Star Rocket in Flight
With slick television ads promoting his signature Adidas, hip-hop songs dropping his name, a possible MVP award, and the most famous beard since ZZ Top, James Harden has arrived. In fact, he may just be the biggest name in Texas.
When James Harden bounds onto the court an hour before tip-off, the 18,055 red seats inside the Toyota Center, in downtown Houston, are mostly empty. By all rights, there shouldn’t be much buzz tonight. It’s a Tuesday in late January, another game in the middle of an 82-game National Basketball Association season, and one against a middling opponent from the basketball Siberia that is Sacramento. Then there’s the other game in town, the Super Bowl, which will be played in just five days. Yet on this night, the city’s sports fans will be focused, as they have been for most of the season, on basketball, and on the superstar who has made their team relevant again. Every Houston Rockets game—even a midweek January game against the lowly Sacramento Kings, with the rest of the sporting world hyping the Super Bowl—is now a must-see event, because something special might happen. In fact, it probably will.
Harden steps onto the court draped in Rockets red-and-black warm-ups, his trademark beard billowing out from his chin. He takes a bounce pass from a nearby ball boy and begins practicing his array of offensive moves. Even at half speed, what the six-foot-five Harden can do with a basketball is something to behold. Jumping off one foot, the lefty shoots fifteen-footers that gently kiss off the backboard and descend through the net. And then he does an approximation of his lethal jab step, in which he feigns going toward the basket, usually to fool a defender long enough to allow him to step back into a jump shot. One move not on display in the shoot-around is the one he’s helped make famous: the Eurostep, a stuttering, direction-changing drive so named for its international origins.
At the other end of the court, the Kings are doing their own warm-ups. Though the arena is deserted, it isn’t quiet. The thuds of bouncing basketballs mix with the hip-hop blaring over the sound system. Two of the songs name-check Harden. The first is Kanye West’s “Facts,” an anthem to Adidas, which both Kanye and Harden signed deals with in recent years. Next is “Way Back,” by Travis Scott, a native Houstonian with such affinity for the bearded one that he includes the line “James Harden with the range” as part of the track’s hook. A few Kings players mouth the words as they launch three-point shots. Harden, it seems, has become such a cultural star that even his opponents are inadvertently singing his praises.
An hour later, with the arena nearly filled, the teams are ready to play. Harden, as is his pregame custom, slams his body full force into the padded stanchion that supports the basket, then points to his mother, Monja Willis, who attends most home games. The Kings miss the first shot, and Harden grabs the rebound. He immediately whips his head around to catch the Kings napping on defense. This is the Rockets first home game since a ten-day road trip that ended with a lackluster loss in Indiana, and Harden wants a fast start. Sure enough, the Kings are slow getting back down the court, and he lofts the ball to a streaking Clint Capela, who dunks the first points of the game. Harden lets out a cathartic scream. Welcome home.
A few minutes later panic engulfs the crowd when Harden bumps knees with a defender and collapses to the floor directly in front of Willis, who has to leave her seat rather than watch her son writhe in pain. She later tells me she wasn’t surprised that, after a few minutes on the bench, Harden reentered the game. “He’s a fighter,” she says, always been that way.
The home team builds a lead it will never relinquish. With 3:15 left in the third quarter and the Rockets up by 26, Harden is fouled and heads to the free-throw line to shoot two. He makes the first one, and then the chants begin. “MVP! MVP! MVP!” rains down from the cheap seats as Harden swishes the second free throw. It’s a refrain Rockets fans aren’t all that accustomed to. Hakeem Olajuwon was the last Houston player to win the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award—that was 23 years ago—and, not coincidentally, the last one to lead the team to a title. Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady, the team’s more recent stars, were supremely talented but often injured, and they never won an MVP or led their teams deep into the playoffs. Harden could change all that this year. With the help of new coach Mike D’Antoni’s fast-paced offense, he is having by far his best season. His scoring, assists, and rebounding averages are all at career highs. The highly regarded website Basket-
ball-Reference.com has rated Harden the MVP favorite. And he’s led the Rockets, who barely made the playoffs last year, to one of the best records in the league. But one game in particular stands out. On New Year’s Eve, in a victory over the New York Knicks, Harden tallied 53 points, 16 rebounds, and 17 assists. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, no player in NBA history—not Michael Jordan, not Wilt Chamberlain, not LeBron James—has matched what Harden did that night.
