OVER THE LINE?

Here's why some fans think the Rockets have gone too far

James Harden returned to Houston on Wednesday night. Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

"James Harden will always be a Houston Rocket" – Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta, Tuesday March 2, 2021.

Really?

Then that must have been some other bearded fellow notching a triple double and leading the Brooklyn Nets to a 132-114 drubbing of the Rockets at Toyota Center, Wednesday March 3, 2021.

What a difference a day doesn't make, as the Rockets fell to their 13th consecutive defeat.

The Rockets played a tribute video for Harden, marking his first visit to Houston since the Rockets traded him, practically at gunpoint, to Brooklyn. On the same day Fertitta bizarrely fantasized that Harden will always be a Rocket, the team owner also announced that the Rockets will retire Harden's No.13.

What is wrong with you, Tilman? You sound like a jilted shnook who goes on the Jerry Springer Show to beg his runaround ex-wife to come back. Harden dumped you, remember? He wanted out of Houston so badly that he turned down your contract offer that would have made him the highest-paid athlete in American sports history.

Don't you recall his farewell comments as a Rocket? The Rockets were "just not good enough. I mean it's just crazy. It's something that I don't think can be fixed."

That's burning down the house on your way out. Not exactly Lou Gehrig's farewell speech, "Today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth," and praising his Yankee manager, teammates and owners.

Sure Harden was a video game scoring machine during his eight years in Houston. But he also chased away teammates. The Rockets never won a conference title with Harden. He stunk up the joint during some playoff games and disappeared in others. Overall, Harden was a spectacular player on a consistently good but never great team. That's his legacy in Houston.

I expected a tribute video for Harden and he probably deserved it. Why not? The Rockets did similar videos for role player Trevor Ariza and Russell Westbrook, who played all of 57 games during his one pandemic-shortened season in Houston and immediately demanded a trade.

A tribute video for Westbrook? What's next, a statue of Moochie Norris outside Toyota Center? Renaming Polk Street … Vassilis Spanoulis Way?

Retiring Harden's number 13 doesn't compare to similarly honored Rockets legends who played their hearts out, brought a title home or loved this team to their last playing breath, like Hakeem Olajuwon (34), Clyde Drexler (22), Calvin Murphy (23), Rudy T (45), Moses Malone (24) and Yao Ming (11).

James Harden crapped all over the Rockets on his way out the door. He was the ultimate prima donna during his time here, moody and mopey, demanding special travel arrangements, alienating teammates and taking playoff losses so hard he almost didn't make it to the strip clubs before closing time.

You know the saying, when the going gets tough, the tough get going. In Harden's case, he got going to Brooklyn. So much for the captain going down with the ship. Wednesday night, Rockets fans greeted Harden with some cheers, but more lusty boos on his return to Houston.

"I gave him a special introduction, like a home team introduction, but there were way more boos than I expected," said Toyota Center public address announcer Matt Thomas.

Harden finished with 29 points, 10 rebounds and 14 assists, a routine triple double for him of late. He controlled the Nets offense and dominated the game.

Of course it was a regular season game. It's what he does.

For those of you scoring at home: the NBA team with the most retired numbers is the Boston Celtics, with 22 jerseys "hanging in the rafters." That's the most of any team in any U.S. pro sport. The New York Yankees are next with 21 retired numbers. The Montreal Canadiens lead the NHL with 15 retired numbers. Not coincidentally, the Celts (17 – tied with Lakers), Yanks (27) and Habs (24) all lead their leagues with the most championships.

The NFL team with the most retired numbers is a strange one. It's the Chicago Bears with 14 jerseys that will never be worn again. The Bears have won nine titles, second to the Green Bay Packers with 13 championships.

Harden's jersey will not be the first "13" hoisted over an NBA court – far from it. Three teams, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Golden State have retired Wilt Chamberlain's No. 13. The Harlem Globetrotters also retired The Stilt's jersey, but I guess they don't count.

