I remember the evening of Oct. 28, 2012, as I’m sure most Oklahoma City Thunder fans do. I was mindlessly scrolling through Twitter when I saw it:
“James Harden traded to the Houston Rockets.”
It couldn’t be, right? The Thunder had just run the Western Conference gauntlet to reach the NBA Finals and Harden, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook were just a couple months removed from winning gold medals in the Summer Olympics. The 2012-2013 season was shaping up to be the year of the Thunder, but in an instant, everything seemed much less sure. Almost as if we’d lost something no one could replace.
James Harden was a fan-favorite and for all of the right reasons. He hustled, played defense, hit clutch shots and, for whatever reason, refused to shave. The term “Fear the Beard” became synonymous with the Thunder, as t-shirts and fake beards could be found scattered throughout Chesapeake Arena on any given night. We loved our version of the Big 3 because they were ours, and we took pride in watching them grow up. Letting go of something you love is never easy, but OKC woke up on Oct. 29th to life without James Harden. We weren’t sure things would ever be the same.
To truly understand the heart and mind of a professional sports fan, you must first buy-in to the idea that learning to love again after heartache is a necessary part of life. Management can trade our favorite players, but our loyalty remains with the name on the front of the jersey. We may curse our GM, threaten to root for a different team or claim to “never watch another game,” but we won’t. That’s not how we’re wired. Come tip-off on opening night, we’re standing in the crowd or in front of the television with renewed spirits. Like we’ve learned to love all over again.
That’s where Kevin Martin comes into play.
Watching Martin in Houston, or Sacramento, you really came to realize a couple things. One, the guy can flat-out score the basketball. Two, he looks really weird doing it. Questions about his unorthodox shooting motion, his defense and his willingness to be the third option immediately came to mind. But in all honesty, we never discredited Kevin Martin because he was Kevin Martin. We discredited Kevin Martin because he wasn’t James Harden.
But watching the Thunder jump out to a 39-12 record this season, all the fears about losing a step without Harden have gone away. As he’s averaging more than 15 points per game, Oklahoma City has learned to love everything about Kevin Martin—including his funky jump shot. He hustles, plays defense and when he’s on the bench, he’s smiling and cheering for his teammates. In case you missed it, Martin has officially become one of the guys.
Oklahoma City is a place that, above all else, values people who do their job and do it with all they’ve got. Maybe we didn’t see it as a natural fit, but Martin has quietly slipped into the Thunder rotation and earned our respect, trust and, as many fans hope, a place on our team for years to come.
There will be a time in the future, maybe even the playoffs, when a game will hang in the balance and the Thunder will need a basket. No one on this planet would question Durant or Westbrook taking that shot, but I guarantee OKC fans would never think twice about seeing the ball end up in Kevin Martin’s hands, either. He’s earned that.
So, yeah, maybe beard fear is running rampant in Houston these days, but life without James Harden is a lot less scary than it was a few months ago. We’ve fallen for a clean-shaven player, James. He’s doing your job just fine.
Photo By: Charles Arbogast, AP