James Harden drives to the basket against the Atlanta Hawks.
Associated Press/Photo by John Bazemore
James Harden drives to the basket against the Atlanta Hawks.

Is it worth it to be ‘the man’?


In a superstar-driven league like the National Basketball Association it is a big deal when a star player switches teams. Just before this young NBA season began, the Oklahoma City Thunder traded one of their “big three,” James Harden, to the Houston Rockets. Harden is a burgeoning star and was one of the keys to the Thunder having the most wins in the league last season on their way to the NBA Finals, where they lost to the Miami Heat. Harden was also the third wheel on the team, a sub-star instead of the superstar. And on an NBA team, only so many stars get paid the big money and gain the most attention. So Oklahoma City traded him to a team willing to shell out the $85 million Harden’s abilities demand. Now he is “the man” in Houston.

But he is the star on a team with significantly less chance for success. Instead of being in the running for a championship, the Rockets likely will be scrapping just to make the playoffs, unless Harden is truly transcendent. This situation is not unlike what faced Dwight Howard when he played for the Orlando Magic, or LeBron James when he was with the Cleveland Cavaliers. While both of them had some success with mediocre surrounding casts, they were ultimately throttled in their efforts to win a championship. And so both of them orchestrated their way to teams with significantly more talent. Howard joining a quest for a title with Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, and the rest of the Los Angeles Lakers, while “King James” already has his championship ring after winning the NBA championship last spring alongside Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami.

When James and Howard switched teams there were grumblings about their motives. Isn’t it cowardly to join forces with other superstars instead of seeking to be “the man” on a lesser team? No true superstar would be willing to share the spotlight to win a title. Larry Bird and Michael Jordan never would have abandoned their teams to shill for a championship.

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And this brings us back to Harden and other players like him who so wanted the individual notoriety and reputation of stardom that they sacrificed opportunities to contribute to a team that could win an NBA title. While one can question the motivation of LeBron James or Dwight Howard, there is no denying this fact: Championships are irreplaceable either by money or reputation. Just ask Charles Barkley or Karl Malone. When the move for individual status and acclaim requires forsaking the very thing the game is played for—a championship—is it worth it?

We can learn something from watching these men, no matter what our life holds. Each of us “plays” our own game: our job, our family, our ministry. Each of us faces decisions whether to seek glory or seek the true success our position offers in relation to those who surround us. Often these clash with one another. So we must remember, it is never worth it to give up the true value of a job, relationship, or ministry for the sake of personal glory.

Barnabas Piper
Barnabas Piper

Barnabas works for Lifeway Christian Resources and is the author of The Pastor’s Kid: Finding Your Own Faith and Identity and Help My Unbelief: Why Doubt Is Not the Enemy of Faith. He and his wife live in the Nashville area with their two daughters. Follow Barnabas on Twitter @BarnabasPiper.


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