To understand and appreciate James Harden, maybe we should begin with the time he was scared to shoot. That would set up a narrative of Harden the Selfless, a team-first, me-last embodiment of on-court benevolence. One problem: You only need a quick YouTube search to blow that image of Harden right up, replacing it with Harden the swaggering and smack-talking alpha dog, come to assert his place among the game's elite.
So perhaps it's best to start with a quote: maybe his GM describing Harden's future as a painter or his college coach likening him to a martial artist. Or maybe Harden can be understood through description (all tricks and angles and grown-man strength) or pop psychology (Harden the self-aware introvert) or by latching onto the first thing nearly everyone notices about him — the beard.
But Harden's too enigmatic to be summed up so neatly. "You can't put him in a box like that," one of his former coaches told me. And after weeks of watching and studying and interviewing, I still can't quite figure out James Harden. He is shy but a natural showman; deferential some games but dominant in others; poised to evolve into a souped-up Manu Ginobili, a left-handed Joe Johnson, or (more likely) a player who defies all natural comparisons. So there is no easy way, no tidy anecdote or string of insights to perfectly encapsulate the NBA's quickest-rising star.
Here is what I do know about the Oklahoma City Thunder's sixth man: His handshake is kind and strong, his words measured and unrevealing. He lacks Kevin Durant's grace and Russell Westbrook's tendency to detonate, but his basketball instincts surpass each of theirs. He is a meticulous self-curator: often quiet but given to self-expression through both his game and his appearance. Despite quotes to the contrary, he does not lack personal ambitions, but he is, by all accounts, a consummate team player.
And here's what else seems clear: For the Thunder to beat the San Antonio Spurs and make the Finals, Harden must improve his play. And if this group of post-adolescent NBA darlings is someday going to reach its dynastic potential, it will be partly because Harden has perfected his role.
Now that we know what to expect — no all-explanatory revelations, just an honest attempt to understand James Harden — let's get to that scared-to-shoot story. It was December 2005, and Artesia High School had just lost its first game of the season, a tournament final against Ohio's Withrow University High School and future Cincinnati Bearcat Yancy Gates. On the flight home to California, Artesia coach Scott Pera walked down the aisle to find his gifted but timid star. A 16-year-old James Harden sat sleeping, or at least trying to sleep, when Pera sat next to him and decreed what needed to be done. "We can't win," he said, "unless you start shooting more." Harden looked up, round-faced and clean-shaven, and digested his coach's words. "I don't want everybody to think I'm a gunner," he told Pera.
By this point, they had a rapport. Harden had arrived at Artesia as just another pretty talented kid in a gym full of pretty talented kids. "He could shoot the corner 3," former teammate Derek Glasser says. "That was it." With Pera's help, Harden had grown into a major Division I prospect — a wing scorer equally comfortable as a shooter or a slasher, he combined strength and vision like no other player in the state.
There had been long afternoons working alone together in the gym, rides home on days when Harden missed the bus, and conversations in Pera's office about the team's present and Harden's future. Then there had been the day when Harden's mother walked her son into Pera's office and issued her own orders: "This is your coach. Whatever he says goes." And now on the plane, Pera's command was clear: Shoot. Lead. Dominate. So Harden nodded, waited for Pera to leave, and then tried to go back to sleep.
They never lost again.
Six and a half years later, Harden stretches out on the floor at Santa Monica High School, just hours before Game 3 of a second-round playoff series against the Lakers. Eight days earlier, he was named the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year. Nine days before that, he played a fist-bumping, bunny-ears-flashing, aloof version of himself in a viral video with Kate Upton. And in the preceding weeks and months, he vaulted up the list of basketball's most popular players, due partly to his play, but also to his kaleidoscopic wardrobe and Brooklyn-meets-backwoods beard.
Harden shoots now — no more problems there. "I never want anyone to think I'm selfish or anything," he says, "but I usually know when to be aggressive." He doesn't mind playing third fiddle to Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook or coming off the bench behind defensive specialist Thabo Sefolosha. He's a top-flight talent playing a supporting actor's part, perhaps the best role player in the league. He is the perfect complement to his more heralded teammates: versatile, efficient, and, when necessary, ruthless. But with the Thunder's top players all younger than 25, Oklahoma City's long-term potential may hinge on how long Harden is willing to keep his current role.
