Audubon Middle School sits about 20 minutes southwest of downtown Los Angeles, inconspicuously located between Marina Del Rey and the campus of USC. There, students in grades six through eight are required to abide by a school dress code: gray uniform pants, white collared shirt. It’s at Audubon that Camilo Valencia first noticed a fellow sixth-grader who, like himself, always had a basketball in his hands. But whereas most kids wore Dickies and Polos, this kid wore gray sweatpants and a white t-shirt. He was chubby, his cornrows were messy and he wore the same sneakers every day. His name was James Harden.
“James was never like, the handsome guy. He was always like the Black Swan of the bunch. Definitely not the best-dressed,” Valencia says. “All the kids used to make fun of him. He wasn’t fat, but he was a bit on the chubby side. Not athletic at all. But everyone knew him. He wasn’t the most popular, but everyone knew who he was.”
“Sometimes his braids would be half-done, and the other half not, with the ’fro. We were in L.A., so that’s how it was,” remembers Lorenzo “Zo” McCloud, another childhood friend. Zo, a year younger than the other two, eventually followed Harden and Valencia to a small local travel team, the L.A. City Wildcats, and then to Artesia High School. Bonded by the game of basketball, the three became inseparable. They’d spend the night at each other’s houses and talk about making it to the NBA. They shared long car rides listening to Jadakiss. James’ mother, Monja Willis, would cook for them after school, or Zo’s mom would buy them McDonald’s between practices.
“Everywhere we’d go,” Harden says, “we’d just want to hoop.”
In junior high, Harden camped out in the corner and shot three-pointers, almost exclusively. But to the surprise of his boys, he made Artesia’s varsity team as a 6-foot, 150-pound freshman. “Me and a couple other guys were the nice-looking kids. We’d play games with a headband on—we were the flashier players,” says Valencia, who eventually joined his best friend on varsity as a junior. “But James had a more poised game. He never got sped up, he always stayed at his pace.”
Harden seasoned his game on the summer circuit. After showing up at ABCD Camp before his junior year in 2005 a fish out of water, uncomfortable at first with the me-first style of play that often clogs things up at such HS All-Star summer camps, he got acclimated and he got busy. “The year he came back from ABCD Camp, he came back a whole ’nother player in the summer,” says McCloud. “He came back like a whole ’nother dude. That’s when I noticed like, Damn, he’s on another level.”
His averages hovering around 19 points, 8 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game, Harden led Artesia to back-to-back California state titles in his junior and senior years. In between, he earned a rep on the summer circuit. An ABCD All-Star, Harden also piloted his Pump-N-Run Elite AAU team to the 2006 Las Vegas adidas Super 64 championship, leveling competition like Michael Beasley’s DC Assault and Kevin Love’s Southern California All-Stars along the way.
A two-year stop at Arizona State, a trip to the Finals with OKC and one blockbuster trade later, Harden is the leading man on a team that finished second in the vaunted Western Conference last season. His beard has its own Twitter account. And he can scream “Swag!” at 3 a.m. out the passenger side of an SUV with tinted windows in Hollywood because fuck it, life is good.
About an hour before a mostly meaningless mid-October home pre-season game against the Pelicans, some 30 rabid Rockets fans have assembled near where the home team’s locker room lets out to the court, hoping to get some attention from their favorite superstar. When he appears, Harden signs autographs for as many of them as he can reach. One kid wearing his No. 13 jersey even takes a shoe off his foot and hangs it over the railing—without hesitation, Harden scribbles his insignia and tosses it back.
When Harden’s fans are satisfied, he begins his pre-game shooting routine. Right away, he seems a little upset. Upset, as in, he’s shooting about 75 percent instead of 100. Even so, it’s a dazzling display—a kind of “Around the World” utopia. He floats from one side of the court to the other, stopping to hoist five or six shots from each of a half-dozen spots. When he gets to the left side of the floor, Harden breaks the monotony with some creativity, planting off his right foot, jumping back, dropping the ball between his legs and flicking a floater up from the baseline off one foot. Swish. His incredibly acute dexterity even when it looks so damn awkward conjures thoughts of Dirk Nowitzki. But the way he rocks the ball back and forth, toying with defenders, it almost makes you want to utter Rafer Alston’s name, too. All that, plus he’s left-handed with prototypical shooting guard size (6-5, 220) and he’s averaged 10 free throws (aka 10 free points) per game over the last three seasons, too.
On this night, about a week before the real games begin, Harden coasts to 20 points against NOLA, watching much of the fourth quarter of Houston’s blowout win from the bench. During one timeout, he tosses t-shirts into the crowd. Later, he jumps out of his seat to break out his signature cooking dance after Jason Terry drains a three.
