clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Top insiders analyze the curious case of Harden and Michael Rubin’s Sixers relationship

Michael Rubin, the current CEO of Fanatics, was a former minority stake owner of the Sixers. But did his divestment help or hurt dealings in the James Harden contract stalemate? Insiders weigh in.

Michael Rubin’s MLBPA x Fanatics Party Photo by Leon Bennett/Getty Images

As many Sixers fans know, Michael Rubin, current CEO of Fanatics, a merchandising, collectibles, and now gambling-gaming business, used to be a minority stake owner of the Philadelphia 76ers.

He completed his divestment in the company that owns the 76ers and New Jersey Devils, HBSE, back in October 2022, in order to avoid a looming conflict of interest when Fanatics expanded into the world of sports betting and individual player partnerships.

Rubin, 51, was valued at $11.5B by Forbes this year, and as ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski once wrote upon selling his stake mostly to David Adelman (the entrepreneur seeking to build the Sixers new arena in a downtown region of Philly down the line):

“Prior to the Sixers-Brooklyn Nets trade involving guard James Harden in February, Rubin drew the scrutiny of NBA rivals because of his close relationship with Harden. Rubin can now enter outside financial partnerships with players that were disallowed because he was a part-owner of the teams, an avenue that could prove beneficial to the Sixers as they work to re-sign Harden.”

Remember those happier days?

Many fans, and apparently as Woj writes NBA rivals, wondered if Rubin’s reportedly close relationship with Harden played a factor in the 10-time All-Star requesting a trade from Brooklyn to land himself in Philly. And as Woj wrote intriguingly, perhaps Rubin no longer being a member of the Sixers org. might have once “proven beneficial” as the team looked to re-sign The Beard down the line (many of us expected this to happen by Summer of 2022):

But that long-term deal never came and Harden is away from the team with the season now days away.

And some insiders have been talking about Rubin’s role (or lack thereof, depending on who you listen to) in the current Harden stalemate.

Let’s start with Zach Lowe and Ramona Shelburne, both senior writers at ESPN. Back in September, Lowe hosted Shelburne to chat about the Harden sitch. Here’s what Shelburne noted:

Shelburne: “ very important thing that I should mention I didn’t write deeply about it in [a recent] story, but I think it matters: Michael Rubin was a minority partner in the Sixers and is obviously a very good friend of James Harden’s. He was not involved this year, like he sold his stake in the when you lose that connective tissue, when you lose that person who smoothes things out, who has the relationship with the star? It comes down to the other person who has the relationship with the star, right? And that would be Daryl Morey, which is who all of the anger seems to be focused on, Daryl.”

So while Woj predicted that Rubin’s leaving the team might help the Sixers negotiate with Harden, Shelburne kinda makes it sound as if it played out the opposite way, doesn’t she?

But then things get...especially #Sixers.

A couple of weeks after Ramona’s two cents, Sixers guard Patrick Beverley hosted Rubin with co-host Rone and asked the CEO if he were still an owner with the Sixers, would things have played out any differently regarding Harden’s current ordeal.

Rubin sure didn’t sugarcoat much in his response:

“It wouldn’t have happened. I mean look, everyone knows, James [Harden] is family to me.... the two people I’m closest with in the NBA is [Embiid] and [Harden]... I love James, this thing is breaking my heart. I have huge respect for [current owner] Josh Harris, I’m very close with Josh, this thing was just not handled well... it’s a little messy. I’d say James is a really good basketball player and it’s not the outcome that I would have wanted to happen.... When I run my business... I always say when I run my job at Fanatics is bring people together, have the right strategy, and stop dumb shit from happening. Like that is one of my key jobs, stopping dumb shit from happening, and y’know, I put this one in the dumb shit category.... I don’t want to speak for [James] but you wouldn’t see him reacting the way he was if he didn’t feel he hadn’t been treated appropriately.”

It’s interesting that Rubin kinda sorta calls out his former co-owner in Josh Harris for overseeing some “dumb shit.” Burn. Harris, obviously, had the say in what Harden’s deal would look like the past two summers (e.g. if Harris, the man cuttin’ the checks, didn’t want Harden to get a max in Philly, he was never getting a max regardless of what Morey or Embiid might have wanted).

And in a later pod, ESPN’s Lowe actually reacted to Rubin’s words on this episode of The Lowe Post:

“It sure sounds like to me like that the former minority owner of this Philadelphia 76ers also, very close friend of James Harden, is coming out and saying the current brass of the Philadelphia 76ers handled this poorly and maybe if he had still been there, James Harden would’ve just gotten paid and this would’ve been over.”

Now, it’s certainly possible Rubin is straight up criticizing Josh Harris and adjacently, Daryl Morey’s handling of this. That would be the “straight-up read.” It truly sounds (from the rest of the pod) like Rubin would certainly have advocated paying Harden a long-term deal, as Lowe sniffs out.