The Rockets don’t need that kind of performance against the Kings. It’s a relatively quiet game for Harden. But late in the third quarter, as if on cue, he provides one signature moment. He brings the ball up the court. Just inside the three-point line, he fakes a drive toward the basket and, in a blur of flawless footwork, leaves his defender—himself a world-class athlete at the highest level of his sport—frozen and utterly helpless as Harden steps back, cocks the ball, and releases a perfect eighteen-foot jumper. The Rockets fans collectively gasp. As Harden backpedals on defense, fans look at one another in disbelief at the move they just saw. They’re witnessing greatness.
Harden doesn’t play much the rest of the game. He doesn’t need to, with Houston up by more than twenty and, as he’ll later tell reporters, his knee not really able to bend. On the bench, he sits with two large bags of ice in beige gauze on each knee. After the game, reporters gather in the Rockets’ semicircle-shaped home locker room. One by one, Harden’s supporting cast emerges from the showers, draped in enormous purple towels. But the superstar is nowhere to be found. The reporters are getting anxious. There are tight deadlines to meet, and no story is complete without a quote from Harden. It’s almost 10 p.m., and the locker room is a ghost town. When he finally does appear, the last player out of the showers, Harden sits facing his locker, back turned to the beat writers and TV reporters, who inch closer, waiting for permission to begin asking questions. Splayed around him on the floor are four pairs of his newly released Adidas Harden Vol. 1 sneaker—you may have seen the commercials—each pair a different color. He throws on a moss-green, short-sleeved sweatshirt and a pair of black skinny jeans, a signal to the press to pull out their iPhones, fingers hovering over the record buttons. He slowly laces a pair of psychedelic-patterned low-tops, no doubt acutely aware of the cat-and-mouse game he’s playing with the reporters. They are at his mercy. But first, the finishing touch. Harden procures a purple comb from a cubby atop his locker. He whips it through his world-famous beard, fluffing it up before the cameras roll. Then he remembers something. He jogs back to the shower area and reemerges, his high-and-tight mohawk now covered by a black strapback hat bearing his personal “H” logo. Swaying back and forth, he takes the first question but doesn’t really answer it. “I just feel good to be back at home,” he says.
At 27, Harden has hit the big time. He’s no longer just an excellent basketball player, he is an entertainment brand, with a unique look and a style to match his game. With Tim Duncan’s retirement after last season and Dirk Nowitzki’s career in Dallas winding down and Tony Romo’s departure from the Dallas Cowboys, Harden may just be the hottest sports star in Texas.
Harden grew up in Compton, California. He came of age at the peak of the violent crime and racial tensions that pervaded Los Angeles in the nineties. It was a period in which economic depression, gang activity, and the local drug trade suffocated the community. In his adolescence, Harden sliced the “Jr.” suffix from his name when it became apparent that Harden Sr., a Navy seaman who was in and out of prison on drug charges, would be making only cameo appearances in his life. A single mother, Willis supported the family for many years by working three jobs. She now lives in Houston, twenty minutes from Harden, in a house he bought for her.
When Willis and I met in her private suite at halftime of the Kings game, she told me that basketball had been a major part of her son’s life since he was a toddler. She’d bought him an adjustable Little Tikes basketball net, and she’d watch little James shoot hoops for hours on end from her kitchen window, raising the basket when it got too easy for him.
Taking advantage of California’s open-enrollment policies, she placed Harden at a school, Artesia High, that was outside Compton. Harden went out for the basketball team, and Willis told the Artesia coach, Scott Pera, that her son was to ride the bench if his grades slipped. She also gave the young coach free rein to discipline Harden. “In twenty-six years, I’ve only had two people do that,” says Pera, who later also coached Harden in college as an assistant. “I didn’t know how good he was going to be, but I knew I could coach him harder because I wouldn’t get backlash at home. The only time she got involved was if James tried to complain. She’d call me and get the real story, hang up, and go at him.”