The next day, Harden is on the set of an adidas TV commercial shoot at the Jerabeck Activity and Athletic Center at nearby University of St. Thomas, a Catholic school in the NAIA. The tiny campus is sleepy, save for the flurry of commotion in the gym, where bits of Drake and Future’s “Jumpman” boom out loudly each time a production assistant hurls open the metal doors. Harden didn’t make today’s playlist, but he may as well have. He mentions the #WATTBA collaborators along with Meek Mill, J. Cole and Nipsey Hussle as the most-played music in his iTunes.
As more than a dozen extras bomb threes and crack jokes during a break from filming, Harden walks from the basketball court through a narrow hallway at the south end of the gym and into a racquetball court that’s being used as a makeshift green room. Valencia gives a nod from his seat in a barber’s chair, where he’s getting a quick shape-up. Troy Payne, another longtime friend, leans against the wall next to Rob Pelinka, Harden’s agent (who also reps Kobe Bryant, among others). Aside from a small woven basket with a few snacks, two folding chairs and a clothes rack draped in more adidas gear, it’s empty. So when Harden speaks, his voice echoes through the room. He’s wearing an all-white pair of adidas Crazylight Boost 2015s, white compression tights down to his calves and a white and silver hoodie with t-shirt length cutoff sleeves. He slides his chair back a few feet, sits down and leans forward. He’s shuffling three different iPhones in his hands. If he’s overly fidgety, there’s good reason. Harden is eager, in his own words, to “get that bad taste out of my mouth from last year.”
“I feel like this year we can really win a Championship, and I’m not just talkin’,” he says of this year’s Rockets squad. “Last year, we had some really good pieces, we had a couple injuries that slowed us down. But we basically brought the same team back and added Ty Lawson, who’s another playmaker, which we struggled with in the postseason. That right there gives us more versatility, gives us better opportunities, better efficiency on offense, which is gonna help our defense out. We’ve got more depth off the bench. So we’re fully loaded. We just gotta stay healthy—that’s the main key.”
Multiple times per game during Houston home games, Dwight Howard’s voice bellows throughout the arena in a team video on the Jumbotron: “I don’t think we all came together just to make the Western Conference finals.” At every turn, it’s clear that Harden and the Rockets aren’t satisfied with the way last season ended—with their superstar guard dribbling the ball off his foot and out of bounds in a fatal Game 5 loss of the Western finals against the Warriors. After carrying the Howard-less Rockets deeper than anyone expected them to go, Harden had a total of 12 turnovers that night, and Houston was eliminated.
Looking back, Harden shrugs it off. “It’s over. We lost in the Finals and I didn’t dwell on that,” Harden says, referencing his 2012 Finals appearance with the Oklahoma City Thunder. “Then the next year I’m here in Houston. So I can’t worry about that. I had to worry about my new role and things that I had to. The summer right after you lose, it hurts. But then it’s time for you to get better and get ready for next year.
“A lot of people didn’t think we’d make it to the Western Conference finals, right? We’re not worried about what other people say or where we’re projected,” Harden continues, as he kicks off his shoes and begins unfurling his socks. “We’re not worried about that. That’s just people talking on what they think that’s gonna happen. But for us, we’re worried how can we get better and reach our potential.”
Last season, Harden posted 27.4 points, 7 assists and 5.7 rebounds a night, and he managed to maintain his efficiency despite being one of the highest usage players in the League. In 2014-15, he was the only player in the NBA to post an offensive rating over 115 and use at least 30 percent of his team’s possessions. In the last decade, LeBron and KD are the only other players to have accomplished that feat. And through the first two weeks of the 2015-16 season, Harden was already averaging career-highs in points (29.7), rebounds (5.9) and unsurprisingly, minutes (39.4, tops in the entire League). He hung 43 and 46 on the Kings and Clippers in back-to-back Rockets wins in November. Of course, for a team that won 56 games last year, no one’s getting excited until June. All offseason long, Harden asked for one thing from his teammates.
“Toughness,” says Lawson, the speedy PG whom Houston brought in to help Harden see more time off the ball in 2015-16. “We don’t want to get punked. On the offensive end or the defensive end. Just on the basketball court, period. You’ve got to be tough when you’re playing this game, when you’re down in the Finals or the Playoffs. You’ve got to be mentally tough to get through it, that’s what he’s tried to instill in everybody.”
It’s not difficult to trace the genesis of Harden’s mental toughness. When you grow up in Compton, CA, there’s only one place to really earn your stripes on the basketball court—the famed Drew League. Founded in 1973, the South Central L.A. league is the West Coast’s answer to Rucker Park (though at present, it almost inarguably has surpassed the Harlem park in cache). The first time Harden played there, he was, in Drew League terms, just a kid. To veterans of L.A.’s best summer league, he was nothing more than an anonymous high schooler.
