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Watch The Throne

Harden is Coming

By: Chris Palmer

Chapter 1. The Arrival

James Harden is coming for the Throne.

James Harden rests his weary bones on the side of the basket support. He’s just tossed up some 100 post-scrimmage threes to end a mid-November practice at the Rockets' downtown practice facility.

Beads of sweat drag-race down his forehead. His tattered Mohawk is at least two or three days overdue for a fresh lineup. He swigs an orange energy drink, then absentmindedly scratches that iconic beard that might be more famous than the guard it’s attached to.

A gaggle of Rockets are cooling their heels on folding chairs behind the basket. High tops are scattered on the floor. One player chisels off ankle tape. Another attaches ice bags to his knees. Some are starters, others have been pressed into duty thanks to the pesky injury bug that has plagued these surprise Rockets since the season began.

They turn their attention to the star guard. They have that post-practice glow knowing the day’s work is done. Harden looks relaxed.

Defensive stalwart Patrick Beverley stands a foot away to his left, leaning over, hands on his knees. Harden leans forward a touch more. The incessant drone of bouncing basketballs and coaches' instructions echoing off the walls drown him out to onlookers.

But the scene is far less about Harden’s anecdote than his teammates' reaction to it. Their body language says everything—we will follow you into battle, but a funny story will do for now.

"And then what did you do?" asks second-year point guard Isaiah Canaan with wide eyes.

Harden tilts his head slightly, shrugs his broad shoulders, then turns his palms skyward. He chuckles before swigging more orange potion.

"Nah, man, no way," says rookie forward Tarik Black.

Harden gets up. "Yeah, seriously," he says, those sleepy eyes coalescing with his nonchalance just so.

Laughter erupts from their small corner of the neighborhood. The players follow Harden across the practice floor and into the weight room.

This team is as safe a place as any for Harden, the once-reluctant leader, to continue his basketball evolution. His Rockets are unburdened by petty jealousy, anguished cries for more shots or complex agendas of egomaniacal future Hall of Famers.

They expect Harden to lead them. The mix of selfless teammates, a highly effective game plan and his restless earnestness provide the perfect crucible for Harden to evolve as an elite player and build the legacy he feels he deserves. "This just feels right," says Harden. "This is what I want."

Chapter 2. There's No Safety in Being 'The Man'

There was a certain comfort that came along with Harden’s stint in Oklahoma City. He was tucked behind two superstars on meteoric rises in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. There was safety in not being the man. There was a welcome relief in being just off-camera and out of the way of the burning spotlight. If the Thunder lost, it was never his fault. There were pleasures in not starting too. He even misses it.

"When my name was called and the crowd would cheer, it got me excited," he recalls one afternoon. "It was crazy. It was like The Enforcer was coming into the game. Here comes the game-changer. That got me excited to want to go out there and turn up every game."

But he also wanted what he has now in Houston. His selflessness couldn’t mask his ambition. When the Thunder didn’t offer him a max contract in October 2012, there was no going back. His trade to Houston shook the league. Now, he was the man. It’s a role that can be frightening, stressful and lonely, and it can potentially crash-land at any time. It ruins players. Tricks them. Many don’t understand the responsibility.

If the Rockets lost, it would be his fault. So Harden stepped deeper into the abyss.

He told the world he could be the best player in the game. Even coming from one of the most talented players on the planet, such a claim sounds audacious if not delusional. When asked if that was just player-speak—what he’s expected to say—Harden’s tone sharpens. He’s making eye contact now.

"You know what? I really feel that way just because of my skill set and my IQ," says Harden.

"Obviously, LeBron [James] and KD [Kevin Durant] are the top of the game. Those guys are like 6'10" and physically God-gifted athletically—and are stronger than me. But I feel like I can rely on my IQ to reach that potential."

So far this season he’s making good on such big talk. With over half of the season complete, he’s leading the league in scoring at 27.5 points per game and averaging career highs in assists (6.8), rebounds (5.6), steals (2.0), blocks (0.8) and free-throw percentage (.876).

Simply put, Harden is as gifted an offensive talent as exists in the game.