Harden said his mother also pushed him to never stop grinding. “I got my work ethic from her. It’s ‘Don’t stop.’ That’s been my motto since I was a little kid. No matter what situation you’re in, as long as you have that work ethic, you’ll be successful. I took that from her.” When he was in seventh grade, he wrote his mother a letter about what he wanted to do with his life. She still has it today. When he had to choose a name for a limited edition of his Adidas sneaker, he decided, as a tribute to her, to use a phrase from that letter that summed up the ambition she’d instilled in him. It was “Imma Be a Star.”
Harden might not have become a star, or at least as big a star, had he not come to Houston four years ago. In 2009 he was drafted by Oklahoma City out of Arizona State, the third pick that year, and he was immediately thrust into a secondary role behind established stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. He mostly came off the bench, providing scoring for the Thunder’s reserve unit. In Harden’s three seasons in Oklahoma City, the Thunder twice made deep playoff runs, reaching the NBA Finals in 2012. They lost that series to Miami, and in the off-season, with Harden’s rookie contract coming to an end, there was speculation that Harden wanted to find a larger role with another team. Thunder officials—unable to afford contract extensions for all their best players and fearing they would lose Harden for nothing to free agency—traded him to Houston on October 27, three days before the 2012–2013 season.
Rockets general manager Daryl Morey could hardly believe his good fortune. To win championships in the NBA, a team needs a superstar, sometimes more than one. The Rockets felt they had acquired a player with that potential. “The way we looked at the game, he was perfect,” says Morey, who has pioneered the use of analytical statistics in evaluating players. “He was historically good at driving to the basket, better than anyone in the data we had. His ability to get to the rim and get to the [foul] line was really second to none in history.”
In Houston, Harden’s talent was unleashed. He’d been averaging about 16 points per game in Oklahoma City, but in his first season with the Rockets, his scoring average ballooned to nearly 26, and he quickly became known as one of the top offensive playmakers in the league. Defense, though, was another story. When you Google “James Harden defense,” the first result is a six-minute YouTube compilation, titled “James Harden plays no defense (hilarious),” of some of Harden’s most egregious defensive mishaps, including a few instances of his leaving his man wide open under the basket for uncontested layups.
When I asked Harden about it, he said that was the biggest misconception about him: “Last year I had some bad plays, ball watching or whatnot. The focus wasn’t there. You can pull bad clips from anybody and make a highlight tape. Then it’s like”—he adopted a generic critic’s voice—“ ‘He can’t guard.’ Yes, I can guard. I’m a really good defender.”
YouTube clips aside, the numbers reveal that Harden isn’t quite the terrible defensive player he’s made out to be. In real plus-minus, an advanced stat used to measure a player’s impact when he’s on the court, Harden leads the league in offensive output, at just under 7. This means that when Harden is leading the Rockets down the floor, he adds, on average, 7 points to his team’s net scoring margin per 100 possessions. On defense, he is, according to the same metric, worth negative 1.47 points to the Rockets’ net scoring margin. That’s slightly better than fellow star guards like Cleveland’s Kyrie Irving, but nearly a point and a half per 100 possessions worse this season than Westbrook and the Golden State Warriors’ Stephen Curry. Of course, Harden’s prolific offense far outweighs his defensive shortcomings.
But the few flaws in his game have garnered more attention because the Rockets haven’t been a contending team in recent years, and NBA superstars usually shoulder most of the blame if their teams don’t succeed. Last year was particularly trying. The Rockets fired head coach Kevin McHale eleven games into the season, and after finishing 41-41 amid reports of locker-room turmoil, the team was dismissed from the playoffs by Golden State in a first-round series that wasn’t competitive.
Harden called this past season the worst period of his basketball life. For the first time he could remember, he’d dreaded coming in for practice and games. “It was extremely tough, man. All the negative criticism and all that,” he said. “Individually, stats, all-career highs. But it didn’t feel good. That entire year was draining. That’s why I’m so happy now, because I can look back at it and say, ‘I don’t ever want that to happen again. What can we do to make sure that never happens again?’ ”
The Rockets’ hiring of Mike D’Antoni in the off-season, along with several savvy player acquisitions, helped turn things around. Morey’s decision to pair D’Antoni, known as an offensive guru who stresses ball movement and quick shots, with perhaps the most talented offensive player in basketball has turned out to be a masterstroke. D’Antoni’s first major change was to shift Harden from shooting guard to point guard, meaning that he would have the ball in his hands most of the time. It also meant that he would be responsible not just for scoring but for setting up opportunities for his teammates. His own scoring might suffer in favor of a more potent attack. D’Antoni says that when he had the idea to move Harden to point guard, he asked him, “James, do you want to do it?” Harden answered, plainly, “Yeah.” All he wanted to do was win.
