76ers star James Harden made a promise to Michigan State student and fan John Hao during an emotional conversation three months ago. Hao sustained severe injuries that paralyzed him from the chest down after an on-campus mass shooting on Feb. 13 that killed three people and left four others wounded.
After sending the 20-year-old a gift package, Harden told Hao on a FaceTime call that he wanted to bring him to a game once he was able to attend. On Sunday, Harden had the opportunity to make good on his word by welcoming the 20-year-old survivor as a guest for Game 4 of the Sixers’ second-round series against the Celtics in Philadelphia.
As Harden went through warm-ups, the 10-time All-Star took a moment to walk over to Hao and embrace him in a heartwarming scene. The pair have reportedly kept in touch since February after the veteran guard gave the young man his number following their video call.
In the aftermath of the Feb. 13 mass shooting, Harden and Hao’s connection provided a warm story for the MSU community and the country. During their initial chat, Harden offered multiple messages of encouragement to Hao and made sure to let him know he was supporting him.
“Everything will work itself out. Just be strong,” Harden told Hao over the phone. “You’re all right. You’ll be all right. I promise you are.”
Needless to say, Sunday’s scene likely provided an uplifting boost for both Hao and Harden, who hopes to help his team pull out a big win in front of Philly’s h crowd and one of his biggest supporters.
Harden learned after the shooting that Hao was a fan of his and donated sneakers, money and then called the student to offer encouragement.
“I know it’s tough right now, just gotta be mentally strong,” Harden said in February in video of the call. “Just think about the positive things and keep pushing. Keep fighting. I got you.”
Harden also kept his promise that Hao could attend a game. The family watched the game from a club box at the Wells Fargo Center.
“When I got injured, he read the news about that, he just came to give us all the support we need,” Hao told The Associated Press. “I’m so appreciative of that.”
Hao said his spirits were strong and he was now a 76ers fan because of Harden.
“He taught me to keep strong,” Hao said.
The shootings at Michigan State happened in February during evening classes at Berkey Hall and nearby at the MSU Union. Students across the vast campus were ordered to shelter in place for four hours — “run, hide, fight” if necessary — while police hunted for Anthony McRae, 43, who eventually killed himself when confronted by police not far from his home in Lansing.
Hao said he doesn’t know what’s next for him and still needs additional treatment. Hao said he was committed to graduating from Michigan State, though he may move back with his parents to China.
“Nobody can guard Joel one-on-one,” Tucker said. “There’s no way. I’m sorry. It’s no disrespect to Horford or anybody else. But I’ve guarded him for a lot of years, and when he’s aggressive and assertive, it’s impossible. And I seen him two, three plays in a row not do that. And we can’t have it. We can’t have it. Not with the season on the line. We can’t have it.”
Fortunately for the 76ers, they had Harden turning back the clock to his own MVP days for the second time in a week. Harden buried a runner to tie Game 4 with 15 seconds to go in regulation, only for Marcus Smart to miss a potential winning 3 at the buzzer. Then in overtime, Harden’s go-ahead 3 came off a terrifically designed out-of-timeout play by Rivers that got Embiid matched up with Jayson Tatum inside, causing Jaylen Brown to react with a double-team that left Harden wide open in the corner
“Just a bad read,” Brown said of his decision to double-team Embiid down low, leaving Harden open for the winning shot. “That’s it. A gamble at the wrong time. Big shot by James Harden, but that’s my fault. I take full accountability. Just a bad read.”
Sunday’s game winner, coupled with his winning 3 in the waning seconds of Game 1, are two of Harden’s three go-ahead field goals in his career with less than 30 seconds remaining in a playoff game.
And while Harden was correct about the stakes at play in the series had Philadelphia lost particularly with Boston heading back home for Tuesday’s Game 5, as well as a potential Game 7 it certainly looked like things were going in that direction. After the 76ers had led by as many as 16, Boston took a five-point lead on Malcolm Brogdon’s 3-pointer with just over two minutes remaining in the fourth quarter.
“Our goal is to go to Boston and win,” Embiid said. “I’ll be better. We just got to go out and find a win and come back here up 3-2.”
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