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.