James Harden sat on a folding chair inside the worn gym at the middle school he attended in Los Angeles. It was the night before the NBA crowned him with its highest individual award. He was dressed in black pants and a black t-shirt whose gold lettering spelled out a message he once wrote in a letter to his mother.
He told her he was going to be a star one day. That’s not something he told people often, though, because adults tend to laugh at kids with such big plans.
“I had a dream,” Harden said Sunday afternoon. “That’s all I can tell you. I had a dream.”
On Monday night, Harden joined an elite fraternity. He won the NBA’s most valuable player award, beating out New Orleans’ Anthony Davis and Cleveland’s LeBron James. Harden walked onto the stage at the NBA awards show in Santa Monica wearing sunglasses and a black-patterned, beige coat. He hadn’t prepared a speech, but he couldn’t help but think back to his NBA journey.
“Sixth man of the year to MVP,” Harden said before walking off.
Harden became the first Houston Rockets player since Hakeem Olajuwon in 1994 to be named MVP. It came after a season in which Harden led the NBA in scoring with 30.4 points per game, three-pointers made with 265 and 50-point games with four. He notched the league’s first 60-point triple-double in January and, together with Chris Paul, his backcourt mate who also appears headed to the hall of fame, helped the Rockets to a franchise-record 65 wins.
In the days before Harden won the award, he didn’t think of it as something he needed to validate his season. How he felt was enough — this season was the most fun he’d had.
“Just basketball-wise, from a business standpoint, family,” Harden said. “Just, I’m in a really, really good place in my life.”
“We slept basketball,” said Monja Willis, Harden’s mother. “We woke up basketball, went to sleep basketball. I would leave work, take him to games, go back to work. Basketball was it.”
She remembers him sleeping with a basketball as a child. She remembers taking him to a high school court when he was 3 to see if he could shoot at that age. He played other sports, but basketball soon took over his life.
In middle school, Harden spent every break he could shooting with his friends for bragging rights. This weekend, Harden revealed 12 new outdoor basketball courts at the school, Audubon Middle School, and announced plans for other renovations at the school, for which he has partnered with Adidas.
From there he went to Artesia High School, then Arizona State, where he spent two seasons before declaring for the NBA draft.
“He called, he said ‘What do you think?’” said Christine Baccus, who taught Harden in sixth grade. “I said you can always go back to school. If that’s what you want to do. He was ready to help his mom and give her what he wanted her to have.”
Drafted No. 3 overall by Oklahoma City in 2009, he was ready, he thought, to be a star.
“I was humbled very quick,” Harden said. “Third overall pick, I was coming in, thought I was going to be a starter. I had to take a back seat and pull the bench. So that humbled me from the beginning.”
Three years later, Harden was named the league’s sixth man of the year, playing on a team with two stars who eventually would be named the league’s MVP.
Fretting about future salary cap problems, the Thunder traded Harden to Houston where he came into his own. He became a star on a new level. He dated famous women and experienced the scrutiny that comes with that.
Since the Rockets’ season ended with a Game 7 loss to the eventual champion Golden State Warriors, Harden has been unplugging. In that, He’s enjoyed the perks of his stardom. He went to Paris and Milan for Fashion Week, feeding a passion he’s only recently discovered. In Milan, he spent time with English menswear designer Neil Barrett, learning how he operates.
“Just the way he works, the way his mind races,” Harden said. “He’s just being creative. Always ahead of the game, is something that I took from him. It’s not just being complacent on what’s going on right now.”
That resonates with Harden immensely. Even though he is the MVP, even though he had his best season yet, Harden sees more in his future. He thought about that Sunday when he sat inside the middle school gym that once incubated those dreams.
“If it’s like a battery charger, I would be like at 82%,” Harden said. “I got a long way to go. I haven’t even hit my prime yet. Just maturity. Really studying, learning the game because obviously quickness and all that stuff isn’t going to be there the more I get older. Championships. MVPs. Just all those great things.”
He’ll get into how to get there eventually. On Monday night, though, his well-earned celebration continued.
Follow Tania Ganguli on Twitter @taniaganguli