Dancing With Noah

Just messing around, getting triple doubles

Category Archives: Legends & Myths

Trae Young and the Long Arm of Steph Curry

I can’t say my first intentional experience with Oklahoma’s Trae Young was as uninterruptedly studious as I would have liked. My face was thawing after shoveling snow in the frigid Iowa afternoon. My nearly-10-month-old son was bouncing, cackling at unintelligible noises I made in attempts to distract him from the teething pain that’s turned our house upside down the past couple days. In the middle of the chaos was my Samsung TV, mounted to the wall above a gas fireplace that doesn’t work, presenting Trae Young to me in all his evolutionary glory.

Young is a 6’2” point guard from Norman, Oklahoma. He just turned 19 a few months ago and has a wispy moustache and hair that makes me think he could be Persian. Or maybe Native American or Indian or Filipino. I can almost picture him astride a horse, speeding across the Norman prairies and parking lots, thinnish hair whipping in the Norman wind, on his way to a game. He’s flirting with a unibrow and while he has a slight build, his shoulders are square and look prepared to carry more muscle and mass. Conventionally speaking, he doesn’t look the part though “the part,” as embodied by Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan, or LeBron James, is being rewritten by two-time-MVP and two-time-NBA Champion, Stephen Curry who happens to be the stylistic predecessor to Young.

My timeline is far from definitive, but the first time I recall seeing the trickle down of Currynomics was when LaMelo Ball, late of Vyautas Prienal-Birstonas of the Lithuanian Basketball League, became a sensation as a 15-year-old sophomore for Chino Hills High School during the 2016-17 season. He scored 92 points in one game and audaciously made a half-court shot just seconds into another game. Aside from these attention-grabbing highlights, Ball frequently took and made shots from NBA three-point range and deeper. If you strip away the outspoken divisiveness of his father, Lavar, there’s a supremely talented and skinny young basketball player in LaMelo. My first thoughts when I saw his highlights were of young kids seeing the rise of Curry, with his 30-foot jumpers and “California Cool” (H/T George Karl) approach, and misinterpreting what they saw. Ball, who pointed to his spot before canning the half-courter I mentioned, became a poster boy target of sorts for the get off my lawn crowd most notably represented by Charles Barkley. Barkley, a league MVP as a 6’4” undersized power forward, once claimed Curry was “just a great shooter.”

However far off-base Barkley’s assessment of Curry was, it stands as a representation of a perspective held by many former players, and likely present players, that Curry doesn’t belong at the table with other NBA greats. For Curry, the suspicion isn’t limited to style as I wrote about during this year’s finals, but are inclusive of race via skin color and class with him coming from a well-off, fully intact NBA family. Barkley’s comments and sentiments are coded in the sense that boxing Curry into being “just a great shooter” discount his generational skill level, advanced ball handling, finishing at the rim, his passing, his selflessness and on. By labeling him, or anyone like him, as “just a great shooter,” any threat to Barkley (or those who share his view and comprehension) is neutralized because Curry and his ilk become the “other.”

LaMelo Ball isn’t alone in seeing something in Curry that could be applied to his own game. About a month ago, I attended a high school basketball game in Des Moines, Iowa. For someone who hasn’t attended a high school game in over a decade, the experience of merely walking into the building and being swallowed by giddy teenage energy is one of adjustment. I packed into the doors of North High School with the rest of the human cattle being corralled towards concessions and the gym. If you’ve been away for a while, it’s disorienting to see a mass of teens from a 37-year-old’s eyes and see your former self moving through those crowds in complete normalcy. North’s point guard and their main attraction is a smallish 5’10”, 170lbs junior named Tyreke Locure who looks to be taller than his listed height due to a dyed bushy faux hawk – similar to LaMelo’s. He’s a mid-to-low D1 prospect who posted 56 points on 33 shots just a couple weeks after I saw him. In the game I attended, Locure and his North teammates exhibited a trigger-happy penchant for chucking deep threes. In my most Chuck-ish, I found myself criticizing the game plan until those bombs started falling – which probably says something about my commitment to a strategy. Collectively, they were quick to pass up half-court opportunities in exchange for deep, often contested, threes. Locure’s game did not appear to be defined by hash mark threes. I saw him looking for the small spaces to let fly, but within that were probing drives, dump-offs, and floaters, but the Curry influence was evident.

