The ascent took time. Before the league honors and co-starring roles next to Kate Upton, before the mounds and mounds of free throws and, yes, even before that wonderful facial hair, there was baby fat to be shed, a lazy streak to lose, a tentativeness to curb.
The talent was there; that discovery came before the ability to dunk. But James Harden's rise from an asthmatic high school unknown to off-the-bench wunderkind on one of the biggest forces in American sports was a process. Each step of the way, an adjustment period was needed.
But his transformation from a future superstar budding behind the wattage of his already fully established teammates in Oklahoma City to the anointed superstar running his own show in Houston took no time at all. In fact, it came down to less than an hour.
Months of negotiations toward a contract extension culminated in one final offer from the Oklahoma City Thunder, which, according to a Yahoo! Sports report, Harden was given an hour to consider. Terms, of course, still could not be reached. So at around 10 p.m. CT on Oct. 27, while Oklahomans were fixated on their Sooners' gridiron clash with Notre Dame, word spread through the Interwebs that the Thunder had dealt Harden to the Houston Rockets.
Two decades spent fixated on always making the right play came down to a single decision, and Harden, renowned for his ability to create for himself as he does others, chose isolation. Or, depending how you look at it, the Thunder chose it for him.
Still, it's a path that at some point became predetermined. The superb efficiency, the way he commanded a second team like it was his own, the dynamic yet effortless way he racked up gobs of points, the groundswell of support for his untamed avatar -- the silhouette of the NBA's next elite wing already existed.
Now it is official: Harden is the driving force of the Houston Rockets. He is The Man, much in the same way the Carmelos and LeBrons were at earlier stages of their careers. Jeremy Lin remains the focal point of the Rockets' media presence, but that is at least partly a result of the swiftness with which the deal developed and the trade's proximity to each team's season opener. Houston GM Daryl Morey has often called Harden a piece to build around, not with, and the Rockets' success, now and in the future, is reliant on Harden's offensive production.
All of it is now Harden's reality, even if he's had only a month to process it. His past role in the NBA, he says, still feels all too close. The trip to get there, although years in the making, feels too brief.
"Short," he said.
Following a morning shootaround, Harden shoots his way around the 3-point arc of the East-most basket at Staples Center before parking himself in one of the leather baseline seats. While Lin occupies a small, mostly New York-based crowd of reporters, the 2-guard -- flu-stricken from the fluctuation in climates during the Rockets' West Coast trip -- watches as his knees are wrapped in ice and readies himself for a familiar line of questioning, sweat dribbling from the shaved sides of his head into his beard.
This is just how I was introduced to Harden almost eight months earlier: Packing probing questions, I sat down with the Sixth Man of the Year shoo-in after a Thunder shootaround at Santa Monica High School, about 20 minutes west of Staples Center. With Kevin Durant and Derek Fisher -- who was readying for his return game after a recent trade out of town -- occupying the pre-pregame huddle of journalists, we sat on the sidelines of the aging court and I set off in an attempt to find out who he saw himself being in this league.
Harden's words were as efficient as his game. His answers were precise and respectful, with little time spent on unnecessary embellishing. Outerwear is where the flash ends. But while he talked up his All-Star teammates and his willingness to sacrifice for them, to build something special in Oklahoma City with them, his accounts have always nimbly avoided any notion that he can't be or doesn't want to be a go-to player, as if phrases that might trigger controversy have been wiped from his vocabulary.
There is no outright public declaration that he wants to be this, wants to be that. But there is a noticeable confidence in his ability to be successful doing whatever it is, and that he would like to be recognized for it.
"I'm used to it," Harden said in that first conversation about flying under the radar most of his career. "I'm used to it now. So I take it and run with it. Just keep improving and show people that I can really play."
Two weeks ago, I asked if he remembered our original chat, and he said he did. I asked how long ago that felt, and he said short.
Thrown off -- given all that had happened since, the chat seemed ages ago to me -- I (rather foolishly) asked what amounted to the same question.
"No," he said. "Feels short."
Straight and to the point.
The proceeding line of questioning ended similarly to the previous one, right down to the clichés. Harden appeared guarded, and justifiably so; I am, after all, some dude with a recorder attempting to seek insight from a 23-year-old with the sniffles after practice.