Unteachably smooth and deceptively athletic—the rare player who can crush a dunk with two hands after a momentum-robbing Eurostep—his catalog of posters is as voluminous as his casually silky step-back threes.

His crossover in space has an undercurrent of violence—a jarring change of direction that makes him among the league’s best at the most valued basketball survival skill: creating space.

His game is loaded with mystifying deception. His upright, relaxed body language disguises the explosion of his first step.

The ferocity of his tomahawk jams feels wildly incongruent with his bare-minimum elevation, which regularly surprises defenders. It’s downright confusing.

"I play slow and I’m left-handed," Harden offers. "It’s hard to figure out."

Pera credits his unique game to his early lack of athleticism and doughy physique as a high school underclassman.

"He learned to play on the ground," says Pera. "He started with the fundamentals—shot fakes, passing, taking charges."

But his greatest asset remains his mind, an algorithm-processing basketball computer. He can sort through loads of information in the seconds a change of possession occurs.

He finds angles where none exist. He detects passing lanes that are otherwise obscured by limbs and lack of imagination. He turns mismatches into unfair opportunities.

"He’s one of the smartest basketball players I’ve ever worked with," says Mike Krzyzewski, Harden’s Team USA head coach.

When asked what is Harden’s best athletic quality, Herb Sendek, his coach at Arizona State, responds,"His mind. He has the intuition and the willingness to make the right play."

Chapter 3. Turning Point

Harden’s quest for greatness has been a decade-long percolation. The seed had long been planted in fertile ground. But it began to grow in an unlikely place: a hotbox Los Angeles gym in August during the 2011 NBA lockout. Harden showed up to play in the vaunted Drew League just as he had many times before.

Then Kobe Bryant showed up to play for the other team.

Bryant and Harden proceeded to turn the game into a full-court one-on-one showcase, trading crossovers, fadeaways and trash talk. Harden’s confidence rose with each possession, as did Bryant’s admiration. He finished with 44 points. Bryant had 45 and the game-winner.

"That was one of the turning points of my career at that age," says Harden, who grew up in the shadow of Bryant’s dominant Lakers teams. "Being in that game meant everything for me. It boosted me and gave me confidence. It definitely turned my swag up."

Harden secretly felt he could match Bryant’s skill level, but humility barred him from expounding beyond schoolyard smack between the lines. Hell, he wasn’t even a starter. But Bryant knew.

"That was cool for him," says Bryant, reflecting on that encounter after a practice. "There was something in his eyes you could just see. He was ready."

Chapter 4. "I'm a Great Defender"

Youtube Mixmakers "Buzzlite99" and "Watson Productions" show some of Harden's defensive prowess in this mashup.

Today, Harden knows that fully winning people over means getting it done on the defensive side of the ball...and, yes, he knows you make fun of his defense.

He hears everything. The wisecracks on Twitter or in the YouTube comments section. The snide quips from bombastic talking heads. He’s seen the comical GIFs where he loses his man by absurd distances. The "worst defender ever" compilations.

Harden has tried to block out the chatter and vowed to turn himself into a legit defensive stopper. But sometimes the barbs are a thorn in his mind. And he’s a bit tired of it.

"I'm a great defender," Harden says with a hint of defiance. "But it's really about being able to focus on carrying a team, scoring 30, while locking somebody down. I've done a pretty good job of that this year. I'm definitely not worried about critics. I think everybody goes through stretches where they ball-watch or let somebody cut behind them or just small things like that. But if the ball is in front of me, I'm great. It comes down to focus level and knowing where my guy is."

James Harden was traded to the Houston Rockets on October 28th, 2012 by the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Harden knows the jokes will follow him nonetheless, so he put his self-deprecating sense of humor to work and lampooned his less-than-stellar defensive rep in a recent Foot Locker commercial. The spot, titled "Defensive," was shot over a couple of hours at a local Houston mall on the last Sunday in October.

In the commercial, Harden has an awkward exchange with two sneakerheads who wonder why he sounds so defensive when asked if he’ll attend an upcoming sneaker sale.

"Defensive?" he asks. "I’m never defensive. I’m the last person you’ll ever see being defensive." The spot cleverly robs his critics of their power.

"My defense was the talk of the summer," says Harden, "so we decided to hit it head on."