The Cavaliers retired Bobby Phills' No. 13 after his fatal car crash. Portland retired Dave Twardzik's jersey. Here's some synergy, the Suns retired Harden's current coach Steve Nash's No. 13. And the Spurs retired the No. 13 jersey of James Silas (no relation to Rockets coach Stephen Silas.

And as Charlie Pallilo – and only Charlie Pallilo – will tell you, the first retired number in North American pro sports history belonged to Ace Bailey of the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Leafs retired his number in 1934 after Bailey suffered a career-ending injury the year before.

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The Astros suffered a heartbreaking loss to the Yankees Thursday. Composite image by Brandon Strange.

After an impressive two-game sweep of the NL-best Mets at home earlier in the week, the Astros took to the road to begin a four-game series with the league-best Yankees on Thursday night. To little surprise, the series started with a bang (no, not a trash can bang) in more ways than one, confirming that this series should be a must-watch this weekend.

New York's comeback proves no lead will be safe

Right from the get-go, the loud Yankee Stadium faithful had their chance to rain boos down on Jose Altuve before showing some pleasure as he led off the series by being hit by a pitch. They were quickly, though only temporarily, quieted as Altuve would come in to score two batters later on a three-run blast by Alex Bregman.

Three-run homers seemed to be a theme, as New York would get one of their own to tie the game off the bat of Giancarlo Stanton to tie the game, then Yordan Alvarez continued his dominant June by pushing the Astros back in front by three with another three-run bomb in the third, making it 6-3. That lead held through to the bottom of the ninth, where instead of holding it, Ryan Pressly issued two walks to set up the fourth homer of the game to tie things again before Aaron Judge would get a walk-off single to complete the impressive comeback.

Not only will we get to sit back and watch the slug-fest between Yordan and Judge this weekend, but it looks like with Alex Bregman swinging well again to round out the top of Houston's order, the Astros may be getting closer to their full power. So far in June, these two teams sit third and fourth in on-base percentage, with the Astros at .351 and the Yankees right behind at .350. That means we should continue to see scoring opportunities on both sides that can tilt momentum one way or the other as these lineups try to battle against the opposing pitcher.

How will the aces fare

Verlander vs. Judge, and Cole vs. Alvarez, need I say more? Although we won't see Justin Verlander go up against Gerrit Cole in the same game in this series (they should go head to head next Thursday, however), they will pitch on back-to-back days, with Houston's ace going Friday night and New York's on Saturday afternoon. Verlander is coming off his worst start of the year, a three and two-thirds inning outing where the White Sox put up seven runs, four earned, against him and knocked him out early to give him his third loss and increased his ERA from 1.94 to 2.30.

The last time he faced the Yankees was in the Bronx in the 2019 playoffs, in ALCS Game 5, where he went seven frames while allowing four runs, all on two homers in the first inning, which is all New York needed to grab the 4-1 victory to make it a 3-2 Houston lead in the series, which the Astros would go on to clinch in Game 6. So, with the double dose of bad taste in his mouth, it will be interesting to see if he can use that as the fuel to get back to the phenomenal form he's had this year or if the Yankees try to jump on him early like they did nearly three years ago.

Cole, meanwhile, is fresh off of two quality starts in a row against the Rays, where he allowed just one run on six hits with nineteen strikeouts over 13.1 innings of work. He's had his share of strife this season, though, including a seven-run shelling by the Twins earlier this month, along with a start in April where he couldn't make it through two innings against the Tigers. He's had success against his former club, most notably a complete-game shutout in Houston last July with twelve K's and holding the Astros to just three hits.

If the series opener was any indication, we are in for the treat of a playoff-caliber matchup, if not a potential ALCS preview that we may see in October. The Yankees showed why they have the best record and are the hottest team in baseball on Thursday night, but the Astros were only a good outing from their closer away from having a relatively lopsided win. The rivalry is real; the competition is close, and we get to enjoy the show.

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