Rockets star James Harden not ready for NBA's return until pandemic has 'calmed down'

Key Points
  • NBA star James Harden, an investor in sports drink company Bodyarmor, says he's "halfway" finished ESPN's The Last Dance documentary, which he's been studying as he awaits the NBA's return.
  • Harden, along with other top athletes on Bodyarmor's endorsement roster, will be featured in a $20 million advertising campaign which will air on May 24.
  • The new campaign will be Bodyarmor's most expensive, and first without the late Kobe Bryant.
James Harden of the Houston Rockets smiles prior to a game against the LA Clippers on March 5, 2020 at the Toyota Center in Houston, Texas.
Bill Baptist | NBAE via Getty Images

As Houston Rockets star James Harden waits for word on the NBA's return, he's spent his time studying another NBA legend's career while working on his latest endorsement deal and keeping in shape for an expected season restart next month.

The Houston Rockets guard told CNBC Wednesday that he's halfway through ESPN's documentary "The Last Dance," which details the last championship run of the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls during the 1997-98 season. Harden said he's slowly dissecting the documentary, analyzing Jordan's competitiveness as he awaits the NBA's return.

"I just can't watch it to watch it," Harden said. "I want to see the ins and out and everything because at the end of the day, I am a competitor and I want to see what those dudes were going through."

The NBA is still on hold after suspending operations on March 11 due to Covid-19. The latest rumblings on the league resuming operations stem from an ESPN report Wednesday that said teams were anticipating the league office to distribute outlines for recalling players in June to prepare for a July restart.

But a person familiar with the league's planning told CNBC the NBA isn't yet prepared to roll out any guidelines aimed at recalling players. The individual spoke on the condition of remaining anonymous as the person isn't authorized to speak publicly.

Asked about the report during the interview with CNBC, Harden said there have been "multiple conversations" between the league and National Basketball Players Association (NBPA). However, he added, "there are so many things that have to be figured out. But the sooner, the better."

Harden said he would play games again without fans, but would feel comfortable returning when the pandemic has "calmed down all the way to a minimum." Los Angeles Lakers forward Jared Dudley also told local reporters on Wednesday if the NBA selects a return in a "bubble" environment, where players remain locked down in hotels throughout the rest of the season, players will not be forced to remain on playing sites.

"I want it to be safe," said Harden when asked about returning. "I want it to be entertaining for the fans and players to get out there and compete. As soon as we can get this ramped up, I'm ready to go. I feel like the majority of the players feel the same way."

Harden said he's been staying in shape by doing a lot of cardio. Texas was one of the first states that eased stay-at-home orders and allowed businesses and public places to reopen. Harden said he's been working out at local parks' basketball courts and keeping track of team matters through Zoom

Harden added he's intrigued with the business angle of "The Last Dance" as it details "all the stuff the world doesn't know that comes with this basketball stuff."

"Players and coaches go through a lot to that probably won't be shown in the public eye, but we have to deal with it and it's effective," he said.

Harden discussed his own business, as he's a stakeholder in sports drink company Bodyarmor. The New York-based company rolled out a new marketing campaign entitled, "Only you can make you better." With a $20 million price tag, the campaign is most expensive in the company's history, according to Bodyarmor founder Mike Repole.

Repole said the campaign is five years' worth of marketing budget total from 2013 to 2018.

"To think we can spend $20 million just on one campaign is amazing," he said, adding Bodyarmor is on pace to reach $1 billion in "retail dollars" this year.

In addition to Harden, the campaign will feature more of the company's most prominent names on its endorsement roster, including Major League Baseball outfielder Mike Trout and WNBA all-star Skylar Diggins-Smith.

The national TV commercial will air on May 24 during "The Match: Champions for Charity" event featuring PGA Tour stars Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. The campaign is also the first without the late Kobe Bryant, an initial investor in Bodyarmor.

A Los Angeles native, Harden dedicated the campaign to Bryant, whose initial $6 million investment in Bodyarmor was last valued at $200 million. Harden called Bryant "his big brother," crediting him for motivating him to start investing.

"We're all doing it for Kobe, a legend who put all his heart, all his passion into the company," Harden said. "Only you can push you to the limit that you've never been. Nobody else can force you to make you want to be better, and that's the kind of approach, the kind of mindset I have."

Bryant, along with his daughter Gianna and seven others died in a Jan. 26 helicopter crash. His stake in the Bodyarmor is now controlled by his widow Vanessa Bryant.

"This is Kobe's business legacy," Repole said. "This is always going to be Kobe's sports drink." 

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