That’s the other misconception about Harden. In earlier years he was at times portrayed by critics as a selfish player, a ball hog more concerned with his own scoring than the team’s success. Last year, ESPN produced a documentary about his life. In it, Harden says that he would have come off the bench for the rest of his career if it meant he could have stayed in Oklahoma City and won championships with Durant and Westbrook. “If that line right there doesn’t define who he is, I don’t know what else does,” says Pera, his old high school coach.
Under D’Antoni, the Rockets have become one of the top four teams in the league, and Harden is now leading the NBA in assists, a turn of events that would have seemed laughable to his critics a few years ago. “I thought he’d be a great point guard, but this is better than I even thought,” D’Antoni says. “I thought it would take a while for him to grow into it. Right from the start, he took the ball and he’s gone. I give him free rein.”
Pera isn’t the least bit surprised at how quickly Harden has become one of the best point guards in basketball. (The two have remained close. When Rice University hired Pera as an assistant in 2014, Harden insisted that his former coach live in his garage apartment rather than a hotel. Pera stayed seven weeks.) Pera remembers how easy it was to teach Harden: “All the great players, when you teach them something, they can apply it very quickly. Some kids it takes a while. It could be three days, three weeks, three months—it could be three years. With James it was three minutes.”
D’Antoni couldn’t have created a better player for his up-tempo offensive system in a lab. Initially comparing him to a mash-up of the three most famous stars he’s coached—Bryant, Steve Nash, and Carmelo Anthony—he starts to walk it back. “When you’re one of the best ever, it’s hard to figure out who he reminds me of,” he says. “Nobody was like Steve Nash. Nobody was like Kobe Bryant. Nobody is like James Harden. I’ll take him in one game against anybody. I think he can beat anybody, anytime.”
Just don’t expect Harden to boast about it. Perhaps the only thing harder than guarding Harden on the court is getting him to talk about himself. Willis laughed about a phone call she once received from a Rockets media relations staffer who asked, “Can you make your son talk to me?”
When I sat down with Harden inside a posh suite at the Toyota Center—his right leg stretched across the table, his size 15 black-and-gold sneaker (he’s wearing his signature shoes, the Imma Be a Star ones) almost touching me—I asked how he would prefer to be portrayed by the media. “I don’t really want them to talk about me,” Harden said. I rephrased the question: How would he write about himself after he retires? “That he did it his own way,” he said. “He was his own player, a left-handed, big point guard who just . . .” He sighed. “Nobody plays like him. He did it his way.”
Though Harden says he doesn’t pay attention to his dwindling critics, an Adidas commercial for his sneakers that dropped in November betrays that notion. The minute-long spot asks multiple what-if questions about aspects of Harden’s life. Think It’s a Wonderful Life if George Bailey could break a defender’s ankles before launching a step-back three. “What if I lost my swag? What if I was all defense, no offense?” Harden asks in the ad. “Should we send the Eurostep back to Europe? What if we kept it basic? The same old, same old, same old.” The vanilla alternative universe that the commercial envisions is a nightmare, replete with a bench that doesn’t go bananas after a monster dunk, a school cafeteria rap freestyle session in which teenagers don’t name-drop James Harden, and the bearded wonder himself, being shorn of his trademark facial hair and stripped of the enthralling, stylish way he makes plays.
What he unquestionably does care about is how his team performs. Rockets forward Trevor Ariza says he’s seen growth in Harden’s leadership since the summer. “He’s learning to hold himself accountable for things,” he says. “Everybody struggles with that. It’s hard to see the mistakes that we make. He’s been doing a better job of understanding what he has to do to help our team. If he does that, everybody has to fall in line with that mentality.”
During trying times, Harden has turned to veteran players like Ariza, a one-time NBA champion, for counsel. He also regularly talks with legends like Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler, and Dikembe Mutombo. In all the ways that he can, he’s adopted Houston. “Fans in OKC were just unbelievable,” he said. “But here, being the leader, being the star, they embrace me. When I’m out, they don’t put too much pressure on me. They say, ‘Hi, how ya doing, James?’ and keep it moving. I feel at home. They gave me an opportunity to show who I am. Obviously the Rockets, but also the city.