With North, I find myself needing to justify their liberal bombs by pointing to their success. Under their current coach, Chad Ryan, and with Locure as starting point guard in 16-17, they made the state tournament for the first time since 1991. MaxPreps currently has them ranked 7th in the state. The approach is working. And where instinct pushes me to find justification, intellect tells me question instinct. This is probably where my conventional way of thinking, some inner-Barkley, is running into my embrace of revolution, my inner-Curry/Steve Kerr.

Steph, Tyreke Locure, LaMelo Ball

Locure and Ball represent different points on a spectrum of who and how Curry has influenced a culture of ballplayers. Ball is probably at the most polarizing end of the spectrum. A kid whose game built on the notoriety that comes with being something of a Curry-clone – though that’s unlikely how he views himself. Maybe some of that is unfairly worded by confusing the son for the father. Locure and his North teammates, by contrast, have had the game opened by a combination of their abilities, their coaching, and (I’m mildly confident in this assumption) by Steph Curry whose influence has become omnipresent – from the California coast and the Hills of Chino to the tornado alleys of Oklahoma to the cold December gyms of Des Moines and a billion Instagram clips in between.

In April of 2017, Bleacher Report’s Howard Beck wrote a piece making a compelling case as to why the quest for the Next Michael Jordan had been on the decline over the past few years. In the story, Beck refers to the present as “Generation Steph,” and writes of high school coach and former NBA player Penny Hardaway that, “he’s had to admonish his players more than once for launching from 30 feet, like a band of mini-Steph Currys.”

Curry would be difficult enough to guard if he was, as Barkley said, “just a great shooter.” He’d be Kyle Korver or J.J. Redick – which isn’t to discount their non-shooting skills. Instead, the range and his ability to attack off the dribble, to both find the open teammate or finish around the rim at an elite level, make him, at times, the most disruptive offensive player in the NBA. In Jack McCallum’s Golden Days, he writes about Curry being a revolutionary player in that he’s doing things with range and accuracy that we haven’t seen before. In his notes about the book on his site, McCallum quoted Curry and wrote:

“Nobody talked much about long shots until three years ago,” Curry says. “When my father [Dell, a sharp-shooter who retired in 2002 after 16 seasons] was playing, heck, there wasn’t even much talk about three-pointers at all.”

Well, you pretty much started that conversation, Curry is reminded. He shrugs. “It’s not something I consciously set out to do,” Curry says. “Most of the long ones come when the defense is back-pedaling and I’m in rhythm. I don’t really think about what the exact distance is. It’s basically where I feel comfortable from.”

That is the key word—comfort. When something is new, it feels uncomfortable. Despite the fact that the three-point shot has been in the NBA since 1979, it never became a real weapon until the last decade, and even that is stretching it. Why? Coaches were never comfortable with it. We can always work it closer to the basket, went the thinking. But once Curry demonstrated that he could make the looooong ones, Steve Kerr did grow comfortable with it, and “four-pointers”–those long-range bombs that demoralize opponents to the point that they seem to be worth an extra point–became a big part of the Warriors’ offense … not to mention a big part of the NBA’s entertainment package.

McCallum makes the argument that Kevin Durant or even LeBron James are doing things we’ve seen – scoring, passing, rebounding – but doing it with evolutionary physicality. KD is seven-feet tall handling the ball like a point guard. Bron is built like Karl Malone with the athleticism of MJ and the court vision of Magic. He writes, “I doubt that 30 years ago, even 15 years ago, we could’ve envisioned such a complete player at that (KD’s) size.”

I accept McCallum’s argument that Curry is a revolutionary player. He’s been able to push out the boundaries of what’s possible on an NBA court and do it in a way that’s about as effective as we can fathom. It doesn’t mean that players can’t expand their range further as we’ve seen with Ball shooting from half court, but that, at some point, there are diminishing returns or that the long distance becomes a means in and of itself, not, as Curry says, “something I consciously set out to do.”

It’s unfair to seek out the Next Curry in every long-distance shooting teenager just like was unfair to label every dunking shooting guard as the “Next MJ.” Instead of seeking out the Next Anyone, it’s more accurate to identify the traits of iconic players in the next generation and establish a stylistic family tree of sorts. In terms of a basketball lineage, Ball and Locure are inheriting some of the stylistic genes of Curry. As kids who aren’t yet of voting age, how their futures map out are wildly variable, but in each, the fingerprints of Curry are visible.

