They call him ‘Lucky’.
Not because he is so prolific from the free-throw line or that he continues to smash points records but because it is a miracle that he is even playing professional basketball at all.
Now the sport’s MVP and valued at close to $500million, he is yet a divisive figure on and off the court. But love him or hate him, everyone has an opinion on James Edward Harden Jnr these days.
Monja Willis had suffered two miscarriages before she gave birth to Harden on August 29, 1989. Expectations were low for the new arrival. After all, each breath was a miracle.
Growing up his surroundings were eye-opening. His father dipped in and out of jail and played little to no role in Harden’s formative years as Willis raised him and his two siblings in a mobile home in Compton while the 1992 LA riots raged across the city. Homicide rates in men were high. Gang recruitment among young boys likewise.
Sport was to be the release but for an out-of-shape asthmatic, eyebrows were raised when Harden opted for basketball as the sport for him. Shooting, honed in the backyard to the mobile home, quickly became his key asset.
Drummond’s embarrassing dunk fail
Practice was relentless and soon enough he made up for what he lacked in stamina and fitness with pinpoint precision both under the net and from range.
High school came and Harden began to trim physically. He impressed. Willis, working as a service dispatcher at AT&T at the time, rarely missed a game from his first to his last and is now entrusted as the his agent and manager.
A spot at Arizona State University arose – he became the marquee signing – and a clean-shaven Harden now appears almost unrecognisable on reflection. But like most college students, laziness slowly crept into his lifestyle and as he developed physically, he was faced with a decision that would later become a million-dollar question: shave the beard, or keep it?
Laziness won and soon scouts across the US were fascinated by the shooting guard they simply referred to as ‘The Beard’.
With the help of his trusted inhaler – and the notoriety of his beard – Harden soon became a nationwide talking point and with the 2009 NBA draft on the horizon, teams were busy jockeying to secure his signature. It quickly became apparent that of all the top young players up for draft selection, Harden was one many really wanted.
First out came 2019 NBA All-Star Blake Griffin, then came 7ft 3in ‘unicorn’ – a term given to taller players that are considered to be genetically advanced – Hasheem Thabeet, now plying his trade in Japan with the Yokohama B-Corsairs. Then Oklahoma City Thunder made their pick… James Harden.
Aged 20, few could imagine a bearded asthmatic from Compton going on to be the sport’s Most Valuable Player over the next decade. But it happened.
Arriving at OKC, Harden was rightly considered one of the best all-round prospects to emerge from college basketball in his generation. That said, this is the NBA. Bursting on the scene and upsetting the apple cart from the off is tough and relatively unheard of.
And so Harden quickly became the team’s ‘sixth man’ – a player who does not start games but makes an impact from the bench – having begun to gel with team-mates Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. The presence of such a formidable sixth man showed the quality of Thunder’s team at that time.
His game-time was a slice of what he enjoys now at Houston but when chances came Harden left an impression. He recorded the fourth-highest three-point percentage in NBA history (.375) for a player under the age of 21 during the 2009–10 season.
Two seasons later he went on to lift the NBA’s Sixth Man award, taking 584 of a possible 595 from the votes cast. But like any ambitious sportsman, patience wanes and when OKC came back to the negotiating table in 2014 with a four-year deal worth $55m, Harden felt his time in blue and orange was up.
They didn’t value him like Westbrook or Durant and that bothered him deeply. He needed to step out from the shadow, show his personality and go on to establish himself as not another sixth man, but a main man.
Houston had a problem, and Harden was the answer. That was in 2012 and now, seven years on, Harden is the reigning MVP and is the leading scorer in the entire NBA with an average of 36.1 points a game from his 78 starts this season. For context, that is 8.4 points a game more than ‘Greek Freak’ Giannis Antetokounmpo and 8.8 more than Golden State supremo Stephen Curry.
A shooting guard being good at shooting should come as no great surprise but even by Harden’s standards, this season has been preposterous. Only this month did he become the first NBA player in history to score 30 points or more against every team in a single season. Absurd.
Last month, Harden hit a 42 points against the Minnesota Timberwolves to make it 31 consecutive games with 30 or more points. A month earlier he stormed past LA Lakers icon Kobe Bryant who hit 16 consecutive games in the record books. Harden is rewriting history with every three-pointer.
JAMES HARDEN NBA CAREER STATS
Stats as of APRIL 10, 2019
Courtesy of Land of Basketball
Harden can be a polarising figure on court but off it he is nothing short of a phenomenon. Beard masks have never been so popular and with no other star player possessing such a dominating and marketable feature, he is an advertising and social media dream.
