April 18, 2008

Spotlight: James Harden

Without the love and support of his mother, he would have never been considered a potential NBA draft pick. She was the one who took time off work to drive him all over Southern California to different basketball tournaments, even when he was barely getting any significant playing time. With her continued support, his dream of becoming a great player became a reality. By his senior year of high school at Artesia High School in Lakewood, Calif., he blossomed into one of the best players in all of country, and was selected as a 2007 McDonald's All-American.

From a kid with asthma, who grubbed on Panda Express and drank smoothies from Jamba Juice before high school games -- to being named first team of the Pacific 10 Conference after his freshman year of college -- Arizona State's James Harden is another example of how every player has a unique route to stardom.

His biggest fan is always there for him at Wells Fargo Arena. A TV announcer once remarked that, as superstition, that fan sits in row 13 seat 13 at every one of his games. It just so happens to be the number on his uniform. The fan is Harden's mother, who now lives in Phoenix and is always in attendance to watch her son play. Back-to-back high school state championship games. AAU tournaments. And now college games at Wells Fargo Arena.

"She's been through it all," Harden says of his biggest inspiration in life. "She's been at every game supporting me, taking me to every game [growing up], and being the biggest supporter always there for me."

And then there's another kind role model, which has helped mold Harden into a versatile threat on the court - his favorite basketball player. Largely responsible for developing the most important elements of his game, like style of play and swagger. For Harden - it's another talented ballplayer in LA - Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant.

"He's a great player. I've been watching him his whole career," Harden says of the player he believes should win the 2007-08 NBA MVP award. "I still watch the Lakers - that's my team."

If it were up to Harden, he'd probably showing his admiration for the Black Mamba, by wearing Bryant's new shoes from his latest Nike commercial. You know the one where he supposedly jumps over an Aston Martin because his shoes are so sweet. Harden doesn't wear them because he wants to blend in as best he can while playing for coach Herb Sendek.

"Our coach won't let us do that - he's a real team oriented guy. I just follow the team rules and wear the team shoes" explains, the self-described best dressed player on the Sun Devils' roster. "I have the clothes, the kicks. I'm the guy who dresses up."

Harden's style is rather laid back all things considered. When he's not around the basketball facilities working out, going to class to study sociology and criminal justice, Harden finds solitude on the couch. Maybe even picking up the sticks for a quick video game. Some things come natural to him, but he has yet to conquer the latest sensation in video gaming.

"My roommate [Kraidon Woods another freshman on the team] has Guitar Hero. I tried it a couple of times but I didn't like it," Harden admits. "I'm not very good at it so I put it down."

The sharpshooting guard who averaged a team-high 17.8 points per game enjoys a game that requires a good shot. "I play Halo. All the guys on the team get together to have a Halo session." But things in the video game world are different than the hardwood. A humble Harden admits that one of his teammates is the top marksmen, "I'd say Jerren Shipp is the best - he's been playing since Halo I."

If basketball or video gaming doesn't work out, he can always try his hand at his hidden talent. "I'm a very good dancer," Harden says. "I can really dance for a 6-5 guy - that's probably one of my only hidden talents." And maybe he could be one the next dogs, or cast members on Randy Jackson's, America's Best Dance Crew, "Yah with the JABBAWACKEEZ," he jokes.

No matter how he uses his athleticism, whether it be breaking out the latest dance move or breaking down opposing defenders with a cross-over dribble, Harden has to deal with the raised expectations of his head coach.

"If I'm not playing well or slacking on defense, he'll get in my face in front of everyone and say, 'pick your game up.'" Harden says of coach Sendek. "He's a competitive guy and that's what I love about him." Besides Sendek's willingness to call out his star player, Harden loves the lessons he is learning from a great coach.

"He's a very humble guy. He's taught me to not waste any opportunities, always be focused and have the right mindset to whatever you do," Harden explains.