In less than three years, he has become exactly the player the Thunder hoped he would be when they drafted him third overall in 2009. When general manager Sam Presti scouted Harden in college, he was impressed by the way Harden carried his Arizona State teams, but he was even more interested in the personality trait that made Harden reluctant to do so. "It was clear that he didn't always need the ball," Presti says. "He could be effective with or without it. He wouldn't be shouldering everything the way players picked that high are sometimes asked to. He would score but also make plays for other people and find ways to impact the game in other ways."
In high school and college, Harden had accepted the leading role — but only grudgingly. "Coming up, he was always the best player," says Glasser, who played with him at Artesia and Arizona State. "But he never played like he was the best player." Intensely competitive but eager to please, Harden only grew assertive when he realized that everyone — teammates especially — wanted him to. "Sometimes we would all just look at him, and it was kind of like, OK, let's go, buddy! We want to win, so we need you to take over!" Glasser remembers. "Whether he wanted to or not, he had to accept the fact that when the game was on the line, it was up to him. That just comes with the territory."
It's not that Harden was unwilling to dominate, but he was a reactive player who countered opponents rather than imposing his will on them. "James is like a martial artist," Arizona State coach Herb Sendek says. "He uses the force of the game against itself. He doesn't play with predetermined conclusions." On the first game of a northwest road trip his sophomore year at ASU, Harden dropped 36 points on 21 shots in a win over Oregon. Two nights later, against an Oregon State team that trapped and double-teamed him all night, he played the decoy role, and the Sun Devils won again. "After that game," Sendek says, "he was celebrating just as much as anyone. It didn't matter that he had barely scored."1
Though Harden was slotted near the top of most draft boards, Presti's decision to pick him over Tyreke Evans, Ricky Rubio, and Stephen Curry was largely based on fit. Shortly before the draft, Harden sent Presti an e-mail explaining why he thought he belonged in Oklahoma City. "He made it clear that he understood the ethos of the organization," Presti says. "He understood the dynamic of our team, that it wasn't going to be a typical situation for someone drafted that high. Instead of being worried about it, he was motivated by it."2
Yes, Harden wanted to win. Yes, he wanted the chance to play alongside Durant and Westbrook, both of whom he had met and grown friendly with on the AAU circuit. And yes, he liked the culture of the franchise. But as much as anything, he wanted validation of his ability.
"The bottom line in that situation is that he's 19 years old and he's about to be a lottery pick," Pera says, "and he wants to go as high as he can go. He was happy to go no. 3, but if he could have gone no. 2 or no. 1 — even better."3
The Thunder have been fetishized as selfless and pure, all sacrificing their own glory for the sake of the team. And that narrative rings largely true. But we can dispense with the notion that any great player — Harden in particular — is bereft of individual ambition.
"It's about winning first," Harden says at the gym in Santa Monica, "but I want to be an All-Star, All-NBA, get individual awards. I know all that takes hard work and dedication, but yeah, I want that. Of course I do."
He has the Sixth Man Award. This summer he'll get a shot at the Olympics. All-Star appearances seem likely to follow. And perhaps one of these days Harden will finally get some recognition back at Artesia High.
The school's "Hall of Fame" sits tucked in a room right next to the gym, with jerseys and trophies sharing space with water fountains and bathroom doors. Above the fountain hang photos of Ed and Charles O'Bannon, the UCLA national champions and NBA washouts, long Artesia's most famous basketball alumni. Jason Kapono's photo hangs next to the bathroom, while there is no recognition for Renardo Sidney, who passed through Artesia on his way to Mississippi State and eventually, it seems, obscurity. Likewise, the room contains no evidence of Harden's existence, even though a former athletic director calls him the best player in school history.
That's fine by Harden, who — even as a 17-year-old — seemed confident that recognition would follow success. In high school, he walked around the hallways and the court as if he knew the campus was his stage, that eyes were drawn to talent — and he dressed the part. He wore plaid pants and bright sweaters to class, and then he showed up to senior prom rocking Nikes and a sky-blue suit.
So perhaps you could have predicted that someday Harden would be famous for resembling a tall, slender, hipster version of Mr. T. But still, technology coordinator and P.E. teacher Gerry Ellis says, "The first time I saw it, that beard freaked me out. From a marketing standpoint, it's brilliant — everyone knows him by it — but it came as a total surprise."
