- Justin Verrier, NBA
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It began as a submission to indifference. (Because after all, James Harden is still only 22.) The facial hair Harden had been farming ever since he first sprouted whiskers was growing at a rate too rapid to keep kempt. So he relented and put away his razor for good.
"I didn't want to cut it anymore," he said, "so I just let it grow."
Now the jet-black forest that dangles past his Adam's apple and the poof of hair that sits atop his buzz-cut dome like a tiny Shriners cap identify Harden more than his effortless jump-shooting stroke or the smoothness with which he slaloms through the lane.
But his furry avatar -- with hairstyles that symbolize the rebellion of two different eras crammed atop a generally at-ease reserve guard with nary a tattoo or piercing -- is just as much the product of a process as his skill set.
First came the shadow of a goatee he proudly shows off in the team photo from his senior year at Artesia High, a moment in time that hangs alongside shots of the O'Bannon brothers and Jason Kapono in the Lakewood, Calif., office of longtime Artesia employee Gerry Ellis. It consumed the rest of his baby face at Arizona State, and by the time he was drafted by the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2009, Harden was in full-blown lumberjack mode.
"It took forever to grow in," said former high school and college teammate Derek Glasser, "and once it did, it never left."
Now, in Harden's third year in the pros, The Beard -- capital T, capital B -- has fully bloomed. So, too, has his game.
With expectations raised this season after a strong finish to his sophomore campaign, the cerebral and meticulous shooting guard has carved out a niche, a slice of celebrity on a roster flush with young talent. Now the wunderkind sixth man and presumed heir apparent to Manu Ginobili, Harden has his own hardware (this year's Sixth Man of the Year award), his own spot on the preliminary U.S. Olympic roster and his own hand in helping the Thunder to a second straight Western Conference finals. They currently find themselves down 2-0 to the San Antonio Spurs heading into Thursday night's Game 3.
The wait and work have again given way to impressive results.
"He's always been a guy that didn't necessarily burst on the scene," said Scott Pera, who coached Harden for five years in stints at Artesia and Arizona State. "He would kind of survey, feel his way out, then just gradually figure it out and get better. That's how he was in high school, that's how he was at Arizona State, and that's exactly how he is for the Oklahoma City Thunder."
Harden entered the NBA with style. It wasn't as flashy as the blue getup he donned for his senior prom, but the checkered, purple bow tie that accented his shiny, three-piece tan suit was the most eye-catching accessory of a relatively tame fashion display on draft night 2009.
The image lingered for too long, though, as his NBA highlight. Despite some encouraging signs, his June 25 catwalk to shake the commissioner's hand was still the most memorable basketball-related performance a year-plus into his career. It didn't help that Tyreke Evans and Stephen Curry, guards who came off the board after Harden was selected No. 3 overall, sizzled early.
But when Jeff Green, a player at the core of the franchise's transition down south and its third option at the time, was shipped out at last year's trade deadline, the Thunder effectively committed to a future in which Harden would be heavily involved. It didn't take long for the left-handed 2-guard to make good on the opportunity.
After surging in the second half of his second season, Harden thrived in his first full go-round as OKC's first man off the bench and do-everything leader of the second unit. Harden became the second-youngest Sixth Man of the Year award winner after averaging 16.8 points, 4.1 rebounds and 3.7 assists a game to go with a 21.13 player efficiency rating (PER).
"Last year, when the trade happened, when Perk [Kendrick Perkins] came over, I got a little bit more opportunities to be aggressive and be a playmaker," he said. "From then on, I wanted to improve my game. This summer, I obviously wanted to come back and help this team go far."
Harden's versatility has become one of the greatest assets on a team top-heavy with star power after he was backhandedly labeled a complementary piece at the start of his career.
Need someone to fill it up? Harden scored 30 or more points three times this season, including a 40-point effort against the Suns on only 17 shots. Need someone to run the offense? Harden effectively mans the point for his merry band of reserves and handles the ball at times for the first team. Need defense? Harden (6-foot-5, 220 pounds) pestered Kobe Bryant, one of his favorites growing up, just as well as or better than defensive specialist and starting shooting guard Thabo Sefolosha in the second round of this year's playoffs.
Spot-up shooting? A few quick free throws? Crunch-time scoring? Harden does a little of it all (except maybe go right with the same gusto as which he goes left). He's the third-best player for a team on which he's effectively its best all-around player. Now his performance is as much a cog of the Oklahoma City machine as Kevin Durant's feathery jumpers and Russell Westbrook's bull rushes.
