The students at A.H. Parker High School knew they were gathering in the gym for a pep rally, but it was what they didn’t know that caused them to go wild with excitement.
NBA all-star James Harden made his way onto the court as BBVA Compass and Birmingham Mayor William Bell announced professional basketball will be played in the Magic City next year after more than a decade’s absence.
Harden’s team, the Houston Rockets, will play a preseason game next year against a yet-to-be-named opponent on a yet-to-be-determined date.
While officials want people to get excited about next year’s game, the bearded one was the reason for the enthusiasm at Parker this afternoon.
“This is my first time here in Birmingham, Alabama,” Harden told the Parker students. “The energy in this gym is amazing. That’s what I thrive on. Every single day, I wake up with positive energy and so the energy that I’m feeling today, I want to say thank you guys. The love is definitely felt.”
Harden was joined at the announcement by teammate Nenê and Houston Rockets CEO Tad Brown. Harden said he plans to go back to Houston and tell the Rockets that next year’s game in Birmingham will be special.
“The energy that was in that gym today was unbelievable. I’m sure it’s like that around the entire city,” he said. “It’s exciting that you have fans – especially the first time coming here and I know Nenê feels the same way. I’m going to go back and tell my teammates and coaches that we’re excited to come back here next year. It’s going to be fun. We’ve got to put on a show.”
Bell said Birmingham has long shown support for the NBA and it’s overdue for having a game played here.
“For the past 10 years, we have not had an NBA game to be played in Birmingham, Alabama,” he said. “You’ve had to go to other cities to see an NBA game and to see some of the top stars.”
Bell said it was BBVA Compass, which is based in Birmingham but has a major presence in Houston, that helped bring the Rockets here.
“One of the commitments that I made a long time ago was to showcase Birmingham as a great sports town,” Bell said. “We love more sports than just – I better not say this, University of Alabama football – but we do. We’re a great sports town. We just need to market it and the opportunity for us to work with the Rockets and BBVA Compass was one that we just couldn’t pass up.”
Brown said Birmingham will get to see some of the best players in professional basketball in person.
“You will see James, Nenê, Chris Paul, all of our players here competing at the highest level at NBA basketball,” Brown said. “It was an opportunity. It made a lot of sense. We’ve got a great partnership with BBVA Compass. We always look for opportunities to go to outer market games that are available to us.”
Brown said the team has played preseason games in China and in Rio Grande Valley where it has a NBA G League Farm team. It was the bank’s relationship with the team that made Birmingham an option.
“The partnership with BBVA Compass and the expression of interest by the mayor and the city is really what led us to the opportunity to bring the game,” he said.
Brown said shortly after training camp, the Rockets should be able to announce the team Houston will play in Birmingham next year.
BBVA Compass has been working with Birmingham students through its Summer of Opportunity initiative and the Parker kids thought the assembly was part of that until Harden raised the roof with his presence.
Harden said that’s what it’s all about.
“Kids are everything. They’re the future,” he said. “I’m obviously blessed to be in the position that I am today, but these kids are what drives us. It’s what makes me happy.”
That’s why Harden was the last one to leave the gym and head into a planned press conference – instead taking time to go into the bleachers and celebrate with the students.
“When I get an opportunity to be in a position like that with all of those kids in that one gym, I’m going to take full advantage of it,” he said.