme of the Houston Rockets and the Orlando Bubble, but it definitely is a question people have about the restart.) (It may not have been a question that anyone had before reading this, but if you have read this far, well, then it’s safe to assume you now wonder what he was doing.)

The logical answer is James Harden was dealing with something in his family that, had they just had a couple of days of practice in Houston, he also would have missed practice for without raising any eyebrows. Or, it was something he couldn’t be completely away from. So if practices had been in Houston, maybe he wouldn’t miss them… but flying into the bubble means leaving it behind. Sometimes that’s not simple.

Without Harden, Russell Westbrook practices and scrimmages would not have the same “getting ready to go win a championship” kind of feel. Perhaps, even if it wasn’t directly tied to Westbrook, knowing he’d be late meant Harden didn’t need to rush. When Harden shocked many and arrived, unannounced, the franchise’s mood changed:

Now that Harden is in Orlando, with the intention of practicing with the team immediately, and Russell Westbrook is still not… What could it have been that kept him home for the first few days?

He Ran There as an Homage to an Icon

Running builds mental and physical toughness, both of which are well documented in Gump and Harden

Harden’s weight loss amidst the pandemic was well documented. He ran and worked out in sandpits, he ran hills, he used his home gym. He was, according to social media, in very good shape.

His hair, however, was not.

James Harden’s new workout program was centered on being in great shape to be able to sprint through the Orlando bubble. He just kept running, and running, and running… kind of like American sweetheart Forrest Gump. Gump, a very simple man from Alabama who lived an extraordinary life, at one point in his life decides to just get up and start running. Gump spends from roughly 1976 to 1979 running, literally, from one side of the country to the other.

Harden’s weight-loss regimen and grooming imply that he looks up to Gump. Perhaps, as an homage, Harden has spent the last several days running to Disney World. According to Google Maps, walking from the Toyota Center to the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World would take 15 days, and include a short ferry ride. Accounting for running being faster than walking, the timeline actually plays out fairly well…

Once he’s rested, not only will he be in Disney with the rest of the team, but he’ll be in great shape.

He Was Having Another Jersey Retirement

How many jerseys can he retire in his career?

James Harden really likes jersey retirements. He was thrilled and emotional to see Yao Ming’s jersey retired in 2017. Harden was emotional when Arizona State retired his jersey in 2015. He even, per SportsCenter, sent Wesley Johnson into early retirement, unofficially just to see a jersey go to the rafters.

And then, of course, is the story from a 2017 episode of The Joe Budden Podcast. Jamil “Mal” Clay, shortly after Harden signed his record-setting extension with Houston, alleged that many of those millions of dollars would end up on strip club floors in Houston. Specifically, Clay claimed:

“James has his jersey like hanging from the top. They were doing that because they said James has been going in there spending like [a lot of money], you know what I mean? So they gave him his own jersey hanging from the strip club.”

Now, any jersey retiring ceremony scheduled for this year would have likely been scheduled for July. Harden, like many veteran NBA players, is usually free in July. Scheduling a jersey retirement at another establishment, akin to having your jersey retired with two ball clubs, would have probably been scheduled for this month. While COVID would have cut down on any attendance, it may not have dissuaded the event in its entirety. So maybe that’s where James was?

He Was Waiting for the Food to Get Better

There has been a lot of discussion about the food inside the NBA bubble. The opinions have covered a wide range, with as many opinions on the food as pallets of the players and staff eating it.

But James Harden, even the new skinny James Harden, likes to eat good food. He wasn’t going to show up and eat the random chicken patty that Troy Daniels showed the world on the first night.

The food has, per reports from those on the inside and the social media of players there, gotten better. There have been more options, fresher produce, and more filling meals since the first night. But, it wasn’t until very recently they started adding desserts…. Suspiciously recently.  

Harden, bluntly, has a sweet tooth. He has since he first spoke about his diet in 2016. When discussing cheat meals of sorts, he didn’t go to bacon, cheese, or wine… In his own words, his cheat food is an “ice cream sundae with warm chocolate chip cookies on top.” We’ll call that an “and-one,” as in a dessert and-one-other-dessert.

Harden does understand the importance of nutrition, and his aforementioned weight loss implies he’s “cheating” on his diet less than ever before. But… it’s hard to imagine a full three-months in the NBA bubble without any desserts. Now that the NBA has demonstrated they’re in on the sugar, Harden has arrived.

Harden may never reveal what really caused his delay in coming to Orlando. (Or he may reveal he did, in fact, have coronavirus at some point… which makes this entire exercise wildly inappropriate. My bad, James.) But the question still looms… what caused him to delay coming to Orlando? Was it as simple as a longer trip? A prior engagement? Concern over food? Or could it have been something else?

(It was probably, almost definitely, something else.)

Follow me on Twitter @painsworth512 and check out my podcast “F” in Sports. We’ve got tons of great NBA coverage for you so check out what else the Hoops Department has been up to.
About Author

Parker Ainsworth

Senior NBA Writer, Co-Host of "F" In Sports and The Midweek Midrange. Parker is a hoops head, "retired" football player, and sneaker aficionado. Austinite born in Houston, located in Dallas after a brief stint in LA... Parker is a well-traveled Texan, teacher, and coach. Feel free to contact Parker-

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