The complementary has quickly become necessity.
"Once you get confidence in this league, your game can go up leaps and bounds, and that's what happened to James," Durant said. "He's getting more opportunities to control the ball, be more of a scorer for us this year. He's excelled, man. He's having an unbelievable year -- shooting the ball, passing the ball; he's doing a lot defending for us as well. We expect a lot out of James, and it's nothing new to us that he's playing so well."
Nor are the panache and exuberance that have slowly funneled out the usually guarded Harden this season.
The hip-hop junkie is known to burst out the lyrics he studies in the locker room. "He knows every song," Daequan Cook said. "He'll hear it word for word, makes sure everything makes sense." Harden now shows off some of the same flavor he flashes in his postgame attire on the court, throwing up three fingers after triples, bellowing after big made buckets and doling out unique, complex handshakes in pregame like any good bench player would.
"All the 3 [signs] and laughing -- It all comes with the package," he said. "That excitement on the court, I'm the same way off the court. I like to have fun, meet people; I like to give high-fives to the kids courtside. Just have fun. That's kind of my personality, that's how I've been. And I'm definitely starting to show it a lot more now."
There was always the shot. Before Harden learned to worm his way through the defense or draw contact at the rim or capitalize on his advanced court vision, a soft touch from the perimeter carried the unknown kid with a lazy streak to Artesia, a Los Angeles public school power, and to Pera, who recently had been brought in to clean up a program shaken by recruiting scandal.
There was much work to be done, for both of them.
"He gets mad when they say he was chubby, and he doesn't like talking about asthma," Pera said. "That stuff makes him really mad. But he wasn't a heralded freshman. We had a lot of good players come to Artesia, but he was just another decent player."
"All he could do was shoot a corner 3," said Glasser, who played with Harden at Artesia for three seasons.
Unable to dunk when he arrived, Harden spent his first two years of prep ball honing the fundamentals, with Pera, empowered by the blessings of Harden's no-nonsense mother, pushing him every step of the way. When his body finally caught up, the big-time colleges and local All-Star lists that initially overlooked him came calling. But still miffed by the early doubters and intent on leaving his imprint on a program, Harden informed Pera he would follow him and Glasser to Arizona State when Pera left for an assistant coaching position after Harden's junior season.
"In 20 years, I don't think I've ever had anybody say anything that's meant more to me," Pera said. "I don't know if he even realizes it."
There wasn't any doubt when he arrived in Tempe, Ariz., no hemming or hawing about when or in what capacity he would play. Harden was the star, the only high school All-American for a program that had only three NCAA tournament appearances in 28 years leading up to his arrival.
But that was a large part of the appeal. He heard the school names that accompanied the players at the 2007 McDonald's All-American game, one rife with future NBA stars like Derrick Rose, Kevin Love and Blake Griffin. Duke. Syracuse. Indiana. Arizona State? It didn't fit. But for Harden, it did.
"I didn't want to go to a high-powered school," he said. "I wanted to blaze my own trail and start something and have my name in the rafters. Not saying I wouldn't be able to at a high-powered school, but I really wanted to make a name for myself. Put a program on the map."
Pera had spent his first seasons at Artesia campaigning on Harden's behalf, telling recruiters what he had here; there were few listeners then. But even the coach who had helped mold his game was initially struck by just how freakin' good he was, particularly his knack for scoring.
There was only one problem: He wouldn't shoot in practice.
"I'd be like, 'James, what are you doing?' And he'd say, 'Nah, Coach. I don't want these guys to think I'm a ball hog. I want to play my game, let them know I'm a good teammate. ... When it's time to shoot in a game, I'll shoot,'" Pera said. "That's kind of the way he approached things.
"I thought it was brilliant by James, to bring his teammates into him. We talked about it, and I told him, 'Hey, you're smarter than me. [Laughs.] I should've told you to do that.'"
Always in search of a good shot, Harden often deferred on the court, to the point where Glasser almost felt the need to remind him that he was supposed to take over. But there also were games when he wanted to prove himself. Glasser said Harden used to keep an eye on the numbers Curry and other top college players were putting up, and with 40 points in range late in an early-season game against UTEP in his sophomore season, Harden went looking for a response to a recent big night from the dead-eye Davidson 2-guard.
Derek, I need 40.
He scored exactly 40 points on 25 shots in an 88-58 victory. With a baggy undershirt his notable accessory of choice then, Harden earned first-team All-American honors after averaging 20.1 points, 5.6 rebounds and 4.2 assists on the season and leading Arizona State to a No. 6 seed in the NCAA tournament.
