As James Harden prepares to face his former team for the first time since being traded to the Brooklyn Nets, the superstar guard reflected on his eight-year tenure with the Houston Rockets and said that when he enters Houston's Toyota Center on Wednesday night (7:30 ET on ESPN), he hopes to be "received with love."
"The love and the appreciation that I've given to that city and that I still give to that city, I'm hoping that the favor can be returned," Harden told ESPN in a wide-ranging interview.
There were months of tension leading up to the four-team deal on Jan. 13 that sent Harden to Brooklyn, his preferred destination.
In July, Harden rejected a two-year, $103 million contract extension offer from the Rockets, making it clear he felt the franchise's window to compete for a championship had closed. Houston's front office hoped to repair the relationship and convince Harden that the Rockets could still be competitive, but Harden never wavered, reiterating his desire for an exit. As the Rockets began training camp, photos surfaced on social media of Harden partying in Atlanta and Houston.
"I thought I would never leave that franchise," Harden said. "I thought I was going to be in Houston, obviously, for the rest of my career. Things happened. I've got different goals, and I've seen a different vision for myself and my career and my family."
He continued: "Like I said, it doesn't change the fact of how I feel about the city. But it just didn't go as well -- as smooth -- as I planned. The communication between myself and the front office got a little shaky. And now I look back at it and I see these other scenarios, other situations that are happening, specifically around other players that are in Houston, in different sports. And their transition is going very smooth. And I would've hoped for mine to go that smooth, but it didn't. I am where I am now."
Harden added that he is "very, very happy and excited" about the direction the Nets have been trending since his arrival, and he reiterated that he wishes the Rockets franchise the best.
Eventually, the Rockets plan to retire Harden's No. 13 jersey. Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta told the Houston Chronicle, "James Harden will always be a Rocket."
Now, Harden is returning to Houston in the wake of the city -- and its surrounding areas -- being devastated by a winter storm that left millions without electricity or heat as temperatures plunged. The storm caused some families to be without food and others to flee to emergency shelters.
Harden said he has been on the phone every day to aid Houston residents. Through his new restaurant, Thirteen, he sent 3,000 meals to Houstonians. Harden said he has shipped cases of water to the city and is working with plumbers to give assistance to those whose pipes have frozen and burst.
"I feel like I'm a part of the community," Harden said. "Me now being in Brooklyn, it hasn't changed the way I feel about that city and everything it's done for me. So whether it's trying to feed as many people as I can, get water, as much water as I can to the people that need it."
Since coming to Brooklyn, Harden has thrived, averaging 25.1 points, 8.4 rebounds and 11.1 assists for the Nets. Harden has played in 21 total games for Brooklyn and has finished with a triple-double in seven of them. Only Jason Kidd has had more triple-doubles in a single season in Nets history.
"I'm just excited for us, as a whole, to be able to play as many games as we can together because the potential that we have is very, very scary," Harden said. "We're still just doing whatever it takes to come away with wins. ... The potential is going to be scarier when [Durant] gets back. But for right now, we're holding it down, and we're coming together as a team."