Driver’s Ed


by Maurice Bobb / @ReeseReport

The clock struck noon on a Monday, signaling practice’s end. Most of the Houston Rockets, coaches included, peel off the hardwood in droves, headed toward the locker room, headed toward home. Many members of the Rockets make it there quickly, unbothered by the media contingent present. Others, like Jeremy Lin, don’t. When it comes to Lin, the media acts like he’s Justin Beiber and they’re the paparazzi: Everyone wants a photo or sound bite, no matter how bland it is.

Then there’s James Harden, Houston’s undeniable leader, still on the court hoisting up shots; still working on his game while everyone else is working on leaving. Far from being an unusual occurrence, this is commonplace for the fourth-year shooting guard.

Shot after shot after shot, alone on the court in a nearly empty gym, Harden pulls the trigger on his lefty J. As the shots rise, the balls spiral tightly in a perfect arc, until they kiss the net. Harden shoots from the top of the key—money. He moves to the left wing—money. To the right wing—money. Finally, he works both corners and baseline—cha-ching. With each shot attempt, he holds his form, following through and expending maximum lift and effort, as if there was a real defender with outstretched hands held aloft, trying to deny a jumper that’s wet as water.

If God is, as they say, in the details, then the practice court is James Harden’s chosen place of worship. The whole sports world laughed at (and still, to this day, laughs) at Allen Iverson’s rant about practice; James Harden doesn’t laugh, though, because there is nothing funny about preparation. His new franchise and teammates learned that immediately after his late October arrival, after his internet-shattering trade from the Oklahoma City Thunder, when the reigning Sixth Man of the Year told his new teammates to tuck in their jerseys so they could get to work. After all, as Harden sees it, success is about details, details, details.

“Most of the time, it’s the small things you have to pay attention to,” says Harden, the third overall pick in the 2009 NBA Draft and a member of the 2012 Olympic team. “Tucking your jersey in and really focusing when Coach is talking, those are the small things that matter. We have to lock in, especially with us being a young team. We have to do all the small things because we have to build ourselves from the ground up, from scratch.”

When Harden finally finishes shooting for the day, he and a reporter sit in the dressing room adjacent to the players’ locker room. The questions and topics of conversation jump around like salmon leaping out of the water as they return to their spawning grounds.

His look is stark and jarring. From the beard, plumed magnanimously from his youngish face with the hubris of a lion’s mane (Beardsanity, Fear the Beard, it’s who he is now and it’s never coming off) to the mohawk, which coupled with his lush and bushy facial construct, peeks atop his dome, almost imperceptibly like a stylistic afterthought, it’s made for the court. Off it, he’s just a laid-back guy. Chill, mellow and prone to playing Madden and NBA2K. To talk of the bow ties and outrageously eccentric sport coats that show off Harden’s very own brand of swagger. After skipping around all these topics, what he ultimately settles on is an unexpected compliment.

After OKC’s 124-94 drubbing of the Rockets, Kevin Durant lobbed a few choice accolades reverently toward his “brother for life.”

“Nothing,” Durant says after being asked what surprises him about how well Harden has played in his new role as the go-to guy. “He’s scoring the ball, assisting, you know, doing all the stuff he did for us. He’s a great leader; he cares. If you have a guy that cares and wants his teammates to do well and he’s unselfish, the sky’s the limit. After he got traded, I just told him to go out there and be himself and that’s what he’s doing. Like I said, he’s a brother and I’m glad he’s doing well.”

Here’s the comment that leaves Harden nearly speechless: “I think he’s one of the top two shooting guards in the League,” Durant says. “There’s Kobe and him at the top. He’s playing phenomenal right now. I’m happy for him.”

“That’s a great compliment,” Harden says. It’s made extra special because, growing up in L.A., Harden was a huge fan of Bryant’s.

“Just to be in that same breath with Kobe…he has five Championships, MVPs and things like that. That’s a great compliment, but I just try to work hard and just play my part. There’s a lot of great shooting guards out there, a lot of great players in this League. What separates me is that I can make plays, but I’m not a point guard. I score the basketball but I wouldn’t label myself as just a scorer either. I’m just a complete basketball player as far as being able to help my team win even if I’m not scoring the ball well. I just try to go out and play hard and be consistent with everything I do.”

Long before he scored at least a 20-piece in 21 consecutive games (and counting as this issue went to press) and at least a 25-piece in 14 consecutive games, one more than Moses Malone’s previous record for the longest streak in franchise history, or before averaging 26.4 ppg (fourth-best in the L) through 39 games, an almost 10-point jump from last year’s 16.8, Harden was a 6-1 pudgy freshman with asthma at Artesia (CA) HS.