The future of Trae Young, at just 19-years-old, is much more clearly defined. In the midst of the madness swirling around me during the Oklahoma-TCU game, what I saw was a point guard bending an entire half of the court to his own will. Young scored 39 points and had 14 assists yet, for me, he didn’t even play a great game. While there wasn’t a single TCU defender who could keep Young out of the lane, on more than one occasion, he left his feet and without a passing outlet, was forced to hopelessly fling a shot at the rim. He shot 9-23 for the game, but six of those makes were from three. Inside the paint, he was 3-7. While he struggled with interior accuracy, all those forays into the paint helped push his free throw attempts up to 18. (For the season, he’s impressively averaging more than one free throw attempt for every two field attempts.) He was able to beat his defenders into the paint with a combination of speed, quickness, the threat of the deep ball (see his shot chart below), and a purposeful handle developed well-beyond his age. (Here he is functionally pulling off the Shammgod earlier this season.)

14 assists is nice and all, but Young easily could’ve had more. He frequently found open teammates both under the hoop and along the perimeter. They made plenty, but missed some gimmes too. That they were so open is testament to Young’s playmaking and vision, his teammates shot making (and occasional shot missing), and coach Lon Kruger’s pro style deployment of personnel around the perimeter. Young frequently had release valves in the corners that he didn’t have to look for; he knew they were there. He had full court assists, no-look wrap around passes, jump passes off slaloms to the rim. More often than not, he made the right decisions. And while the 3-7 in the paint and seven turnovers look ugly, the indefatigable pressure he put on the TCU defense was more than worth the trade off to a teammate or alternative pace of attack. The game was ultra-high pressure, decided by a single point, and yet Young played the entirety of the second half and only sat two minutes all game.

The passing and driving are great, even titillating, but his range and shot release time are where the Curry comparisons become inescapable. I have no idea exactly how accurate the shot chart below is in terms of distance, but it’s accurate in the sense that the distances match up with what I witnessed. There are tracking systems that can tell us how close defenders were, but from my distracted viewing, a couple of those bombs were with defenders in his space, but unexpectant. By the time the defender realized what was happening, Young was already too deep into his motion with a release they couldn’t catch up to. Like Curry, or any deep shooter, this ability opens up mega avenues for penetration.

I don’t know if people look for the “Next” because we’re lazy or have bad habits or because we see points of reference in players. Maybe it’s the never-ending quest for immortality through progeny. Penny was the Next Magic. Eddy Curry was the Next Shaq. Harold Miner was literally Baby Jordan. The excitement I felt watching Trae Young wasn’t in seeing the Next Steph Curry, but seeing the possible evolution of what Curry has brought to basketball. I caught just a glimpse, the kind of glimpse that people turn into Loch Ness Monsters and UFOs and Yetis. Maybe it was just a tease and Young is more Jimmer than Steph. Or maybe it’s the next evolutionary step in audacious offense. I wouldn’t say I’ve seen the future, but I’ve seen Steph Curry and I’ve seen Trae Young and I’m good with that.

Steph Curry as a springboard into the Mind of Karl Malone

Almost 25 years ago to the day, a perturbed Karl Malone nursing hurt feelings and a bruised ego stepped onto the Salt Palace court as the Jazz hosted the Milwaukee Bucks. What ensued was something akin to a pissed off Andre the Giant going off script at a Royal Rumble and tossing all comers out of the ring so quick that the pay-per-view ends two hours early and no one is quite certain what just happened. The game itself was a bloodbath and Malone scored a career-high 61 points on 21-26 shooting while snatching 18 rebounds in just 33 minutes of game play.

The only reason I found this game was thanks to modern-day efficiency king Stephen Curry’s precision in Washington D.C. less than a week ago when he scored 51 in 36 minutes in a road victory over the Wizards while shooting 19-28 from the field and 11-16 from deep. It was peak Curry and peak Warriors in that the reigning MVP needed just 36 minutes to fill it up. In the nationally televised game, he opened the bidding with a 25-point first quarter on 7-8 from three and playing all 12 minutes. In what (as of this writing) Sacramento Kings Coach George Karl refers to as a “California cool” style, Golden State relaxed, turned the ball 15 times through the following three quarters and was outscored over that same period. But the game was close enough that Curry put up his second most shot attempts of the season, tied his most three-point attempts, and exceeded his average minutes/game.

Wizards point guard John Wall described the performance:

It’s like Kobe (Bryant) when he had 81. He couldn’t miss. You keep defending the best way you can. We challenged some shots. He didn’t have too many open looks. He just made them.