“I was impressed with him, but to be honest with you, I wasn’t like, Wow, this is a can’t-miss guy!” says Dino Smiley, Director and Commissioner of the Drew League for 30 years. “I’ve seen them all come through the L.A. area, from Baron Davis to Paul Pierce. He didn’t have that ‘it’ factor then.”
Even after he starred at ASU and went No. 3 overall in the 2009 NBA Draft to Oklahoma City, Harden was afforded no special treatment at the Drew. That all changed during the 2011 lockout, when the NBA’s absence led to legendary exhibition showdowns across the country. The best was a surprise matchup between Harden and Bryant, the player he idolized growing up, at a packed-out Colonel Leon H. Washington Park. The crowd was so out of control, police helicopters began to hover above the gym. Here was Kobe in his prime, in East L.A., looking for a game. Harden stepped up and gave him 47 (or 44, depending on who you ask). Kobe went for 45 and the game-winner, but suddenly Harden had solidified his star status. A few months later, the lockout settled, he helped OKC beat the Lakers in a second-round Playoff series en route to the NBA Finals.
“I honestly feel that the Drew League has played a part of his style of play,” says Smiley. “Because the Drew League is a very physical league. It’s not dirty, but it’s just—you have to earn it. When guys step on the floor, they’re not in awe of James, or anything. They wanna go at him. And I think he takes that same attitude on the floor. His eyes didn’t get big when he first ran into LeBron and all these guys. He just wanted to go at them.”
More than anywhere else, basketball-wise, Harden is at home in the Drew League. There are no analytics, no trolls complaining about his penchant for drawing fouls. It’s put up or shut up. Get buckets or get booed. Just the way he likes it.
“That’s how I grew up. We’re basically in the hood. You have to prove yourself then,” says Harden, who won his first Drew League title this summer, outdueling Klay Thompson’s team in the first round of the playoffs, then leading LAUNFD past Nick Young and DeMar DeRozan in the finals on a game-winning three as Kevin Durant, Paul Pierce and Iggy Azalea sat courtside. “I’m not worried about having to prove myself because that’s how I grew up. For me, it’s just going out there and doing what I do. That’s how I was raised. That’s one of the reasons I still play in the Drew League, even though it’s my seventh year in the NBA. Because I will never forget where I came from and how I was raised to play the game. I always had to fight for what I got, I’ve always had to go get what I wanted. That’s gonna stay with me ’til I’m done with the game.
“It’s like the same mentality we have, though,” says McCloud. “When we didn’t have nothing to now. I think that’s why he’s still prospering. He didn’t change. He don’t change. His mentality is a hard worker, and it’s still there. Nothing’s changed with that.”
Beyond the fact that Harden is a cold killer between the lines, he’s also became a part of the League’s culture itself. It was Harden who convinced KD to play at the Drew in 2013. And these days, of the Drew League’s NBA regulars, Harden is by far the most celebrated. Smiley says even as a pro, before 2011 he would get recognized by the local cats, but generally James could “walk in the door by himself.”
That summer, Harden was still able to hit up his normal neighborhood spots, like Roscoe’s, and not get mobbed. This summer? It was bedlam every time he was in the zip code. “It was like a show in Vegas, man,” he says.
Harden has taken to his new stratosphere of celebrity with zest in spite of the burden it brings with it. “At first, he didn’t have paparazzi, it was just people coming up for pictures and things, but now he’s got paparazzi,” says Valencia with a laugh. “You know you made it, you doing something big, if the paparazzi is following you.”
When Harden travels internationally, hundreds of fans wait at his arrival gate. While on vacation in Australia this summer, one dude wound up stalking him for an entire afternoon, tailing Harden in a taxi everywhere he went. Then again, as Zo points out, “You can’t hide the beard.”
Perhaps the only thing harder to hide than Harden’s facial hair is his confidence. Does he think he should have won MVP last year over Stephen Curry? Yes. Does he think he’s the best player in the NBA? Yes. He’s repeated these things over and over. Like Kanye, or Donald Trump—whose private plane Harden once insisted on taking a selfie in front of for motivation—Harden refuses to bite his tongue, even if he knows the media is fishing for juicy headlines.
“It’s always been who I am. I’m not shy at all. Speaking my mind, being who I am, wearing what I want to wear, just being very confident in myself,” Harden maintains. “If you’re not confident in yourself, you’re not going to get anywhere in life.”
Abe Schwadron is the Managing Editor at numberFire and a former Senior Editor at SLAM.
Follow him on Twitter @abe_squad.