When James Calls, You Pick Up


It was sometime last summer. Early June, maybe. My phone lights up and I see the name flash on the screen:

James Harden

James and I have been good friends ever since we played together in the McDonald’s All-American game in 2007, but I wasn’t sure why he would be calling me on a random weekday afternoon. I picked up, and before I could even say anything, James started in with:

“Are you signing with us, or what?”

No “Hey, how’s it going?” or anything like that. All business.

He knew I was a free agent, and I guess he didn’t really care that I wouldn’t be able to make a final decision for another month. He told me that he needed a playmaker who could create off the dribble, make plays for others and take some of the load off of his shoulders.

“That’s all you!” he said.

I was definitely intrigued. For years, we’d talked about how fun it would be to play on the same team. I told James I’d think about it.

Almost the second I hung up, my phone lit up again. This time it was Trevor Ariza.

“Are you signing with us, or what?”

It was like a coordinated attack. I was like, Wow, these guys aren’t messing around. Trevor told me how much I’d benefit from the team’s training program — swearing that I’d feel like I was 10 years younger. After he talked about the city for a few minutes, we hung up.

I figured that would be that. But then, around the same time the very next afternoon … buzzzzzzz.

James Harden

And that’s how it went almost every day until the start of free agency on July 1. (I signed with the Rockets shortly after.) James and Trevor, calling me, recruiting me, telling me that I was the missing piece.

They talked my ear off. They threw around words like “playoffs” and “championships.” They told me that we’d be unstoppable on offense, that we’d put up historic numbers. That the Rockets’ game —always moving the ball to the open guy —would be a fun game.

The one thing they never mentioned — not once — was that I would be coming off the bench.

Bill Baptist/NBAE/ Getty Images

Coach D’Antoni’s not gonna play games with you. He’ll give it to you straight.

So when he told me in November that he was taking me out of the starting lineup, all he said was, “I’m moving you to the bench.”

Bam. No leading into the conversation. No softening the blow. Just like that, I’d lost my starting spot. We were 11 games into the season.

I’ve been a starter my whole life, from rec league in the Indianapolis JCC to high school to Indiana to the NBA. Coming off the bench was completely foreign to me.

We’d started the season 6–5, so it was clear something wasn’t working. The ball wasn’t finding energy, as Coach likes to say. Our defense was a step slow on rotations. We were just treading water, and no team can afford to do that in the Western Conference. We had been thinking championship before the season began — but at that point it was looking like we would be lucky to make the playoffs. We needed to make a change. Coach decided my new role was going to be one of them.

I guess I could’ve complained. But then I thought about my younger brothers, and about how, a long time before I ever entered the league, my childhood had prepared me for this moment.

I have two brothers, both younger. We all loved to play basketball. When we were growing up, I had one rule: If my younger brothers wanted to play ball with me, they had to get on my level. That meant always giving 100%, no exceptions. No excuses. No whining.

As we grew up, each of us had developed different styles on the court. We had different skill sets. I was a scorer and a playmaker. I liked to shoot. Evan, who’s two years younger than me, was a bulldog — a hard-nosed defender who did all of the dirty work. Eron, who’s nine years younger than me and currently plays for Seton Hall, was a slasher and a shooter.

The Gordon Family

Our styles varied, but my rule wasn’t about that. I cared about effort, giving it your all in every situation. That mattered over everything else.

My one-on-one games with Evan would be knock-down, drag-out fights. I was older and bigger, so I’d bowl him over when I was driving to the rack. Sometimes he’d sneak in an elbow to my chest while he was backing me down in the post. There’d be scrapes, bruises and bloody noses, and we wouldn’t have had it any other way.

When Eron and I would face off in shooting competitions, I wouldn’t take it easy on him even though he was so much younger than me. If their effort didn’t match mine, I wouldn’t set foot on the court with them.

There’s a lot of responsibility that comes with being the oldest brother in a basketball family. I always wanted to include my brothers, but only if they were willing to work. I knew that none of us would improve if we weren’t consistently giving it our all. As long as they followed my rule, I was happy to give up my own time to help them.