After we finished, a national television reporter armed with a camera crew sauntered over and asked for a moment of Harden's time.
"This gonna be on ESPN?" he asked with a tinge of hope. They answered affirmatively and he used the front end of his shirt to clear the sweat droplets parachuting from his brow.
He was now ready for the star treatment.
Harden's debut as a leading man reaffirmed everything that was hinted at in smaller doses.
Days removed from being sent south from Oklahoma City and with a new five-year, $80 million contract in hand, Harden deftly Euro-stepped past defenders on his way to the hoop and smoothly dished off passes off pick-and-rolls in a win against the listless Pistons. His final line resembled his previous efficient outputs in OKC, only juiced by 44 minutes and 25 shots: 37 points, 12 assists, 6 rebounds, 4 steals and 4 turnovers.
He would only outdo himself the next night, putting up 45 points on 19 shots in a win over the Hawks. But teams caught on quickly. With the Rockets still struggling to adapt to a playbook that had been reshuffled upon his arrival, Harden would score 20 points or fewer in five of Houston's next nine games.
"This league watches film," interim Rockets coach Kelvin Sampson said recently. "They'll figure out what you're doing, where you get your shots. In pick-and-rolls, he's seeing a lot more traps now. He's got a man-and-a-half in his area at times now whereas the first two games he just played one-on-one. But he's doing a better job at moving the ball, too. And that's the next step. When someone adjusts to you, you have to adjust back."
Harden's minutes have soared into the league's top five, one spot below Durant, and he admits he is feeling it physically. As a result, virtually all of his offensive averages have risen, including an eight-plus-point leap in scoring, also good for a top-five slot. The shooting percentages are not as glossy as they once were, but his player efficiency rating, which once foretold his current success, is almost exactly the same: 21.13 then, 21.89 now.
"He's always been aggressive, now he's being a little more aggressive now that he's the go-to guy," said Daequan Cook, who along with Cole Aldrich was traded to Houston along with Harden. "[He's] doing the right things with the ball, making the right plays. Just being more of a leader out there on the court, knowing there's a lot more on his shoulders."
Harden has been a go-to player before, both in high school and at college in Arizona State. But even when his ability clearly dictated that he operate the offense, in both scenarios he was initially hesitant to fully embrace becoming a dominant force. His natural disposition was to sacrifice, which made for an easy fit with ball-hungry running mates like Durant and Russell Westbrook.
The green light is now on at all times for him and he has adapted quickly, as evidenced by a seven-plus uptick in his nightly shot attempts. This is the NBA dream for most up-and-coming players. Or at least it used to be.
"My dream was to be in the NBA," Harden said. "I wasn't really focused on being a star player on a team. I just wanted to make it to the NBA. I've been blessed for the opportunities to be in the Finals, been in the playoffs ever since I've been in the NBA. This is a new role, a new step, so it's something I'm looking forward to."
My dream was to be in the NBA. I wasn't really focused on being a star player on a team. I just wanted to make it to the NBA.
”-- James Harden
Part of this is simply personality; Harden has to this point let his play or his loud outfits serve as his public persona while any desire for the spotlight remains generally suppressed. But it also a clear representation of how players must now view success.
Largely because of national AAU trips in their childhood, elite-level players want to play together. But now, with several teams skyrocketing into contention based on free-agent decisions, it is also a necessity. So even though he will finally satisfy any what-ifs he may have had about becoming The Man, Harden also seems to recognize that he will need to reestablish what he just left behind to do so.
With Lin and the emerging Chandler Parsons, Harden will surely bypass the 20-win seasons the Thunder endured while stocking up on high draft picks. Upcoming cap space will help, too. But after being days away from embarking on another run at a championship, Harden is starting fresh with another group of talented twentysomethings.
There is new chemistry to be built, new images to cultivate, new accomplishments to strive to. Only this time, Harden will be the principal player looked to for guidance, for leadership.
"Not just Jeremy. The whole team, the whole organization," he said. "Them doing what I'm coming from and what I like to do, and me knowing them -- it's going to take some time. But I think our chemistry off the court and on the court is building. We hang out pretty often, so time will tell."
Once again, Harden embarks on another process.
"I love it [in Houston]," Harden said, "It happened the way it happened. Just can't look back, you can only look forward to things I want to do and things I need to do to be successful."