“Coming into high school, I always needed my inhaler,” Harden remembers. “When we ran miles, I couldn’t really breathe, it was bad [laughs]. I just started being more active, playing a lot more and grew out of it. In college, it came back a little bit, but now I’ve fully grown out of it.”

Consistency and work ethic were the pillars that drove Harden to wake up early every morning to catch the 6 a.m. bus from Compton to Lakewood to hit the court before class. They kept him focused on basketball and not the bad things happening in the city that sidetracked so many other kids. They allowed him to shake his reluctance to take over games and lead his squad to a 33-2 record in his senior year and a second straight state championship. After averaging 18.8 points, 7.9 rebounds and 3.9 assists, the beardless Harden was named a Parade and McDonald’s All-American.

“The pivotal time for me as far as when I thought that I was good enough to make it to the NBA was probably my junior year of high school,” Harden says.

Harden points to his high school coach, Scott Pera, for “molding me into the player that I am,” but consistency and work ethic mean everything to him because they mean everything to the biggest influence in his life: his mother, Monja Willis, a single mom who raised Harden and two other children.

“One of the most important things I learned from my mother was just her work ethic,” says the 2009 consensus collegiate All-American and Pac-10 Player of the Year. “She don’t really do a lot of talking, she just shows it. She was basically a single parent raising me, my brother and my sister, working two jobs, being at all my games. She just got it done. No matter what it took. That work ethic rubbed off on me.”

That steely resolve Harden inherited helped prepare him for the added pressure that comes with becoming the go-to guy who recently signed a five-year, $80 million contract extension. It allowed him to hit the ground running, racking up an unprecedented 82 points in his first two outings with the team. It’s propelled him to be the player he always knew he could be, even before his whole world was undone by OKC and rebuilt in the same day by Houston.

“It’s a completely different role from what I was used to,” Harden says. “First of all, not only am I having the ball in my hand a lot more, but now I’m starting. So it’s been about getting adjusted to that and having a lot more responsibilities with the basketball. It’s my job to keep the defense on their toes. I have to be craftier because defenses are really loading up and keying in on me now. I’m the number-one option, so I have to make the right passes at all times. When I have an opportunity to attack, I gotta be aggressive. There can’t be any indecisiveness. That was the switch that I flipped when I came here, and I’m used to it now. I’m in a comfortable role and I know what to expect every single game, and I know how I need to play for us to be successful.”

Successful is an understatement; who’d have thought the Rockets would be sitting at 20-14 this early in the rebuilding process? It’s all a testament to the way Harden has stepped in and led his team with a calming charisma. He’s catapulted the team’s offense to a League-leading 106.24 points per with an artistic arsenal of Euro steps, balletic swoops and glides into the lane and an uncanny ability to get to the rim while leaving defenders perplexed in his wake. Plus, the guy has managed to weaponize the free throw to the tune of 10.3 FTAs per, an MJ-esque figure that hasn’t been topped by a wing since Allen Iverson in ’05-06. Simply put, the 6-5 southpaw is the star GM Daryl Morey’s been pinning for since the Yao Ming dynasty fell.

“Daryl Morey’s belief in me gave me all the confidence in the world leaving Oklahoma City, not knowing what to expect, not knowing what I was going to,” Harden says. “They just welcomed me right away, made me comfortable and said, ‘You got the keys. We running with you. We’re going to follow behind you.’ So I embraced being a leader. My discipline has to be on point at all times for my teammates. Leader is a new role for me, but with the work ethic that I bring every single day, whether it’s in practice, shootaround or in a game, my teammates can see that James Harden is always ready to go.”

All signs point to this being the year that Harden gets his first All-Star nod. And isn’t that fitting, getting the opportunity to play among the best in the League in his new backyard?

“Being an All-Star would definitely mean a lot to me,” Harden says. “It would mean a lot after being traded here and my first year making the All-Star Game. It would also mean that we’re turning things around here and building our chemistry. Like I said, we’re all young, too. But my goal is to make the Playoffs this year. I came from a similar situation where we were all young and we built and built to get better. During my first year there, we made the first round of the Playoffs. The second year, we made the Western Conference Finals. Then, last year, we made the Finals. So it’s like I’m starting all over again. But this time I’m in the driver’s seat, I’m the leader. And I’m trying to do something very special here.”