James Edwards Harden, Jr. was born on August 26, 1989, in Los Angeles California to Monja Willis and James Harden Sr. (Click here for a complete listing of today's sports birthdays.) His father was in the Navy at the time, and he later drifted into drugs and was in and out of jail. James had little interest in his father, even when he later showed up at his high school games. To this day, James refuses to use Jr. when he writing his name. Monja had a steady job as an administrator with AT&T in Pasadena.
James was Monja’s third child. He had two siblings—10 and 14 years older—including a half-brother, Akili Roberson. He was a star quarterback for Locke High School in South L.A. and later the University of Kansas.
James spent most of his childhood in the Rancho Dominguez section of Compton. Like Akili, he was a big, fast, athletic boy who was drawn to the basketball court, which oozed talent and competition 12 months a year in the L.A. area. Unfortunately, James also suffered from asthma. At home, he was a quick-fingered video game player. At school, he was an attentive and serious student. James was a huge UCLA hoops fan. His favorite player was Jason Kapono.
Rancho Dominguez was one of the emerging working-class sections of the notorious Los Angeles suburb, with less violent crime but more break-ins and property theft. That was enough for Monja to want to send James out of the neighborhood for schooling. In 2003, he enrolled at Artesia High School in Lakewood, about 15 minutes away. Monja had done the same for Akili, sending him to a grade school in the San Fernando Valley.
Artesia had a powerful hoops program with a long and impressive history. James didn’t know about it until he arrived on campus and saw pictures of Kapono in the gym. Among the other college stars who played for the Pioneers were Tom Tolbert, Tony Farmer and the O’Bannon brothers, Ed and Charles. The coach of the varsity was Scott Pera. James cracked the starting lineup as a sophomore in 2004–05, contributing 13.2 points per game and helping Artesia finish with a 28–5 record.
By his junior year, James had grown several inches and now stood well over six feet. He had also developed a reliable left-handed jump shot and had his asthma under control. Pera thought Jameswas ready to play a larger role in the offense, but the teenager didn’t want to appear selfish. Pera knew he could do it—although James was quiet and respectful around him, he was a boisterous and popular player in the locker room. Eventually, James’s mother told him to do whatever his coach said—or he’d have to deal with her!
James stepped up in 2005-06 and led the Pioneers to the state championship. He averaged nearly 20 points a game as Artesia fashioned a 33–1 record. That summer, James continued to develop as the star of the Pump N Run AAU team, regularly pouring in 20-plus points a game and playing great defense. At the Super 64 tournament in Las Vegas in late July, he turned heads when he netted 67 points in two games on the same day, all while facing future college stars Kevin Love, Nolan Smith, Austin Freeman and Michael Beasley.
Artesia repeated as state champs in 2006-07 under new coach Loren Grover, going 33–2. James was good for 15 to 20 points a game agai, and helped sophomore Renardo Sidney and junior Malik Story become stars. Recruiters were quick to note that James possessed a basketball IQ comparable to many NBA players.
ON THE RISE
The school that won the Harden sweepstakes was Arizona State. It was a no-brainer. Pera was now an assistant there, and Monja was moving to nearby Phoenix to take care of a home that her mother had left to her in her will.
Herb Sendek’s Sun Devils were considered no better than a .500 team heading into the 2007–08 season. They were also viewed as one of the weakest teams in the Pac-10. James took command of the team from the shooting guard position. Working with sophomore point man Derek Glasser and junior forward Ty Pendergraph, he led a young squad to a 9–9 conference record and an overall mark of 21–13. He was tops on the club with 17.8 points and 2.1 steals per game. He also led Arizona State with a 40.7% mark from 3-point range. His 73 steals were three short of the school record, held by Fat Lever.
The Sun Devils narrowly missed an NCAA Tournament bid and played in the NIT instead. They won twice before the Florida Gators took them out. James, meanwhile, was named First Team All Pac-10 and was a member of the confeence All-Freshman Team as well. Despite these accolades, he was growing tired of hearing how young he was. James decided to start growing a beard to look more mature. It started as a goatee and never stopped. That beard would come to define him—almost as much as his maturing game.
Heading into his sophomore season at ASU, James became a local legend, especialy after students began wearing t-shirts that said "Die Harden Fan." He was the toast of Tempe after pouring in 40 points against UTEP in a game right after Thanksgiving. It was the fifth-highest scoring performance in school history and helped James boost his scoring average to near the top of the Pac-10. He finished with a 20.1 average, led the conference in steals for the second season in a row, and was voted Pac-10 Player of the Year. He was the third player in school history to be named the conference’s top performer. Eddie House and Ike Diogu had previously won the award.
The Sun Devils went 20–10, finished fourth in the conference, and earned a bid to the 2009 NCAA tourney. Arizona State was seeded sixth in the South region and beat Temple in the opening round. James shot poorly in the game, but Glasser and Pendergraph combined for 44 points to pick up the slack. ASU lost in the next round to third-seeded Syracuse, 78–67. James struggled again, making just two shots from the field. This would turn out to be his final college game. He declared himself eligible for the NBA draft.
Blake Griffin was the draft’s biggest prize, and the Los Angeles Clippers grabbed him with the first pick. James went two selections later to the Oklahoma City Thunder. He had worked out for the team prior to draft day and later sent a note to GM Sam Presti listing the reasons he wanted to play for the Thunder. That sealed the deal—Oklahoma City decided to make him the #3 pick.
