- Moses Malone Jr., son of NBA Hall of Famer Moses Malone, has filed a lawsuit against James Harden. The Rockets star will have to prove he had no involvement in a 2016 attack against Malone.
On the court, James Harden clearly has no problem tuning out heckling. One doesn’t become the NBA’s leading scorer without being able to ignore even the most vicious jeers, boos and taunts.
Yet a lawsuit filed in Harris County, Texas, claims that, off the court, Harden is a very different person. Moses Malone Jr. suggests that Harden is so thin-skinned about critical Facebook posts that he’s willing to pay $20,000 to put a hit out on a critic.
Alleged vengeance on account of “Hollywood Harden”
Malone, the 38-year-old son of the late Basketball Hall of Famer Moses Malone, has sued Harden for injuries Malone suffered when he was punched and kicked in the face by a group of armed men outside a Houston strip club on June 25, 2016. Malone says these men also used weapons—which included handguns and assault weapons—to strike him on the head. Further, they forcibly ripped diamond earrings off of Malone’s ear and took other items of jewelry, as well as an iPhone, from him.
Harden was not among these men, who were led by Darian Blount, a 40-year-old strip club bouncer. Malone’s complaint recalls Blount “yelling about the Facebook post that Moses posted regarding James Harden.”
This wasn’t the first time that Malone had received grief over the Facebook post, which he published two days earlier. In the post, Malone criticized Harden for charging a seemingly hefty fee—$249—to participate in Harden’s Houston-based youth basketball camp. Malone’s post particular took issue with Harden’s fee having the effect of excluding underprivileged children from participating.
The actual text of Malone’s Facebook post read: "Don't he make WAY more $ then (sic) Donald Driver???? But, he charging 249$ & the inner city kids have NO CHANCE to go to his camp. Hollywood Harden #Fact."
Malone’s post attracted some attention, with 69 comments and 10 shares. While on the witness stand months later, Malone explained his “Hollywood Harden” remark as follows: "I called him 'Hollywood Harden'— ‘Hollywood’ for being a prima donna, for forgetting where he came from." Malone’s comparison of Harden to Donald Driver reflects the fact that Driver is a Houston native who played 14 seasons in the NFL and also appeared on Dancing with the Stars. Driver’s NFL salaries pale in comparison to those received by the 28-year-old Harden, who earned nearly $90 million in NBA salaries over his first eight seasons and this past summer signed a six-year, $227.9 million “supermax” extension.
Not long after Malone posted, one of Malone’s friends named John Thomas received a phone call from a man known only as “Big Tony.” Big Tony, Malone says, was Harden’s bodyguard. Needless to say, Big Tony, who has since passed away, was none too pleased by Malone’s Facebook post. Big Tony also conveyed that Harden himself was “upset” by the post. Thomas relayed this information to Malone, who initially thought it was a joke.
Malone, however, says he stopped laughing when he received a text from a person whom he says is a “close friend” of Harden. That close friend is a woman by the name of Imaine Molo, who worked at the nearby V Live strip club (which has since closed). According to Malone, Molo’s texts reiterated what Big Tony had earlier claimed: Harden was “upset” about Malone’s Facebook post. Molo suggested that Malone and Harden meet up in person to resolve the matter.
It was at that point, Malone says, that he received another text from Molo that seemed unlike the others. In fact, Malone says the dubious text was “clearly not from Molo.” He said so for a couple of reasons. First, the tone of the text was “aggressive threatening.” Second, the following text from Molo included the statement “you know who that is,” which to Malone implied that two persons were sending texts from Molo’s phone. Malone says it was Harden who sent that aggressive text. According to Malone, Molo was at Harden’s residence at the time of the texting.
Already concerned about his wellbeing, Malone says he became even more suspicious when, minutes later, he received a “random text” from Eric Dillard, better known as “DJ Eric.” A co-worker of Molo at V Live, DJ Eric invited Malone to V Live. It was an invitation that Malone would decline.
The following evening Malone attended a friend’s birthday party. As the party was winding down, the party’s host, Gary Womack a/k/a Deon, invited Malone and his friend John Thomas to V Live, which was open only from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m. Malone agreed and he and Thomas arrived at the entrance to V Live at around 2 a.m.
It was at that time when Blount, the bouncer, approached Malone and confronted him about the Facebook post. According to Malone, Blount then ordered a group of armed men to attack Malone. Malone says he recalls DJ Eric recording the incident on his phone. Malone, bleeding, called 911 for an ambulance.
Meanwhile, Harden was allegedly at V Live “the night of the attack.” In fact, Malone’s friend Thomas saw Harden, Molo, Deon and Blount all “high-fiving” and “celebrating” in the VIP section. As depicted in Malone’s complaint, Thomas even heard DJ Eric make an announcement over the intercom that, in so many words, let the club’s patrons know that Malone had been “taught a lesson” for his “Hollywood Harden” Facebook post. Malone says that Harden was behind all of it and even paid $20,000 for the attack to occur.
Malone’s beating attracted the attention of law enforcement. Blount, along with three other men who partook in the attack, were charged with aggravated robbery with a deadly weapon. Earlier this month, a Harris County jury convicted Blount of aggravated robbery. They didn’t believe Blount’s account, which depicted him as a peacemaker who tried to stop the fight. Blount, facing a potential life sentence, was sentenced to 35 years in prison.
