James Harden sat atop a fire truck with a group of friends and associates. As the sirens started blaring and the truck, wrapped with Harden’s image and signage, rolled forward, Christine Baccus stood nearby, waving to try to get one of her favorite former students’ attention.
He didn’t see her then.
When the truck passed where Baccus stood, Harden spotted her as she waved and his face transformed, going all the way back to that of a sixth-grader. He grinned and waved back like an excited 12-year-old, then blew a kiss at the woman who taught him English and history as a sixth-grader at Audubon Middle School.
Harden was back Sunday at the Los Angeles middle school he attended, this time to give back.
“I thought it was time,” Harden told The Times. “Ten years into my career. I’m more comfortable than I ever been. Just looking back throughout the season, how can I impact and put a touch on the kids lives. That’s something that I think about every day. This is the first stop.”
Harden partnered with Adidas to host 1,900 children and adults affiliated with the school or Adidas’ basketball programs for a block party called “Imma be a star.” They played basketball on some of the 12 courts whose construction, along with a planned renovation of the school’s gym, was paid for by Harden and the shoe company. Harden used to play in that same lot, shooting for bragging rights with his friends at any break they had in school.
After Harden’s grand entrance, he and his mother, Monja Willis, spoke to the crowd, then Adidas showed a video about his journey. Rappers Famous Dex and Rick Ross performed while Harden danced on the stage.
This is the first time Harden has participated in a project like this and he indicated that part of the reason is that he feels that he’s taken care of the other aspects of his life.
“Just basketball-wise. Business standpoint. Family. Just I’m in a really, really good place in my life right now,” said Harden, who added that his 2017-18 season with the Houston Rockets was the most fun he’d ever had. “Once I make sure myself is great, then I can make sure to help others out. Perfect timing.”
Harden could be named the league’s MVP at the NBA’s awards show in Santa Monica on Monday night.
Two of the women who always believed he could do this were there on Sunday at Audubon Middle School. His mother, whose happiness Harden says is the best part of all he’s accomplished, is one of them.
Sunday’s event centered around a letter Harden once wrote to his mother. He asked for some money, and for a wake-up call. He added a postscript that read: “Save this paper. Imma be a star.”
She thinks she gave him five or 10 dollars that he probably spent on a burrito. And she did save that paper.
Baccus is the other. She said she remembers Harden’s hairstyles and his love of the book “Tuck Everlasting.”
“He wore a fro when fros weren’t even in,” Baccus said. “He knew he couldn’t wear the pick in his hair. In my room, he could not. He had to be a gentleman.”
Back in sixth grade, Harden once asked her if she thought he could make it to the NBA. She said she remembered telling him he could be anything he wanted to be.
Asked on Sunday if he was excited about Monday’s festivities, Harden deadpanned.
“What’s tomorrow night?” he said, waiting several seconds before he started laughing.