For Sessions, a new regular feature, ESPN.com's Scoop Jackson sits down with the big names in sports for an in-depth interview about life beyond the game. As the U.S. men's basketball team begins its journey in the FIBA World Cup, Scoop reconnected with James Harden to discuss the payoff of hard work, the power of confidence and who is the best basketball player alive.
Scoop: Bottom line, you are on this team and a lot of players aren't, but in your mind, who is the best basketball player alive right now?
Scoop: That's what I was about to say, "including you." You made that sound like it was an easy answer.
Harden: It is. Myself.
Scoop: Then here's the question: Are you where you want to be basketball-wise, even if you are the best?
Harden: Nowhere near close. I've got a long way to go, a lot of learning to do, improvements to make. Um, you know, as long as I'm listening and focused on the right things, I can reach my potential.
Scoop: So in your mind, you haven't reached [your potential] yet?
Harden: Not even close.
Scoop: Then how do you get there? Does that come from work? Is it mental? Does it happen during the NBA season? What?
Harden: It comes through everything. Work ethic. Being in the gym all of the time. In events like this, learning from the best coaches, Coach K [Mike Krzyzewski], [Tom] Thibodeau and Monty Williams. Watching film. Watching other people play. I mean, you just, it's a variety of things where I learn and better my game.
Scoop: When you were a kid, did you ever think about things like this? Like, did you say: "I'm going to start for USA," "I'm going to play on the Olympic team," "I can see myself as being one of the best players alive." I mean, was that where your mind was or was it just about hoopin'?
Harden: I was just hoopin'. I was just hoopin' and trying to get better every single day, you know. Never would I have thought that I'd be in the position I am now. But now that I am in it, I gotta take full advantage of it. I have to make sure I'm not taking any days off, make sure every day that I'm working hard to compete. Because, you know, there are always people out there working hard.
Scoop: Yeah, because [I believe if people enjoy] the process that comes with working hard, the end results will take care of themselves.
Harden: Right, right.
Scoop: So you can attest to that?
Harden: Man, I'm focused. Focused on the right things. That's how I got to this point thus far. You know, you focus on the right things, you're doing the right things, and great things will come in the end.
Harden: And now I'm in the situation that I am now by hard work, my work ethic and focus.
Scoop: Has your confidence changed from, like, say, coming out of college?
Harden: Oh yeah, skyrocketed. Definitely. You know in college felt like I was, uh, a pretty good basketball player.
Scoop: That's what I'm trying to get to! I do know. I didn't mean to cut you off, but I remember you when you were in college and you played and you are still kinda, "I'm a badass. I still will get it in on anybody!"
Harden: Yeah, I was. But my confidence grows every year. From when I was a little kid to being the sixth man at OKC. Having that confidence, having that swag coming off the bench. And now my role with the Rockets to being on the USA team. You know, my confidence just keeps getting better. But I've always been confident because, as I said, of my work ethic. You put so much work in the gym; you know you've put those reps in with those moves. If you don't do that, you wouldn't have the confidence to go out there and do it at this high level.
Scoop: Do you come to practice every day with the mentality that, "OK, I need to show them that I'm the best player in here because I'm not going to really get a chance until maybe the Olympics or next year to prove to these guys that I am better than everyone else around me?"
Harden: No, it's more team. I'm not really focused on me individually. They don't really care about individual talents on this team. They just want to make sure everyone has the same mindset. The one goal to win the world championship. I think that's what's on everyone's minds.
Scoop: Best time of your life right now?
Harden: Yeah. Definitely. I'm enjoying this. Still trying to catch guys like LeBron, KD and Kobe. You know, just trying to catch those guys. That's something I get to look forward to every single day to motivate me.
Scoop: That's your motivation? Still those guys? Because you know you can still serve them on the court every now and then.
Harden: Listen [long pause], until I get rings I can't say anything.