The civil case against Harden and the possibility of a settlement
While Harden’s name is connected to the beating of Malone—Malone was attacked at least in part because of his “Hollywood Harden” Facebook post—law enforcement has found no connection linking Harden to the beating. It seems, from the vantage point of law enforcement, that a small group of Harden fans and perhaps persons who know Harden took offense to Malone’s social media criticism of Harden and sought retribution. Such a narrative, of course, doesn’t establish that Harden himself had anything to do with the attack. Harden’s attorney, well-known Texas lawyer Rusty Hardin (who successfully defended Roger Clemens in the perjury case), has told media that his client had nothing to do with Malone’s attack and that there is no actual evidence to the contrary.
Malone sees it differently. In a civil complaint filed against V Live, Blount, Deon, Molo, DJ Eric and—yes—Harden, Malone contends that this group of defendants conspired to commit an unlawful act against him. Malone’s complaint alleges different theories of negligence and also insists that Harden is responsible for assault. “[T]hrough Darian Blount and his gang,” Malone’s complaint charges, “[Harden] made direct contact with [Malone’s] person by the use of his own person and concealed firearms. The contact caused bodily injury and mental anguish.”
Malone asserts that he has suffered over $1 million in damages. Those damages include severe physical pain and mental anguish, physical impairment, past and future medical expenses and loss of personal property.
Harden clearly has the financial wherewithal to reach an out-of-court settlement with Malone. In a settlement, Malone would drop his lawsuit in exchange for Harden paying him an amount of money that Malone finds acceptable. Given that Harden is intensely focused on his NBA career, a settlement along those lines might be attractive. It would provide closure and remove a distraction that could consume his limited time and harm his image.
But Harden does not seem interested in settling and the case remains on the docket—for now, at least. A trial date has been set for August 6, 2018. If the trial occurs, Harris County District Judge Mike Engelhart is expected to preside over it. If Harden and Malone settle before then, or if the case is otherwise dismissed, the scheduled trial would be canceled.
Harden’s unwillingness to settle could reflect a number of points. One is that, through statements made by his attorney, Harden insists that the allegations are completely bogus. Harden believes that he has been named in the civil lawsuit merely to serve as a “deep pocket”—a party who has the financial wherewithal to pay a sizable judgment and, as a result, becomes the target of an opportunistic plaintiff. Consider Harden’s co-defendants. They include a prison inmate, a closed strip club and three others whose financial backgrounds are not known. If Malone intends to recover a million dollars, getting that money would likely need to come through Harden.
How Harden protects his image and endorsement deals from the lawsuit
Harden’s unwillingness to settle with Malone could also reflect the potential impact of a settlement on his image and marketability. Although a settlement is not an admission of fault, the public sometimes perceives it as such—after all, why pay someone if you didn’t actually do it?
Harden, who two years ago signed a 13-year, $200 million endorsement deal with Adidas and is also the cover athlete on EA Sports’ NBA Live 18, has an image to safeguard. His endorsement deals could be impacted if he is personally associated to an incident in which one of his social media critics was physically assaulted. Those endorsement deals likely contain “morals clauses,” which allow the endorsed company to exit a deal if the player is implicated in a legal controversy. Although Harden reaching an out-of-court settlement would probably not worry his endorsed companies, they would nonetheless monitor how the public and media react to it.
At the same time, Harden may want to avoid a trial. The Rockets and NBA would likely agree. Such a trial could be televised and would no doubt be newsworthy to NBA media and fans—especially in early August when it wouldn’t compete against NBA games and when basketball fans are hungry for news.
Even if Harden is vindicated at the end of a trial, the trial itself might make for unwanted moments. For instance, if Harden testified, he could be asked invasive questions about how he spends his nightlife and the persons with whom he associates.
Alternatively, if Harden goes to trial and is found liable, his punishment would consist of an order to pay some amount of money to Malone. A finding of liability should not be confused with a criminal conviction. A finding of liability only requires the plaintiff establish his case by a preponderance of evidence (which is tantamount to “more likely than not”). This reflects a much lower hurdle of convincing a jury than a criminal conviction, which requires prosecutors establish the case beyond a reasonable doubt. Harden could also appeal the verdict.
It is extremely unlikely that either the Rockets or the NBA would suspend Harden for losing a civil trial. While Article 35 of the league's constitution empowers NBA commissioner Adam Silver to suspend players for any “conduct that does not conform to standards of morality or fair play, that does not comply at all times with all federal, state, and local laws, or that is prejudicial or detrimental to the NBA,” this language has not been invoked in instances of civil liability.
Still, if evidence and testimony surface during a civil trial that are of concern to law enforcement, detectives could look deeper into the incident.
The Crossover will keep you updated on Moses Malone Jr. v. James Harden.
Michael McCann, SI's legal analyst, provides legal and business analysis for The Crossover. He is also the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at the University of New Hampshire School of Law and co-author with Ed O'Bannon of the forthcoming book Court Justice: The Inside Story of My Battle Against the NCAA.