And therein lies the contradiction with Harden. You can't get two minutes into an interview without hearing how humble, how quiet, how selfless and unassuming he is, but when he takes the court, he looks like an artist turned athlete turned kamikaze, engaged in something resembling both competition and performance art. When the lineup is announced, he gives each starter a personalized greeting, whether a spinning chest-bump or a guns-drawn handshake. The show continues after the game begins, with Harden celebrating 3s, talking trash, and entering the lane with venom. He plays exactly the way you'd expect a bearded and Mohawked man to play, talk of quietness and timidity be damned.
So if he's so shy and unassuming, why does Harden treat the basketball court like a stage? "You're dealing with a person who's so eclectic, so unique, that he just doesn't fit into the natural expectations," says Presti. "There's an artistry to the way he plays the game. He's expressing himself out there. I think someday after basketball is over he's going to realize he has an artistic trait, that he's naturally a great painter or something. You have to have a unique confidence to be who he is."
While on the topic of contradictions, here's another one: If Harden is so wary of taking the spotlight, then where do moments like his shot-for-shot Drew League duel with Kobe Bryant come from?4 What about the way that summer pro-am battle carried over into a night of regular-season jawing with Kobe? And what about Harden's 15-point fourth quarter in Game 4 against Dallas? That game, Harden showed why he may be capable of carrying a team by himself — dominating possession almost every time down the floor, putting a merciless end to the Mavs' attempt at a title defense. That night, it was clear to everyone — from press row to the national TV audience to the players on the court — that Harden wasn't passing to anybody.
Doesn't that particular kind of greatness require a selfish side that no one seems to think Harden has? According to Harden, no. "That's always been part of my game — I don't back down from anybody," he says. "You can still be an unselfish player and have that. That's just about winning."
As a team, the Thunder embody a special kind of selflessness — the kind that rarely includes sharing the ball. Durant, Westbrook, and Harden all get the "selfless" tag because they seem like nice guys and because so many people think you must be a saint to be young and black and rich and living — by choice — in Oklahoma City. But their games (Durant and Westbrook, especially) are not about selfless passing; they're about graciously watching each other take defenders one-on-one. Against a team like the Spurs, who have their own, very different style of unselfish basketball, the contrast is striking. In the fourth quarter of Game 1, when San Antonio erased a nine-point deficit and pulled ahead to beat the Thunder, the Spurs had seven assists while Oklahoma City had one.
At his best, Harden breaks the Thunder out of this pattern. Yes, he can play brilliant one-on-one basketball as the primary scorer and creator of the Thunder's second unit. And yes, his ability to shoot, drive and finish, and read defenses makes him one of the most effective pick-and-roll players in the NBA. But Harden's most crucial role may come near the end of games, when he shares the floor with Durant and Westbrook and becomes the Thunder's best facilitator and uses off-ball screens to remain a scoring threat. "It's really important for them to have someone who can get points but doesn't need to have a lot of possession," a Spurs basketball staffer told me during the second round. On top of this, Harden can carry the team if necessary, like he did in Game 4 against Dallas.
Ellis, the high school P.E. teacher who was close to Harden during his Artesia days, explains: "What happens with James — what's always happened with James — is that he hits a point where he understands, and he gets a look in his eyes, and you know something is about to happen. He knows when it's time. Then everything changes."
Inside Staples Center, just days before the Thunder will eliminate the Lakers and advance to the Conference Finals, Harden sits on the bench and watches the starters take the court. Coach Scott Brooks's decision to start Sefolosha over Harden was sealed over lunch in Oklahoma City last summer, when Harden volunteered for the role, telling Brooks he thought the team would be better off with him on the second unit.
"The biggest advantage to having him come off the bench is that it staggers our scorers," says Thunder forward Nick Collison, who often enters the game at the same time as Harden. "We know that when Kevin or Russ need a rest, we still have someone who can create offense. It's good for the team, but it's also good for James, and he understands that. When he's out there with the second unit, almost every screen is for him. He's always going to be getting touches."
