HOUSTON - James Harden is ready. For the music, the weather, the restaurants.
And, yes, he'll work in some basketball as well.
"Houston is a beautiful city," he says.
Harden will be making his NBA All-Star debut when the game and its weekend of festivities come to Houston Feb. 15-17.
In his first season with the Houston Rockets after an October trade from Oklahoma City, Harden has taken to the nation's fourth-largest city. And for those planning a trip to the game, he's set to play travel agent — where to stay, what to eat, things to do.
"There's so much you can do, so if you come it should be a good time," he tells The Associated Press. "There's just so much variety."
And with temperatures expected to be in the high 60s, a visit would be a welcome respite for fans from colder climates.
"That's another reason why Houston is beautiful," he said. "The weather is always nice for the most part."
There's also the throngs of rappers who will descend on the city for a weekend that has become known as much for big-name rap shows and parties as it is for basketball.
"I'm looking forward to seeing everybody from the legends like Jay-Z and Kanye West and Rick Ross, to the newer, young guys like Meek Mill and Wiz Khalifa and even Trinidad James," he said.
The Sunday night game at the Toyota Center ends a weekend of events on the court, including the Rising Stars Challenge for first- and second-year players, slam dunk and 3-point contests and a celebrity basketball game.
"I'm excited to be a first-time All-Star and my first time being in Houston just made it more special," said Harden, who's in his fourth season. "Just to see all the newer guys like myself and all the other first-time All-Stars should be really fun."
After games, Harden often makes the half-mile trip to one of his favourite Houston restaurants, Vic and Anthony's Steakhouse, 1510 Texas St. He likes the Atlantic salmon with Texas tapenade, king crab risotto and Brussels sprouts, but says you can't go wrong with any of the steaks.
"Pretty much everything on the menu is really good," he said. "Nice atmosphere, good people and very good food, so it's a pretty good time."
He's also become a big fan of Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen, a Houston-based Cajun seafood chain with 12 locations throughout the city. Harden likes their Mississippi catfish Opelousas, a dish of blackened catfish with oysters, shrimp and jumbo lump crab meat in lemon garlic butter served over dirty rice.
"That's a big name out here if you're looking for a great seafood place," Harden said. "It's well known out here so a lot of people want to go there, especially out of towners."
Harden doesn't drink, saying he sticks to orange juice. But for those who do, Pappadeaux is known for its rainbow-hued Swamp Thing cocktail, a concoction of raspberry and melon liqueurs layered with frozen hurricane and margarita.
Harden loves the convenience of living downtown and suggests fans travelling to the game find a hotel in the area. When he has friends and family in town they often stay at the Four Seasons, a five-minute walk from the Toyota Center.
After signing a five-year, $80 million contract extension soon after the trade, one of Harden's favourite activities in Houston is shopping. And there's no better place to do it in the city than the Galleria.
The sprawling mall, located about eight miles from downtown at 5085 Westheimer Rd., spans 2.4 million square feet and is home to about 400 shops and restaurants.
"I can do a lot of shopping, and the Galleria mall has everything you need and every store," he said. "I go there like once a week just to get a couple of new things and stay up on my fashion game. The mall is just amazing."
Known for his long and wild beard, Harden describes his style as eclectic and said he doesn't gravitate to any one store or brand.
"I'm unique and different in my own way," he said. "I just go with the flow."
Visitors who are hip-hop fans will have no shortage of things to do at night during All-Star weekend. Harden, who was last season's Sixth Man of the Year and won an Olympic gold medal with the U.S. team in London, likes that the event brings rappers and athletes together.
"As basketball players we listen to a lot of music before the games and we're fans of the rap game, and rappers are fans of basketball players and they like to come see us play," he said. "In a sense, we want to be them and they want to be like us, so All-Star weekend is a chance for all of us to hang out and mingle with each other."
Dozens of parties and concerts featuring everyone from Lil Wayne to Diddy to Young Jeezy and T.I. are planned for the weekend. The sheer volume of events left Harden unable to suggest a single spot to check out.
"There's going to be so much going on, there's going to be so many headline parties and rappers and NBA players hosting parties and things like that," he said. "No matter what party you show up at it's going to be good and it's going to be packed because a lot of people are coming down."
Though Harden wouldn't reveal where he'll be partying, he did share that he listens to rapper Meek Mill's hit song "Dreams and Nightmares" before every game.
The rapper has a concert planned on Feb. 15 at Warehouse Live, 813 St. Emanuel St., less than a mile from the arena. It won't be hard to find Harden if he drops by. The bearded 6-foot-5 baller says he won't just be standing around if you catch him at a party.
"I have rhythm. I wouldn't call myself a dancer, but I go with the flow," he said with a grin. "I'm not just a wallflower. I can move a little bit."
Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau: http://www.visithoustontexas.com/
NBA All-Star Game: http://www.nba.com/allstar2013/
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