James Harden: The Light

Andrew Rafner is a recently liberated fan and writer from Los Angeles. He owns two Sasha Vujacic jerseys and isn’t sorry about it.

James Harden is my favorite player in the NBA. He should be yours too and not just cause he’s kind of been everywhere recently. Whether it’s taking elbows to the dome from Metta World Peace or being the near unanimous favorite for the league’s Sixth Man of the Year award or the news coming out of Team USA that Harden has been added to the pool of potential 2012 Olympic representatives.

And why shouldn’t they talk? James Harden demands a lot of attention. In his third year in the league, he’s cultivated one of the most signature on-court looks the NBA has seen since Allen Iverson’s cornrows, Dennis Rodman’s ever-changing hair color palette, or, dare I say, Kurt Rambis’ horn-rimmed glasses/mustache/feathered hair combo. It’s all seemingly meticulously constructed — the rabbinical beard, the Mohawk, and the pièce de résistance, the underappreciated, yet totally vital two-sizes-too-small jersey. (Seriously, compare his jersey billows to that of, say, Kobe Bryant. James is wearing a youth XL, length minus-2. Guaranteed.)

But visible aesthetics aside, James Harden should capture your attention and hold it every time he steps on the court for other reasons.

It was May 23, 2011, Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals. I was in the upstairs Media Room at my Aunt Becky and Uncle Billy’s house in Shady Shores, Texas, exactly two and a half hours from the then-Oklahoma City Arena. I was deep in the throes of Thunder Fever, having attended Game 3 of this series and the deciding Game 7 against Memphis, having been completely charmed off my ass by the city and their perfect fan base. The Thunder had taken a 15-point lead into the game’s final 5:00 in hopes of tying up the series at two games apiece heading back to Dallas. Then, at the 4:34 mark, James Harden was called for his sixth foul while chasing down a loose ball.

My little cousin Addison was two years old at the time and had an early bedtime. Babies need sleep and I’m not a jerk. The second that foul was called, I bottled up a silent scream that I will never forget.

Having watched the Thunder through most of last season and all of the playoffs to that point, I had discovered that even though Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are world class talents and are fully capable of winning games on their own, it’s James Harden makes the Thunder go. He’s the light that shines and illuminates the Oklahoma City Thunder and makes them what they are at their absolute best: the most pure team the NBA has ever seen.

(Sidebar: I have this whole theory about how the OKC Thunder are like the various evolutions of the Pokémon called Eevee In this theory, James is represented by Espeon, the Sunshine elemental. In case you care, the rest of the Thunder/Eevee breakdown is as follows: KD-Jolteon, Russ-Vaporeon, Sefolosha-Leafeon, Ibaka-Glaceon, Perkins-Umbreon, Collison-Flareon. It’s bulletproof.)

In the ensuing 9:33 of basketball without Harden, the Thunder offense struggled to score points while the Mavericks continued to cement their late-game grit and penchant for unthinkable runs to win games, a quality that would become their hallmark en route to winning their franchise’s first championship a few weeks later.

For the Thunder, the loss in the 2011 WCFs stung. It hurt. It fucking sucked. People called the Thunder young and inexperienced. People said that James Harden should replace Thabo Sefolosha in the starting lineup. People said that there was discord between Russell and Kevin. Turns out a lot of the shit people said about the Thunder during the fallout of the Western Conference Finals wasn’t true. Head coach Scott Brooks knew it too. Immediately after Game 5, he reasserted his faith in his team, saying that “Next year when they’re 23, they’re still going to be young. We’re not going to use it as an excuse. We all signed up to play this game and you have to take pride in what you do because it’s not a hobby. It’s our life. This is what we do. This is what we believe in.” I still get chills reading that quote.

Coming into the 2012 NBA Season, it could’ve been easy for James Harden, a former 3rd overall pick entering his third season, to start demanding more. At 22 years old with his career on the verge of exploding, James Harden could’ve done what most players in his age group and talent level would do — make demands. Demand to start. Demand more touches. Demand, demand, demand. But he didn’t. He not only embraced his role as the sixth man, he relished it. He knew it provided him a unique opportunity to become a seismic force off the bench. When the Thunder found they needed to rest either one of their superstars, they had another budding one ready to pop off the bench and not only play, but lead the team.

Aside from being a deadly shooter and scorer, Harden is the Thunder’s undisputed best playmaker. When the ball is moving through Harden, the Thunder are going to score. It’s his life. It’s what he does. It’s what he believes in.

If there is one player in these NBA playoffs you should be watching their every move, it’s James Harden. He’s Andrew Toney meets Manu Ginobili. He’s unselfish and wild and different and weird and confusing. James Harden should be your favorite player and not just cause he wears a tiny jersey and has that really cool beard, but because he believes in the spirit and culture the Oklahoma City Thunder have cultivated as meticulously as Harden has his own look.

Everyone’s talking about James Harden. You should be too.