Scoring 51 in 36 or less has been accomplished just 12 times since the 1983-84 season with Curry now owning the two most recent occasions. The only other player to appear on the list more than once is Kobe Bryant at four times. What’s unique and I guess predictable is that in all 12 games, the team with the +51-point scorer won. The big scorers are hyper efficient from the field (except Tracy McGrady in 2003) and get to the at least 10 times (except Curry last week who made it to the line just three times).

For me, the most memorable on this list was Kobe’s 62 points on Dallas during his Chamberlain-esque scoring binge of 2005-06 when he had single handedly outscored Dallas through three quarters (62-61). (As a side note, ESPN’s Baxter Holmes reported then-Dallas Assistant Coach Del Harris was the primary motivator for Kobe’s 62-point outburst as Harris had been Kobe’s coach as a rookie and he still held a desire for revenge for Harris “driving him crazy” as a rookie. The unlucky coincidence (for Harris at least) is that Harris was present as the Bucks head coach the night Malone scored his 61. To my knowledge, Del Harris was in no way affiliated with the Wizards during Curry’s performance.)

02-08-16 - mailman stats

The anatomy of 51 in 36 is one thing whereas motivation is something altogether different and in some cases less discernible.

After his single-handed destruction of Washington, Curry described what we most frequently refer to as the zone. There was no other apparent motivation, no driving force, just “some of the shots that you’re like ‘Oh that’s off,’ they end up going in. It’s a fun feeling, and you want to ride that until you can’t anymore.”

But for other players, the motivations are clearer for various reasons:

02-08-16 - Points x PPS

(Note: For a thorough reading on athletes and vengeance, Bill Simmons’ Vengeance Scale from ~2004 (?) still holds up pretty well with an exceptionally robust rating scale.)

But no one on this list can reach the grating disrespect the Mailman felt back in 1990 after the results of the All-Star Game fan vote (hat-tip to Danny Hazan for putting me onto this storyline). It was January 26th, 1990 when Malone, the defending ASG MVP, found out the fans had selected the Lakers’ A.C. Green to start the game. Green edged him out by all of 1,226 votes – less than 1% of the total votes Malone received. At the time, the Mailman was an MVP candidate putting up 30.5ppg on 58% with nearly 11 rebounds and three assists/game. His lividity was so great that Kurt Kragthorpe of The Deseret News wrote: “Before the game, Karl Malone called the NBA office to complain about the voting results and told teammates he would boycott the All-Star Game.”

Teammate John Stockton and the aforementioned fan-selected starter Green were less confounded, both offering more contextual responses. Stockton said,

I don’t know that being selected this way (by fan vote) is any better than being selected the other way (by coaches). It’s tough to be thrilled about a selection process when an absolute shoo-in doesn’t make it. That amazes me.

And Green:

I’m surprised to be on the team. I never knew my position in the balloting, and it’s really out of the players’ control who the fans vote for. Neither one of us did any campaigning. On paper, you’d think (Malone) would be on the team. I mean, he does it night in, night out. That’s what you have to do to be an All-Star.

But on a first glance that didn’t matter to Malone. And so the following day on the 27th of January, he came out with bad intentions, powered forth by the conviction that he had been wronged in the most egregious fashion. He scorched and burned the Bucks big men in the paint and around the rim. All of his points have been wrapped nicely into a single 12-minute Youtube post (below) and a couple things are powerfully evident: of his 21 made field goals, just two came outside the paint and the topic of the All-Star snubbery was hot all night evidenced by the condensed clips where the announcers mention it three separate times including references to “that message was sent airmail, special delivery!”

The way this drama unfolded is fascinating in the sense that Malone was enraged by the fan vote which is something we’ve come to accept 25 years later as a completely uninformed popularity contest. Stockton and Green seemed to grasp that from different perspectives and maybe it’s all the Yao voting or some of the oddities we’ve seen over the years have reinforced the notion that it’s all about popularity, but clearly players in 1990 understood that. And on some level Malone did too, which I’ll explore, but the announcers repeatedly stating that he was “sending a message to voters” is revealing of the most MJ manner of allowing a slight (however significant) to become an all-consuming obsession and that obsession isn’t just accepted by the community, it becomes a rallying point.