Harden is the face of Papa John’s pizza in Houston, fronts up adverts for Foot Locker, State Farm, Hulu and BodyArmor, has a $200m deal with adidas and emerges on court firmly on brand with his Beats by Dre headphones.
In fact, so valuable is his beard now, his near seven-year run without shaving – he gets it trimmed by a specialist barber – shows no signs of ending. When asked in 2014 what he would need to be paid to shave it all off, he told ESPN: ‘$10m? Then we can talk.’
Much of those endorsements rely on his eccentric personality, dry humour and appetite for the extravagant, but for confectionery company Trolli the facial hair alone takes centre stage: in their commercial, the beard fields questions in a press conference while ‘the rest of James Harden’s face’ had work to do elsewhere.
A packet of ‘Sour Brite Weird Beards‘ suggests his bristles taste of cherry, lemon, strawberry, grape, orange and lime.
JAMES HARDEN’S LIST OF BRAND DEALS
Beats by Dre
Harden appears to have no craving for the quiet life these days – something that no doubt delights his 9.7million followers on Instagram.
Whether he is partying with Real Madrid captain Sergio Ramos, hanging out with Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic at Old Trafford or schmoozing with A-list actors such as Creed star Michael B Jordan, Harden takes every chance to be in the limelight.
You only need to look at his pre-game attire to know that Harden is now in a place where the light shines brightest on everything he does. A bright green suit paying homage to the Grinch. The hooded, wet-look green raincoat was another head turner. That doesn’t even take into account his Batman-style garments for the Halloween matches.
But in the end, everyone has a breaking point which, for Harden, came during an eight-month romance with reality star Khloe Kardashian in late 2015.
Perhaps the most famous family in the United States besides the one residing inside the White House, every breath the Kardashians take is newsworthy. For Harden, the media attention was excessive and ultimately off-putting.
Stepping off the team bus at the hotel in Biscayne Bay, south Florida, in 2015 off the back of a defeat by Golden State, Harden was mobbed by paparazzi, keen to get close to Khloe’s beau.
Then came paparazzi tracking his car, following him to shops, monitoring his shoes, his outfits, his meals. He lost sight of why he was in the relationship. He did not want any of this.
JAMES HARDEN’S ESTIMATED CAREER EARNINGS TO DATE IN THE NBA
|Estimated earnings||TOTAL: $147,283,251M|
In a candid interview two years later to Sports Illustrated, Harden explained his mindset at that moment and why time was called on the fleeting romance. He said: ‘I don’t need pictures of myself when I’m driving my car. Who cares? What shoes am I wearing? Who cares? Where am I eating? Who cares? It was unnecessary stuff that I think trickled down to my team-mates. I had to eliminate that.’
The focus needed to be on his basketball, but even then the focus and scrutiny can often throw up plenty of vitriol surrounding his game. For all of the records Harden breaks and the astonishing points returns he can deliver night after night, he is one of the sport’s most criticised players.
Harden has earned an array of critics for his style of play: the endless dribbling, disregard for team-mates and the fact free throws – unopposed shots 15 feet from the basket – make up so much of his point returns. Imagine a footballer who regularly adds to his goals tally from the penalty spot and it paints a clearer picture of how Harden is viewed in some fan circles.
Unlike Golden State Warriors, Harden is not part of a squad blessed with All-Star selections and he continues to persist with his individual-first approach on court.
Travelling is one of the biggest areas of contention with Harden. In recent years a number of players have managed to style out the illegal move – a player is considered to have travelled once they have taken more than two steps without the ball being bounced. But Harden is considered the ‘duke of the double dribble,’ according to The Loop.
Regularly pulled up on his misdemeanours on court by the media, Harden, having once been touchy on criticism, can now laugh it off. ‘What do you want me to say? Tell on myself?’ Harden told ESPNfollowing a 102-97 win over the Utah Jazz back in December.
Certainly one of the NBA’s marmite figures, he is loved in Houston and Oklahoma but is questioned vociferously elsewhere. Harden lacks the trophy cabinet of Curry and the god-like status of LeBron James but deserves to be held in the same conversation as them – the stats alone tell us so much.
Legacy is important to him – the women’s foundation he set up and runs with such a hands-on approach shows us that.
But to be considered one of the sport’s greatest ever he needs a Larry O’Brien NBA Championship Trophy. The greats are remembered for titles, not Kardashian girlfriends and not gummy-flavoured beards. Now is the time for Harden to step up and be Houston’s ‘lucky’ charm en route to a first title since 1995.