The Foot Locker creative team pitched him the idea over FaceTime, and he embraced it immediately. He got the script three weeks prior to shooting and even ad-libbed some alternate lines on set.

"He’s not afraid to make fun of himself," says Foot Locker’s marketing vice president Jed Berger. "His deadpan is incredible. It’s just his personality. We like to be relevant, and we did that in a fun way."

Yes, Harden is in on the joke. But opponents aren’t laughing about the strides he’s made this season on the defensive end.

Harden (42.1 DFG%) currently holding opponents to a lower field-goal percentage than defensive ace and Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard (44.3 DFG%). Harden is sixth in the league in defensive win shares with 2.9 per Basketball Reference. During the 11 games Dwight Howard missed, he averaged 2.3 steals and 1.2 blocks. He’s fourth in the league in steals per's advanced stats module.

A few months ago, a YouTube user put together a 10-minute clip showing some of the outstanding defensive plays Harden has made this season. Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted it out with the following proclamation: "16-4 & top defense w/majority of our starters out does not happen by accident. I present 2-way player & MVP @JHard13."

"He can be a great defender, and I think we’re seeing that," says Coach K. "He’s got really good anticipation and he talks, which is the lifeblood of team defense. There isn’t anything I asked of him that he couldn’t do."

Ramping up his impact in the leadership department has been Harden’s other big focus. Last summer, during the FIBA Basketball World Cup, Krzyzewski appointed Harden one of his captains, leaning on him all summer for input. He’d give Coach K daily updates on the team’s overall mood, whether they should practice and their fears after Paul George’s devastating injury.

"I’d always check the pulse of the team through James," says Krzyzewski. It was an invaluable experience for Harden’s evolution into the leader of a contender. In practices, Harden is consistently the most vocal Rocket but admits he’s still getting a handle on the leadership role.

After a November win against the Mavericks, Harden stunned the crowd when he ran over to the scorer's table and grabbed the public address microphone. "We need your support! We need you!" Harden implored fans with a desperate sense of urgency. "We need it! We need it!"

As Harden raced off the floor, the packed house rose to give him a standing ovation.

James Harden was the leader of an injury depleted Team USA that he led to the gold at the 2014 FIBA world Basketball tournament.

Chapter 5. From Compton to the NBA

In August 2003, the boy whose name no one knew walked into sixth-period gym at Artesia High School in Lakewood, California, eight miles from his Compton neighborhood. His mother sent him there—not Dominguez High, which produced NBA champions Tyson Chandler and Tayshaun Prince—because it was safer and had a more rigid curriculum.

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The 6'1", doe-eyed, pudgy kid was shy around strangers. He planned to go out for basketball in the fall. When his high school coach, Scott Pera, saw him hoist his slow-motion set shot with the other freshmen, he didn’t see anything special.

"He wasn’t James Harden then," remembers Pera. "He wasn’t that great. He was just another kid. By no means did we think we had an NBA player on our hands."

As his skill level progressed, he developed a do-it-all deferential style of play that made him the star of a 28-5 team his sophomore season. His first real learning experience came in January of his junior year when Artesia lost its first game—an overtime thriller by one point to Withrow University High (of Cincinnati, Ohio, in the Slam Dunk to the Beach tournament in Delaware).

A reluctant Harden struggled through an eight-shot performance lacking any aggression. As Harden stewed over the loss on the plane ride home, Pera unbuckled his seat belt, went several rows back and sat next to Harden. His message was clear: shoot more.

"In 24 years of coaching, I’ve never had to tell a kid to shoot more," says Pera. "Had to tell a lot of kids to shoot less."

Harden balked for fear it would draw the ire of his teammates. But Pera’s demand was final. Harden averaged 29 points per game the rest of the way, and Artesia never lost again that year. In his final two seasons, he led the powerhouse to a 66-3 record and two California state titles.

He arrived at Arizona State a McDonald’s All-American but very much a work-in-progress. "You wouldn’t call him fat, but he had a high body-fat index when we got him," says Sendek.

Still reluctant to take the spotlight, he’d go through practices without shooting because he didn’t want his teammates to think he was selfish. Soon opposing defenses would go to great lengths to aid his desire not to shoot.