Malone’s approach to this game – constant post-ups on the right block, relentlessness on the offensive glass (he had nine offensive boards), and tearing up the court like a demonic man-tank on amphetamines – are indicative of a sustained fixation. All that anger not just harnessed by Malone, but reinforced by who? Reinforced by the local media, teammates, coaches? In The Deseret News the day after the 61-point game, there was a paragraph and anecdote from Stockton that provides some of the insight into the kind of mind that propelled Malone forward:

So who said Malone was overrated this time? In Charlotte last month, teammate John Stockton planted a fake story that the Hornets’ Armon Gilliam had downgraded Malone in a TV interview and the Mailman went out and scored 52. Stockton claimed innocence Saturday, smiling and saying, “Who knows what can lurk in his mind?”

Reviewing the story from the Gilliam game in December of 1989, it sounds like Stockton definitely planted the seed that got Malone going and speaks to the power of security and insecurity, respect and disrespect, succeeding and failure, and fiction versus reality in addition to Stockton’s ability to know which buttons to push and how hard to push them. For the Mailman, just the suggestion that Armon Gilliam or some fans misunderstood his proper place as one of, if not the preeminent power forward in the NBA simultaneously sent him off the rails and pushed him to new heights.

On the one hand, being overlooked by the fan vote feels insignificant. Malone was so obviously at the peak of the game that it seems like it shouldn’t have mattered. The other angle to take is that having achieved so much already (ASG MVP, All-NBA first team, playoffs, top power forward status) and being accepted by his peers, the only audience left to convert was the fans. Where Jordan had his Nike contract and Magic his smile and Larry the faithful of the Boston Garden, Malone was still – at least based on the voting – an unknown. What more did he need to do? What more could he do? Losing out to a clearly lesser player in Green had to be discouragingly Sisyphean and unfair. It had to hurt.

Within this intrusive exploration into the mind of Karl Malone is a glimpse into how that mind works which is what I find so intriguing. If we look at the drama of early 1990 linearly, there’s a nice a smooth narrative arc: the release of the ASG voting which shakes Malone and results in him going as far as reportedly calling the league office. Then there’s the response, the attempt to “send a message to the voters” as if they were a singular mind, as if the vote was indicative of his standing relative to Green’s even though Malone at his most rational had to know how little it implied. The 61 points was intentionally symbolic, but most likely sent to an audience the majority of whom weren’t even listening and the people who were listening already knew Malone’s standing. Even before the eruption, his tone was somewhat more revealing:

  • “The first couple of days, it hurts, but after a while you have to take a little time and think about things.”
  • From the AP via Seattle Times: `When you get put into the situation that I’m in, it’s hard. You get hurt. Everyone has a sense of pride, but I’ve had time to think about it and I think I will go if I’m asked.’

They’re both variations of the same quote and the same theme of having his pride and feelings hurt. Most of us can relate to being stung – whether it’s being disrespected, not being appreciated, being rejected – and responding first with anger expressed through lashing out – or calling the NBA’s front office and saying we’re not going to participate in the ASG. But what we do next is where people’s individual processes vary. Sometimes when I’m angry, I have an immediate outlet and it’s rarely competitive sports. Maybe I dive into work or writing or I’m unfairly being a jackass to my wife. But whether I channel that anger with or without intention, it doesn’t result in anything resembling 61-point games. Other times I’m able to easily identify that what I’m feeling isn’t even anger, but hurt or sadness and I can skip the anger-manifested-as-fill-in-the-blank step and resolve the damn thing in the immediate.

02-08-16 - steph to malone

Where it would seem our species can walk fine lines is in how much these real or imagined slights grow and fester. For the pro basketball community, Michael Jordan is the standard bearer who leveraged slights and insults as well as any basketball player in history. For anyone who saw Jordan’s Hall of Fame speech, there was a sad bitterness at how MJ articulated his motivations dating back his high school years (sorry Leroy Smith) and carrying through his entire career. I don’t have any desire or intent to judge MJ’s vindictiveness or the benefits or risks of using that mentality as a value principle for succeeding in life other than to observe that it looks fucking exhausting.

What followed Malone’s seeming acceptance and resolution was no less interesting. On January 31st he was chosen as a reserve for the ASG, but awkwardly stated: “Maybe somebody would say, ‘He doesn’t really want to go.’ After all the attention, I don’t think it would have been a big disappointment not to be selected by the coaches.”