After he arrived in Oklahoma City in 2009, Harden showed immediate promise but played a limited role, mostly used as a shooter and averaging less than 23 minutes and 10 points per game. "Yes, he had a small role, but he maximized that role," says Presti. "He didn't have to have external validation. He focused on what he could control, and that was just digging in and playing that role as best as he could." But soon enough, the external validation came. In February 2011, the Thunder traded Jeff Green, then the team's third-leading scorer, to the Celtics for Kendrick Perkins. While thrilled to get a physical center, the Thunder were also eager to give Harden (and Serge Ibaka) more minutes. "James was next in line, and everybody knew it," says Durant. "He had to change his role in the middle of the season, and that's not easy to do."5
Though he's 22, Harden plays an old man's game. "He wasn't very athletic when he started playing," says Pera, "so he learned how to play the game from the ground level. It was about vision and body positioning and shooting. Everything else came later." Now, everything else includes physical drives to the basket, an underrated first step, crafty finishes near the rim, and an ability to use screens like emergency exits. "I've never played with anyone who's as good at setting his man up for screens," says Collison. "And he can do it on or off the ball."
But let's be frank: Harden isn't playing well in these playoffs. He's shooting 37 percent overall since the start of the Lakers series and only 35 percent on 3-pointers. Typically a competent defender, Harden struggled against Kobe, looking strong enough to guard him in the post but too slow to keep him from driving to the basket. In Game 1 of the Conference Finals, Manu Ginobili (the player to whom Harden is most often compared) outscored him 26-19, and nine of Harden's points came in the game's final two minutes, when the Spurs had pretty much sealed the win.
There was a moment early in the fourth quarter, however, when Harden showed what he can do better than almost any player in the league — use ball screens. Collison came to the top of the key to set a screen for Harden. Often, Collison sets up to allow Harden to drive to his preferred left hand, but sometimes Harden tells him to establish position wide on the opposite side, allowing Harden to set up his defender to the right before bringing the ball back to the left on his way to the rim. On this play, Collison did just that. Harden went right, then took a quick dribble back to the left, as if heading into the lane. Instead, he pulled up with plenty of space to hit a 21-foot jumper. "At his age," Collison says, "there aren't many guys with those kinds of tricks."
Minutes after Game 4 of the Lakers series, both Harden's shyness and his compulsion to perform are on display in the Thunder locker room.
On this night, like most every night, Durant and Westbrook have already retreated to the press room, with its good lighting and HD televisions and audience of Bill Plaschkes and Stephen A. Smiths. But here in the locker room, all eyes are on Harden — even when he's not playing the main stage, the man draws a crowd. He sits at his locker, lacing up studded orange sneakers over bright argyle socks and slipping a button-down over his undershirt. Once he's dressed, the questions begin, and Harden responds to each one with politeness and cliché. He doesn't seem to relish this audience, not the way he relishes the crowd when he's out on the court. Plus, no matter how flamboyant he may be, Harden clearly understands that the most efficient way to play the media game is to reveal little but respond to all.
The scene reminds me of our conversation the previous morning at Santa Monica High School. There, I wanted to know how Harden viewed himself, what he wanted from his career. Next summer, he may become a free agent, but Presti has indicated a desire to keep his four-man nucleus, even if it might push Oklahoma City perilously close to the new collective bargaining agreement's revised luxury tax thresholds. So Harden will have a choice to make: Does he want to keep this current position, to be the talented but subservient backup who knows his role and sticks to it? He has the talent to demand a max deal, and if he accepts one elsewhere, it will come with the accompanying expectations. Does he want to grow into a more fully actualized version of his current self — the ultimate Swiss Army knife sixth man — or does he want to transform into something altogether different, finally accepting an alpha role and alpha contract and all that those entail?
"I'm not worried about that," he said in Santa Monica, in the same way hundreds of athletes have answered that question before him. "I'm just focused on this series and these playoffs."
Hoping for a little more insight, I call up Pera, the man who sat next to Harden on that plane in 2005 and implored him to take control of their team. "I can't predict what he's going to do," Pera said, "but I do think it's about winning championships for him. That's just his makeup. If he can win multiple championships with the Thunder, then definitely, they will have his attention."
And if they're going to win multiple championships they'll need each version of Harden — Harden the reticent boy who sat with Pera on the plane and Harden the swashbuckling star-in-waiting who put the Mavs out of their misery; Harden the introvert and the showman and the painter and the martial artist; Harden the guy who can't easily be explained.
Jordan Conn wrote The Defender: Manute Bol's Journey from Sudan to the NBA and Back Again, a multimedia e-book published by The Atavist. On Twitter, he's @jordanconn.