In a February 2009 matchup with Oregon State, the Beavers' game plan was to aggressively trap Harden whenever he had the ball regardless of where he was on the floor. "He could have been at the concession stand and they would have had two guys on him," recalls Sendek, laughing.

Harden managed just three shots, but the Sun Devils won. After the game, Sendek says he began to learn just who James Harden was. "He was as happy as can be," he remembers. "There was no difference in his disposition in the night he went for 40 against UTEP because we won."

It was a story that Sendek relayed to Thunder general manager Sam Presti, who thought Harden’s phlegmatic temperament would fit perfectly next to Durant and Westbrook. Despite a strong predraft showing, Harden received mixed signals from many lottery teams. A last-minute midnight workout with Minnesota the night before the draft only served to confuse things.

Pera skipped his fifth wedding anniversary to fly to New York to be with James and his mother in the green room the night of the NBA draft. There was nervous tension at the table, and few words were spoken.

"I was more nervous than on my wedding night," says Pera. His mom cried when the Thunder took him with the third pick. The quiet kid’s face never changed.

Chapter 6. Who is James Harden?

Outside of the Foot Locker campaign, Harden’s dry wit and sense of humor are almost never on display for the public. He rarely gives one-on-one interviews. He speaks in soft tones, only occasionally making eye contact. He is unfailingly polite.

He keeps his inner circle purposefully small. The closest people in his life have known him since he was a teenager. Harden has developed and maintained a strong connection with the men who have coached him on each level of basketball. He exchanges occasional texts with Coach K, who watches as many Rockets games as he can on League Pass.

"We keep in touch, but I never want to be intrusive," Coach K says, "but we have a great relationship."

Pera, his former high school coach, has texted "good luck" to Harden before every pro game he’s ever played. After taking an assistant coach position at nearby Rice University this season, the two have lunch about once a month.

On a recent Sunday, Harden dropped by Pera’s house for barbecue and to watch his beloved 49ers. Harden spends most of his downtime playing FIFA 15 (he uses Real Madrid) with his housemate and former Artesia High teammate Greg Howell, who coaches eighth-grade basketball in Houston. Sometimes they’ll head to Toyota Center for late-night shooting sessions.

While his beard has become arguably the most identifying physical feature of any American pro athlete, he doesn’t want to be defined by it. Nor is he hiding behind it. "This is really who I am," Harden insists.

"But a lot of people may see me and not know my name but know the beard. It's kind of my style, my swag. It's me being different, which I am. But I don't go out of my way to be different. I'm a fun guy. I've got a Mohawk with a beard and I dress funky and I'm left-handed, but it's just the package."

But it remains the first thing people see. And, oh, there are questions. Before you ask: It doesn’t itch as much as people think. He gets it trimmed with each haircut, about every two weeks. When he wakes up it’s usually mashed to one side. One of his picks cures that easily. It can sometimes be a magnet for food. People tell him to cut it every day, mostly in other cities. His mom adores it.

"She raised me," says Harden. "So she loves everything about me."

There is little doubt Harden’s popularity would pale in comparison without it. "He’s much more than the beard," says Berger, the Foot Locker exec, "but obviously it’s helped shape his identity to the public."

He was clean-shaven at ASU, but Sendek doesn’t remember what he looked like. Pera fondly remembers the days of peach fuzz, baggy sweats, triple-XL white T-shirts, ninth-grade English and the quiet kid who needed rides all over town.

"He’s a grown man," he says, "but I still worry about him. I worry about him every day."

Chapter 7. Show-N-Prove

Harden hoists one jumper after another at a recent shootaround the morning before a game at Toyota Center. He is the last player on the floor. His eyes are intense, his release crisp. An assistant coach will stop feeding him only when he says so. The nets pop. He grunts when the ball touches rim. The squeak of his sneakers pierces the air.

The echo of the basketball off the hardwood is the soundtrack to his life.

"LeBron and KD are at the peak right now," he says. "They are the guys. I know what I want, but I have to win over a lot of people. I've got my work cut out for me." There are no awards for being an MVP candidate in mid-December.

There is no comfort in being the man. He asked for this. For James Harden, there is no turning back.