He still wasn’t comfortable with having missed out on the fan vote (again, by a ridiculously narrow margin) and it’s not crazy to at least ask if that frustration factored into his comments on February 6th when he said he would retire in five years – after the 1994-95 season when he’d still be 31.

I won’t go deep on the retirement comment other than to say the timing raises an eyebrow if nothing else. The last piece of this particular Malone-driven drama is what actually ended up happening at the All-Star Game in Miami. Malone didn’t end up playing and cited an injury as the reason. This would be one of two games Malone missed between 1989 and 1997 including regular season, playoffs and ASGs. I have no issue with players sitting out the mid-season games, but sitting this game coupled with the retirement talk are at least anecdotal evidence that this enormous chip that helped him achieve so much (like an insane 61-point game) had the power to impede progress.

These two weeks in the winter of 1990 serve as a dramatic microcosm of Malone’s psyche. Always well-respected, but long labeled a choker, Malone was truly a great player, but a great player who on occasion struggled with the mental aspects of the game. In this way, he’s infinitely relatable. Who among us hasn’t struggled with some mental hurdle that seems pre-loaded into our psyches? And who hasn’t accomplished some thing by some inborn flame which is as old as our individual history? Malone in greatness and bitterness is still just a man – who happens to be 6’9”, 270lbs capable of scoring 61 points and grabbing 18 rebounds in 33 minutes of a pro basketball game.

 

Legends, Myths and Man: James Harden

Not so long ago a little black boy showed up at a mountain temple somewhere in Europe or South America. At the gates of this immaculately hidden temple, a giant stood guard. He wore a long robe that had once been pristinely white, but over time became a slushy gray. On his feet, the brown giant wore a pair of Nike Force 180 Pumps, casually untied. The giant looked down at the little black boy with his zip-up hoodie and duffel bag whose brown eyes peered upward towards the giant’s gaze. Their eyes met and the little boy didn’t blink or swallow or reveal any indication of nervousness.

The giant’s mouth opened, it was big enough to swallow the boy whole, but instead of cannibalizing the kid, words rained down on the boy like an avalanche of sound: “What do you call yourself, boy?”

The boy puffed his chest out with pride: “James Edward Harden.”

“Why are you at my gate?”

The boy puffed his chest out even more and rocked onto the balls of his feet, stretching to his maximum possible height and he recited the words that had become a part of him: “I’m here to learn the great game at the feet of the world’s greatest teachers…the disciples and descendants of Wooden, Auerbach, Naismith, Russell, West, Irving. And with all humbleness in my being, I ask for your acceptance.”

The giant stared back and began questioning James Edward Harden with a rapid fire assault of questions: “Who invented the game? What’s a diamond press breaker? Who is Black Jesus? Describe John Wooden’s pyramid of success. How many squares make up Boston’s parquet floor? What’s your personal definition of leadership? How do you respond to adversity?” It was an intense interview for a man of knowledge, let alone a pre-teen like James. But Harden, being a well-studied prodigy rattled off staccato answers: “Naismith, Earl Monroe, 112…”

The big man revealed a faint smile stretched across his giant’s lips: “Yesss…” the boy looked up at him, “Yes…YES!” the giant shouted and began to exhale a great embracing laugh that shook his whole body and scared James Harden more than it reassured him. He felt the sonic vibrations in his bird chest, the ground rumbled, the birds cried, the trees shook and the temple opened up to him. The giant stepped aside and James Harden crossed the threshold.

James Harden may or may not have perfected his ball-handling by dribbling up and down these stairs while being pressed and trapped by multiple defenders.

Boys and men in sandals and high tops, jerseys and robes moved throughout the temple and its surrounding gardens, all moving quickly, but without hurrying. There was a palpable sense of purpose inside these gates and James wanted to be a part of it. He slowly became acclimated with his surroundings and the tears that silently streaked down his cheeks at nightfall during the first few weeks eventually dried up and pain was replaced with peace; dreams of gyms full of basketballs; bouncing, soaring, nets splashing and swishing, floating down lazy rivers in rafts made of basketballs, men with round Spalding faces, faces he would caress and men he could trust. He would wander the temple grounds, in his oversized robe, thin ankles and wrists poking out, revealing his youth. The clouds hung low, the air was cold, but his robe warmed his body, his immense black beard protected his boyish face. The first few months, he didn’t touch a single ball and only occasionally did he glimpse one. He didn’t step foot on a court or hear the sound of nets or rims snapping. He walked calmly, exploring himself and his surroundings while the black beard grew into his skinny, hairless chest. He took a special interest in rocks, pebbles, stones and would drag his long, thin fingertips across the cool surfaces feeling the texture: Earth-worn, wind-washed, rain-rinsed. James preferred the smooth stones instead of rough or abrasive ones, round edges to sharp jagged ones. Fingers on both hands would explore these, reaching into an ancient geology through touch and sense. In particular moments of focus, he let his eyes relax, let the eyelids droop and trace the history of existence through the curves and indentations of the rocks. At night, he clutched them closely like pets or parents and fell asleep patiently awaiting his turn.