Evan and I were lucky enough to get to play together for a few years in middle school and high school. I probably could have taken a lot more shots on those teams, but I wanted to make sure that Evan got going, too. I was the No. 2 recruit in the nation at that point, as a junior — and shooting a little less and passing a little bit more wasn’t going to hurt my ranking, and it was only going to help Evan.

That’s what basketball’s all about: sacrifice.

Communication, hitting shots, boxing out, closing out on shooters — all of those things are important, but without sacrifice they don’t matter.

So when Coach D’Antoni told me he wanted to try me in a sixth-man role, I immediately thought about my brothers — about what I had tried to instill in them about giving it your all no matter the situation, about giving yourself over to the team. It was my turn to follow my own advice.

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images

For some reason, there’s still a stigma around being a sixth man. Some fans tend to think that being put in that role is a demotion. Maybe they think that a player who’s coming off the bench is past his prime, or that the coach has lost confidence in him.

But that’s not it at all.

Bringing one of your best players off the bench can help your team build a lead or erase a deficit against a weaker second unit.

And I’ve come to really appreciate what it takes to be a great sixth man. Starting the game on the bench gives me the chance to really read the game, and to plan accordingly.

O.K., the Clippers are trying to take away the rim tonight. Gotta be ready to shoot.

Hold up, the refs called that foul on Clint? Well, at least I know I can be aggressive going to the rim.

Once I take into account everything that I learned from watching the game develop — whether the refs are letting things go, or if the defense is loading up on shooters — I know exactly what my approach will be when I get on the floor.

It’s not like I’m doing anything new as a sixth man. I’m still the same player I’ve always been for my entire career, I’m just using my skills differently depending on who’s playing alongside me.

When I’m on the floor with James, he’s going to be handling the ball most of the time. My job is to spread the floor and get open. It’s not a coincidence that a lot of my points, when James and I are on the floor together, come from spot-up opportunities. For example:

Just look at how many defenders James draws on that play. My guy is so focused on stopping James at the rim that he completely forgets about me in the corner. That’s fine by me. And I don’t have to yell or wave my hands, because James has such great vision that I know he’s already seen me standing wide-open in the corner. All I have to do is wait for his pass.

Of course, I know I won’t always be that lucky, and I can’t just stay in the corner every possession. There are times when I have to create my own openings. Check out this play:

James picks up his dribble at the right elbow, and four defenders are immediately focused on him. Omri Casspi is still close enough to me that if James passed the ball to me beyond the arc, he could probably contest the shot. But the majority of Casspi’s attention is on James. He’s only seeing me out of the corner of his eye. That makes my fake all the more effective, and when he bites on it I cut to the rim uncontested, knowing that James will get me the ball right where I need it.

When James goes to the bench, my role changes a bit. A lot of times, second-unit players are energy guys. That’s not a dis — those guys are just as important to our team as a defensive stopper or a lights-out scorer. But sometimes, when it’s me and the second unit, I’ve got to be more of a scorer and a playmaker.

Bill Baptist/NBAE/Getty Images

If I’ve got a lane to the basket, or a wide-open shot, I’ll take it. If my teammates have a better look, then they’re getting the ball. That’s basically how I’ve played my entire career. I’m just doing it a little bit differently this time around. You could even say that I’m doing it better. I’m averaging the second-fewest minutes of my career, but I’m also playing some of the best ball of my career.

All because I gave a bit more of myself to the team.

Yeah, I could have complained when Coach told me I was going to the bench. I could have called my agent and demanded a trade. I could have done a lot of things. But that’s not how I was raised, and that’s not what I taught my brothers.

Look, sacrifice isn’t some sort of burden, it’s more of an opportunity. And when you embrace it, you can help unlock your team’s full potential. That’s what I — that’s what we — have done this year. We’ve all made changes for the good of the team this season, and we’ve never been more dangerous than right now. When Pat got hot in Game 1, we found him. When James was rolling, we let him roll. And when OKC’s entire defense was keyed on him, leaving me wide open, I knew it was only a matter of seconds before he found me.

I’m just happy he called me. Fifty times.