"I think it was a perfect decision for me," Harden said. "I got to learn a lot. Like how to carry a team by myself, not having other McDonald's All-Americans around me and high-profile guys around me. Me, as a leader, my leadership grew in my two years when I was there."
Sam Presti could see the talent. Most could, even as the Sun Devils quickly flamed out in the tourney and Harden finished his two-year tenure with some of the worst performances of his career. (He was a combined 3-for-18 in two games.) But with two budding stars already on the roster he was building from the ashes of two gruesome seasons and the franchise's forgotten legacy, the Thunder GM was sold most on Harden's ability to thrive without dominating the ball.
"He's a high-level shooter and also a high-level decision-maker. We thought that those were two traits that would fit with us," Presti said. "More than anything, what gave us confidence with that is that winning matters, that he wanted to be a part of something, and understood that he might have to make some sacrifices to do that.
"Winning is really important to him, and he wanted to be a part of wanting a chance to win. He not only said that, but he backed it up by accepting a role and waiting for that role to ultimately expand as the team evolved and he evolved as a player."
But even though Harden has shed his baby fat and grown into his role as the game's most recognized utility man, a jack-of-all-trades with a style more garish than a Jack of Clubs, he seems most comfortable when he is free of the other superstars on the roster, on a second unit that revolves around him.
He's got a beard down to his chest. He's a little different. And he's not afraid to be a little different.
”-- Arizona State assistant Scott Pera
Harden has struggled for the most part in the past two rounds of the 2012 postseason, surviving mostly on his knack for drawing fouls while his efficiency has forsaken him; he shot 36 percent from the field against the Lakers and was 7-for-17 in Game 1 against the Spurs before bouncing back with 30 points on 13 shots, again in a loss. But his defining moment, both in these playoffs and perhaps of his 254-game career, came when the Thunder handed him the ball and let him loose in Game 4 of their first-round series against the Dallas Mavericks. Exploding off the pick-and-roll, Harden sliced up the defending champions for 15 fourth-quarter points in the series' deciding game.
"I got into attack mode," Harden said afterward. "I was determined to make plays."
Presti saw that as well. "With James, we were hopeful that he would continue to develop as a playmaker," he said.
For Harden, it's a familiar endpoint, the conclusion that has come with each stop in his basketball life thus far: first reluctance, then adaptation, then stardom.
But in each of the two previous cases, that last step also has always involved both the ball being in his hands and a step up to the next level. With both Durant and Westbrook having recently re-upped with max extensions, the former is unlikely without the latter outside of his current second-unit showcase. And while more title runs presumably await a Thunder team that figures to somehow get better in the coming years, the lure of becoming the focal point again seems to grow stronger the closer we get to this summer, when talk of contracts and the long-term future of Harden and Serge Ibaka will begin to come into play.
"Every situation's different," Presti said when asked whether the small-market Thunder would be able to keep both and whether they would be willing to go into the (soon-to-be-more-punitive) luxury tax to do so. "It's a little bit of a hypothetical question. A lot of things have to take place before we make that decision. But I can tell you that we've consistently said, since 2008, that we wanted to build a team that could grow and sustain, and James is an important part of that. We're looking forward to working on that at the appropriate time."
"We're like a family here," Harden said. "We're just going to have fun and try to win as many games as possible and enjoy the rest of the season. Whenever that time comes, we'll deal with it then."
Harden has always sought comfort in familiar surroundings. He followed his former coach and friend to Arizona State. He already knew Durant and Westbrook some before arriving in Oklahoma, and immediately felt welcomed by a young roster that sometimes functions more like a summer camp troop.
But for a player whose game and appearance fit that of an attention-grabbing star athlete, passing up any opportunity to be one again would seem odd to some. Although those who have followed Harden's rise closely aren't sure of his intentions for the coming seasons, they're confident that he could flourish with more responsibilities.
"He was still a little undervalued and underrecruited going through the whole high school process, even though he was a McDonald's All-American," Glasser said. "In college, he came back for his sophomore year. And even though he was the third pick in the draft, everyone was talking about more than him. And even to now. He's stuck behind Durant and Westbrook. If he was on a different team or a bigger market -- not that nobody knows about him now, but it would be on a different level."
Then again, Harden has never been one to shy away from the unorthodox.
"He's got a beard down to his chest," Pera said. "He's a little different. And he's not afraid to be a little different."
The path that led James Harden to Sixth Man award eventually could carry him out of Oklahoma City.