By the time he was introduced to a basketball for the first time, his hands explored it delicately, feeling the worn dimples, the weathered leather and his favorite part of the ball: the smooth black rubber channels that any hand naturally seeks out, but which James had an elevated appreciation. His first teacher was a dark, thin man with great white teeth, a mustachioed man with thinning short hair who would spin and pirouette with the ball and obsessively pounded basketballs in a complex manner: through the legs, behind the back, inside out, right-to-left-to-right in motion with impeccably timed spins and herky jerky fakes. Young bearded James would mimic his teacher, pounding basketballs until his arms and hands were fatigued, sweat pooling in his nest-like beard, sweat dripping, hanging from the tip of his nose, exhales blowing sweat through the air while he ran or spun bouncing balls with both hands baseline to baseline. But this was just the first of many teachers.

The ball became an extension, a new, more versatile version of the stones. His innate sense of touch allowed him to freely use both hands with equal dexterity; a trait he assumed all humans had…like walking with both feet or breathing through both nostrils. Once he began working with the architects, older men of all colors, men with thick, out-of-style glasses, men with silver hair, men who drew diagrams and repeated myriad theories; he was quickly identified and drilled more intensely due to his ability to identify a defense and its weaknesses. His sense of attacking and passing and when the situation called for one instead of the other was uncanny and quietly, out of earshot of little James, the silver-haired and bald men who were too stoic to express themselves with excitement and pride would overflow in awe; each attempting to outdo the others in praising the young boy with the old man’s beard.

In the hands of these master builders; players, coaches, Woodenites and Auerbachers, Harden’s prodigious talents were sculpted and groomed (his game, not his beard which became something of a black hair-covered elephant in the room; a beard so massive it was tied up in rubber bands or a net and collected burrs, thorns and leaves like animal fur would). With a largely diverse collection of styles and his obvious athleticism, Harden quickly developed a hybrid style built on the foundations of American street ball, collegiate fundamentals, European improvisation and timing; a game not predicated on speed, but on timing, deception, acceleration and deceleration with broad strokes of the mysterious South American style so influenced by the beautiful game of football with its passing, cutting and interwoven pieces. His teachers were legends and scholars; wise in the language of basketball…a game in which he became fluent in all styles.

James Harden glided over every hurdle they put in front of him with ease and grace. And it was decided, with James’s reluctant, but eventual agreement, that in order for him to achieve his true potential, he would have to return to the land of his birth and reveal a new style, a new to way to play—and although he took great joy in basketball, James never considered a game, but rather an expression of art, of self, of unity. So it was he accepted his eventual departure. To say goodbye to his second family, his world of extremely tall and talented fathers, a family of brothers, older and younger, was difficult, but necessary. He shaved his beard, packed up his meager possessions—basketball shoes, shorts, sweatpants and sweatshirts and a few of his favorite rocks—and set out on a journey to California to a high school called Artesia…fitting since in ancient dialects it translates to “Many will enter these doors, but James will be chosen.”

There are no known photos or even artwork of James Harden’s time at the mysterious (mythical?) temple, but if you close your eyes at night, you can almost conjure up the image of the young James Harden resting with his lean back and narrow shoulders against the trunk of a giant tree, his eyes soft with meditation, a smooth stoned cradled caringly in young hands with dirty fingernails.

*(The rest of the James Harden story is well-known and has been thoroughly documented by many sources. A simple web-search for “James Harden bio” will reveal multiple results—most of which contain mostly factual information.)

**The history above is in no way meant to indicate that James Harden arrived at Artesia High School with all of his skills intact, as a fully-developed, NBA-ready guard, but rather that the foundation of his game was created in the aforementioned idyllic setting. Additionally, the nuance and details of his style reflects numerous coaches and former players. The degree to which his style is more reflective of one player than another is a point that continues to be debated even by the men who raised him.

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