With his coaches words imbedded in the back of his brain, Harden wasted no time getting back to work after ASU's season ended in the quarterfinals of the NIT a few weeks back.

"I have a couple of things I want to work on this off-season," he says. "Obviously my conditioning, to be able to play 40 minutes without getting tired, going to my right hand more often and my mid range game."

Harden is not satisfied with the results of his first season in Tempe. Although he helped the Sun Devils improve by 13 games in the win column, not being invited to the NCAA tournament left Harden and his teammates feeling disrespected. But not everything was all bad last season - the Sun Devils beat UA twice. And considering he has complete ownership of the 'Cats, Harden wants to repeat those memories next season.

"Having that UA experience, after hearing so many great stories about the rivalry and how uneven it was with them wining a lot more games than us, was exciting," remembers Harden. "To have all those fans saying, 'Good job way to beat them 'Cats' - that was memorable."

Sweeping the Wildcats was only a small slice of the success Harden and the Sun Devils achieved last season. Besides dominating their rival, ASU had wins over two sweet-16 teams in this past NCAA tournament (Stanford, and Xavier) and won two games in the NIT.

It was a remarkable turnaround for the program, considering it only won two conference games in 2007, compared to a nine win total from this past season. And though Harden helped changed the culture of ASU basketball by making fans expect wins, he wasn't ready to move on. Even if NBA Scouts and General Managers felt he could play in the League next season.

While several well-known freshmen around the country have declared for the draft, Harden feels he has more time to develop as person and as a player.

"If they feel they're ready than why not," he says. "A basketball players dream is to make it to the NBA - if they have the knowledge and maturity to do it good for them. For me, I have a lot more to work on."

The youngest player in the entire Pac-10 last season understands that he needs more seasoning before he leaves college. "I just turned 18. My body has to mature still, and I can grow as a person so when I make that step to the NBA, I'll be ready. Right now I'm just living life, loving college life and having fun with it."

No reason not to have fun, when you can pick apart defenses on both ends of the court. Besides shooting a blistering 41 percent from behind the three point line, Harden led the Pac-10 with 2.1 steals per game and was the first ever freshman to do so.

He doesn't just want to be known as only someone who scores. "I pick my poison," Harden says. "If we need a bucket ill take it in, or create a shot for my teammates. I can be both productive in the game without scoring and putting up a lot of shots. I get my teammates involved and do the little things to help us win. If scoring is one of them - I'll do it. But I can do more things than score."

With that attitude it's clear that stats don't mean much to Harden - only winning does. So that means he's back in Tempe for good reason - to help bring notoriety to a basketball program starved of playing significant games in March.

"I don't want to be one of those guys who was one year and done and then leaves," Harden says. "I want to actually do something here, so we can get some more recruits, keep it going so we don't have a fall off. I don't want to just leave. I want to encourage guys to come here. ASU is a great school and the basketball coaches are definitely great coaches."

And if Harden is able to help turnaround the Sun Devils into a perennial threat to make the NCAA tournament, he'll be one of the most recognizable players in school history. And that mean's every sport. Harden could go down as one of the best left-handed athletes in ASU history not named Barry Bonds or Phil Mickelson. "That's a great class right there," Harden says. "Just to be in the records at ASU would be kind of cool."

As long as he's back around campus for another season, you can only assume his popularity will continue to grow. But is Harden already at the level of say, Matt Leinart? "No, nowhere close" he says. Chances are you won't find any indecent photos of him with Sun Devil co-eds in a hot tub. "That would be a great time but not yet."

He's too busy with hoops to get caught up with the off the court drama. Harden spends the majority of his time working on his game, with the mindset of getting the Sun Devils back to national relevance.

"We're making progress," he says. "We still have a long way to go and a lot of team chemistry to build. We cracked into the Top-25 this year. People are noticing us, now we have to perform every single game."

Already chosen as one of the top 20 best teams next season by many college basketball experts like ESPN's Andy Katz, there's proof that change is happening at ASU.

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