The Thunder were coming off a 23–59 season, but they were loaded with young talent. Coach Scott Brooks was charged with molding Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Jeff Green and fellow 20-year-old Serge Ibaka into a cohesive unit. James would be a big part of that effort. Brooks used the bright young rookie as his sixth man, spelling starter Thabo Sefolosha at shooting guard. James averaged 9.9 points, playing just under two quarters a game. He was named to the NBA All-Rookie Second Team. More important, he helped the Thunder turn their record around, as they finished 50–32.
In the first round of the playoffs, the Thunder put a scare into the mighty Lakers. L.A. managed two close wins to start the series, but Oklahoma City won the next two to even the series. James made three of four 3-pointers and scored 18 points in Game 3 and added 15 points and a pair of steals in Game 4. The Lakers won Game 5 and barely survived a wild Game 6 on the Thunder’s home court, advancing with a 96–95 victory.
The 2010-11 season found James in the sixth man role once again. He proved to be a valuable X Factor, providing a boost wherever the Thunder needed it. His long-range scoring touch drew out the defense and created room for Durant and the big men to maneuver inside. Though just 21, James was one of the most respected players on the Oklahoma City roster.
The Thunder enjoyed a second straight 50-win season, finishing with a total of 55 victories to nail down first place in the Northwest Division. James averaged 12.2 points per game and was third on the team in assists and steals. He hit 34.9% of his 324 attempts from beyond the arc.
Oklahoma City made a valiant run in the playoffs. After extinguishing the hopes of the Denver Nuggets in five games, they survived a seven-game struggle with the Memphis Grizzlies that turned on a triple-overtime victory in Game 4. Down two games to one, the Thunder won 133–123 to tie the series. James had 19 points and led the club with seven assists in the game. The Thunder won two of the next three to reach the Western Conference Finals. After splitting the first two games in Dallas, the team looked like it had a chance to reach the NBA Finals. But experience trumped youth, as the Mavericks won three straight to take the series. All five games were close.
MAKING HIS MARK
The Thunder continued their climb toward a championship in 2011–12. They won the Northwest Division again with a 47–19 record. James established himself as the finest sixth man in the league, averaging 31.4 minutes and 16.8 points per game. He topped 20 points 14 times and had games of 30, 33 and 40 points—all coming off the bench. By almost any metric, James ranked among the most efficient scorers in the league. Not surprisingly, he was named NBA Sixth Man of the Year.
The 40-point game came on April 18, against the Phoenixx Suns. Two games later, James was leveled by an elbow from Ron Artest, who was celebrating a dunk. James left the game and was diagnosed with a concussion. The next time he took the floor, the Thunder were playing the Mavs in the opening round of the playoffs. Oklahoma City gained a measure of revenge when they swept Dallas. James made a statement in Game 4, leading the team with 29 points on 11-of-16 shooting.
Next came payback against the Lakers. The Thunder won in five games, and James scored 80 points and totalled eight steals in the series. The Western Conference Finals was another youth vs. experience confrontation, and this time youth won, as Oklahoma beat the San Antonio Spurs in six games. The Spurs actually took the first two games, but they ran out of gas as the Thunder swept the final four meetings. James scored 30 in a Game 2 loss and went for 20 in the pivotal Game 5 victory.
The Thunder faced the Miami Heat and the triumvirate of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in the NBA Finals. Many favored the Thunder, partly because of the intangibles that James provided. Oklahoma City took Game 1, and the Heat barely survived Game 2 to even the series. Miami then won the next three in a row to claim the NBA title. Miami did an excellent job limiting James’s impact on games, which was seen as a key to their victory. He hit just seven 3-pointers in five games.
To the surprise of many casual basketball fans, James was asked to join teammates Durant and Westbrook on the Olympic Team that summer. He saw little action in London, as Team USA went 8–0, beating Spain in the gold medal game.
Back in the U.S., an interesting drama soon began unfolding. Believing it had the makings of a Western Conference dynasty, Oklahoma City was determined to sew up James with an extension worth more than $12 million a year. To their surprise, he was resistant to the idea. He believed he ranked among the best players in basketball and felt he should be paid accordingly. When a contract could not be worked out, the Thunder cut bait and traded James to Houston in a multi-player deal that brought a pair of first-round draft picks to Oklahoma City. Knowledgeable basketball fans were shocked, and Thunder fans were outraged.
The Rockets signed James to an $80 million extension early in the 2012–13 season. He was already paying dividends at that point, scoring at a championship pace and providing leadership to a team that included point guard Jeremy Lin, forward Chandler Parsons and center Omer Asik. With 82 points in his first two games as a Rocket, James had one of the greatest starts for a new team in NBA history.
As the young leader of a team long on talent but short on experience, James is carrying a major load. Fortunately for him and the Rockets, he’s seen with his own eyes what it takes to boost a young team into 50-win territory. His ability to work with Lin—and the flshy point guard’s ability to stay healthy—will likely set the tone for his first season with the Rockets.
JAMES THE PLAYER
As a sixth man, James was one of the most effective all-around players in the NBA. No matter the situation, he understood how to make his team better and had the skills to make that happen. The timing of his move to the Rockets may have been perfect. Given time in Oklahoma City to master the nuances of pro basketball as a supporting player, he served a valuable apprenticeship for his role as a young leader in Houston.
James is a dangerous offensive player. He is deadly from long range, can create his own shot inside the arc, and will attack the basket if defenders get too aggressive. His shooting accuracy and his shot selection are superb.
As the #1 option in Houston, James will need to take more shots, and hopefully they will continue to be good ones. One of the more interesting stats from 2011–12 was his scoring when neither Durant nor Westbrook was on the court—just a smidge under a point a minute.
James is a smart, athletic defender, a solid rebounder for his position, and a skilled passer. Indeed, in those minutes when he was not on the floor with the two scorers in Oklahoma City, his assist totals actually rose by 50%!
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