“I love it here,” he continued. “I want to put my name and my stamp on this city.” He’s acutely aware that unless he wins a championship of his own, he’ll be just another great player who couldn’t finish one in Houston, like Yao, McGrady, and Moses Malone. “I love to see Houston back [as a] top organization in this league. It means a lot. But to bring a title back here . . .” Harden trailed off and set his leg down on the floor and sat up straight. “We’ll set it on fire.”
On January 20, just hours after the United States swore in its 45th president, a crowd gathered in rainy downtown Houston. Many were carrying homemade signs, and they pressed against a row of locked doors, eager to breach the entrance to defend their home against the most vile of sworn domestic enemies, the embodiment of evil. The Golden State Warriors were in town.
At 5:30 a buzzer sounded, the doors swung open, and hundreds of soaked locals poured into the Toyota Center to watch the Rockets take on the top team in basketball. The first thousand or so fans through the doors were handed packages containing neon pink beards and Rockets sunglasses. Soon there were hundreds of mini James Hardens all over the arena.
The game would feature four of the NBA’s best players on the court at one time: Harden and Golden State’s Curry, Durant, and Klay Thompson. On the heels of consecutive Finals appearances—and setting the league record for wins last season—the Warriors suddenly have a nationwide legion of superfans, and the Toyota Center was throbbing with anticipation. It was the latest chance for the Rockets to prove they’re title contenders—and for Harden to square off against Curry and Durant, the winners of the past three MVP awards.
At 5:57 Harden came running out of the tunnel. He headed toward the foul line as a Rockets ball boy fed him a bounce pass in stride. Harden snagged the ball, lifted it above his head, and went airborne for a reverse-layup attempt that clanged off the side of the rim. It was a harbinger of things to come.
There were, of course, flashes of brilliance, like an ankle-breaking crossover that Harden transitioned to a step-back jumper over Thompson as the shot clock expired halfway through the first quarter. Later on, Harden slithered through the lane, using a Eurostep to free himself and then finishing with a left-handed scoop past the gangly Durant’s seven-foot-four-inch wingspan. Both moves were spectacular. The crowd clamored for more, but it didn’t come. The Warriors pulled away in the third quarter and won by 17 points. Durant, Curry, and Thompson combined for 72 points. Harden handed out eleven assists but scored just 17 points on thirteen shots and missed all five of his 3-pointers. It was an off night for Harden, like catching Rachmaninoff during a bout of influenza.
After the game, during a three-minute flurry of questions from reporters in front of his locker, Harden didn’t sag or shrug his shoulders. He wasn’t happy, to be sure, but even after the loss, the Rockets still owned the third-best record in the NBA, trailing only the San Antonio Spurs and the team that had just walloped them. And as Harden had told me during our sit-down, he tries to have a short memory. “I try not to be too hard on myself, because I know how extremely hard I work. I know that I can’t be perfect all the time, and I can’t be great all the time, even though you want to. It’s how you bounce back. When you have a bad day . . .” His eyes widened. “Boom. Don’t compound it. Don’t let two bad days go by. Fix it, change it, get better the next day, and move on.”
So he moved on. He’s still rich (in the first year of a $118 million contract). He still has his own sneaker. He’s still young and he’s still single (not dating Khloe Kardashian anymore). He’s still got the most famous beard on the Gulf Coast since ZZ Top. All tonight’s game showed was that Harden and the Rockets have a ways to go, that the championship he wants may still sit just beyond reach.
After the media scrum ended, Harden dashed out of the locker room wearing a psychedelic-swirl jacket, a black hoodie covering his head. He rejoined his teammates in a holding area near the door to the arena that the players use. It’s also a gathering spot for friends, fans, and reporters. All eyes were on Harden, following his every move, and he clearly knew it. He is ultra aware of his celebrity and seems not entirely comfortable with it. As if by instinct, he tried to shake the eyes tailing him from spot to spot. He’s just as elusive off the court as on it. Slipping among his teammates, he moved toward the exit. He slid right, then left, and, in an instant, he was gone.
Chris O’Connell is a senior editor at the Alcalde, the University of Texas alumni magazine. He lives in Austin.