But would that outcome be better or worse for the team overall? Harden was eligible for a four-year max deal back in July before he opted into his $35.6M player option and asked to be traded. How would Embiid feel if Harden were basically signed through his age 37-season without much room for team growth beyond Tyrese Maxey’s development and whatever Nick Nurse can bring to the table?

Lowe described Rubin as “massively influential when he was [a minority owner of the Sixers].” So if Rubin’s company Fanatics never got into online gambling and Rubin stuck around, would Harden have landed the type of deal that looks more like the one Fred VanVleet got from the Rockets (three years, $130M)?

You’ll recall that the Sixers didn’t really want a Daryl Morey-caliber team President back in 2018 when they were seeking to replace the since disgraced Bryan Colangelo. Horrifyingly, we would read things like the “76ers want GM who’ll collaborate with minority owner, others on decisions.”

While we’re rounding up these Rubin nuggets, let’s hop back in time to the inaugural PHLY Sixers pod hosted by Derek Bodner and Kyle Neubeck.

At one point, Neubeck references an anecdote in a feature about Rubin from Vanity Fair that reads: “I’m a maniac when I’m drunk,” [Rubin] offered, recalling how [Patriots owner Robert] Kraft once FaceTimed him at 10:30 a.m. “I was still in the casino with James Harden and [Lil] Baby.”

Neubeck wondered if Rubin might not have been blurring the lines a bit with Sixers players with his relationships, some images wildly available on the mogul’s social media page:

“You want to be on good terms with the boss, or maybe a former boss, people around the team....but I do think you’re probably taking the owner-player and boss-employee relationship a bit too far if you’re on the casino floor ‘til 10:30 a.m. and maybe that kinda explains a little bit of why James Harden feels the way he does that he can demand whatever he wants....”

Bodner adds that Morey’s mere presence, having been Harden’s “chief enabler” for so many years going back to Houston, may have played a part here in falsely setting Harden’s expectations as well as Rubin.


Here’s a generous read for Rubin from the Podosphere. How about something like this: the team critically leveraged Rubin’s relationship with Harden to make lemons out of lemonade as the 2022 Trade Deadline approached, and without that key assist, they might still be stuck with Ben Simmons or the next package on the table at the time.

Further, the team relied on Rubin and Morey’s relationships to get Harden to defer the long-term money he wanted, for at least one year to make room for P.J. Tucker and Danuel House Jr. Sure, they didn’t get the results they wanted but it was worth a shot, and they still might get value for Harden via trade if they cannot convince him to ball out in Philly. Rubin might well have been instrumental in gaining those opportunities.

Then another spin might go something like so: Rubin was once “massively influential” before Morey joined the team, so if he was still here he may have actually helped facilitate a long-term deal for his close friend, for better or for worse. That might take your “gap year” scenario off the table with Harden locked in, but it sure places a lot of long-term money on one aging guard. Also, is Rubin even unbiased enough to lend a credible opinion on the matter?

Shelburne appears to be hinting at that last idea, that Rubin would have “helped” with his connective tissue and relationship skills. So if you don’t prefer Harden being here on a long-term big-money deal, maybe you feel relieved Rubin is no longer part of the Sixers org.

After all, you might tell yourself, during a point in time about four or five years ago, the Sixers were literally one of the worst-run franchises in the NBA, squandering Sam Hinkie’s pick and talent haul at an unfathomable rate at the same time Rubin had a major voice within the org.

How hard did Rubin resist the idea of ownership’s decision to not gun for an experienced GM when they hired Brett Brown as Interim GM (eventually letting Mikal Bridges escape their grasp) or later hired an inexperienced GM in Elton Brand? Like Josh Harris, Rubin seems to have exerted true influence in running an NBA basketball team making, high-end decisions (around the same time the Sixers traded Jimmy Butler to the Miami Heat, or offering Al Horford, Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris and Doc Rivers megadeals in Philly).

Like Shelburne or even Rubin himself hints, maybe Harden would have landed a megadeal too had Rubin never sold his Sixers stock.

Then there’s a 3-D chess read, where Rubin texts his Billionaire Bud Josh Harris and says something like “bruh, I’m still partnered with my boys James and Joel, both investors in Mitchell & Ness falling under our Fanatics umbrella, so I’m gonna have to stick up for my partners and say you guys f—d up the James contract thing on that PatBev pod today, is that cool?

Or something.

I don’t know. But depending on where you stand with regard to Harden being on a one-year deal, seeking trade, and feeling disgruntled, maybe you think it’s a good or bad thing that Rubin no longer co-owns this team. They do lose some “connective tissue,” but maybe they’ll be better off for it since nobody was pushing to sign Harden to a deal that might have paid him north of $50M by his age 37 season.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for the Liberty Ballers Daily Roundup newsletter!

A daily roundup of Philadelphia 76ers news from Liberty Ballers