The Beard: Part 1
*Photo via Getty Images
I love watching high school basketball any chance I get. When ESPN shows the games, I am glued to the tube. In recent years, I would rather watch high school ball over the NBA, but that's another story. The McDonald's All-American game is the biggest high school game to watch yearly because it’s the collection of the best high school basketball players in the land. Ever since its inception on ESPN, I have probably watched 90 to 95 percent of the televised McDonald's game. I have a few of them on tape.There is something about watching a player when they are younger before they blow up and become big stars in the NBA. Or in some cases where players just don't live up to the hype and phase out. I have seen players come in and go become stars in college and the league. Others just couldn't cut it at either level and their potential faded.
Let me take you back to the McDonald's game in 2007. Probably the deepest class I have ever seen in terms of talent. There was OJ Mayo, who was probably the biggest star of the class. He was being covered by Slam Magazine since he was in 7th grade. They called him the next Kobe. I got to see Derrick Rose and Eric Gordon on television, both were just on another skill level and super athletic. I watched Michael Beasley in person, he was just a man among boys. This was my first introduction to players like Blake Griffin, Kevin Love, Kyle Singler, Jerryd Bayless and others. Matter of fact, this class was so deep, 18 of the 24 selected players played in the league. Along with the 8 players I named, there was JJ Hicks, Jonny Flynn (picked above Steph Curry), Donte Greene, Kosta Koufos, Patrick Patterson, James Anderson, Nick Calathes, Nolan Smith, Cole Aldrich. All of them wore an NBA jersey and 12 players continue to play in the league today. The late great Adam Yauch, MCA, of Beastie Boys fame did a great documentary on most of this class called, Gunnin For That No 1 Spot.
*Photo via MAX Prep
Oh yeah, I forgot one more player who was part of that group. His name is James Harden aka "The Beard". He barely had any facial hair and it looked like if it was a drawn on mustache and beard. I watched that game closely, great highlights, talent was off the roof, but one player stood out in my eyes under the radar. It was Mr. Harden. Maybe it was because he is a lefty and I am also a lefty. He wasn't flashy, real fundamental at the time. Catch the ball in the triple-threat, made great passes to his teammates, could dribble (not over dribbling) enough to get by the defender, could shoot and played hard. I just knew from watching him, that this kid was going to be a player. James chose to go to Arizona State so I was going to make sure to catch those games. He had a great two years at Arizona St, he averaged 17 points his Freshman year and then 20 points per his Sophomore year. He was named Pac-10 player of the year his Sophomore season.That year I picked Arizona State to go far in my March Madness Pool because of Harden, but they broke my heart, losing to Syracuse.
*Photo via AZ Central
James Harden was still under the radar though, but anybody who knew basketball could see the kid had game. He decided to forgo his next two years of eligibility and put his name in the 2009 draft. At this point in time, “The Beard" was more visible to the human eye. James Harden was drafted 3rd by the young and talented Oklahoma City Thunder. OKC already had Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Jeff Green, adding James Harden and Serge Ibaka (coming in from Spain) made them more dangerous. Harden came off the bench because the Thunder had a defensive two guard, Thabo Sefolosha, starting at the time. Coach Scott Brooks made these young players play defense and that's why the Oklahoma City Thunder made one of the biggest improvements ever seen in league history. They went from winning 23 games the previous year to 50 in the 2009-2010 season. The Thunder eventually lost to the world champions, Los Angeles Lakers, in a tough six game series. James played his role, scoring, play making when needed and tough defense (yes tough defense).
After a nice rookie year averaging 9 points per game and helping OKC get into the playoffs for the first time in franchise history (sort of, they were the Seattle Supersonics), Harden improved his game and became a more important role to the team in the 2010-2011 season. He averaged 12 points per game and helped the Thunder win 55 games. It was during this year that "The Beard" fame got created. James started to grow it longer. The franchise caught on to that, and you can see beard props circulating in the crowd. "The Beard" was born. It was during this time also that there were rumblings and rumors about stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook's relationship. Two young stars with big games trying to take control and be "the man" of the team. That can lead to a fractured relationship. Since James Harden was close to both off the court, he seemed to be the mediator for the two. During that season, coach Brooks let Harden handle the ball in the 4th quarter more because he was their best playmaker and got everybody involved. It worked wonders for OKC.
Oklahoma City marched on all the way to the Western Conference Finals only to lose to the eventual champions in the Dallas Mavericks. It was Dirk's year as he destroyed anybody and anything in sight.
*Photo via CBS
The 2011-2012 season (shortened to 66 games because of the lockout), James took it to another level. He averaged 16 points per game, coming off the bench and eventually won the Sixth Man of the Year award. In the playoffs, they got their revenge on the Dallas Mavericks by sweeping them 4-0. In the second round, Harden was huge with his defense. Scott Brooks used him to guard Kobe Bryant in the 4th quarter and James was masterful in holding down the "Black Mamba". The Oklahoma City Thunder would face the veteran and 4 time champions, San Antonio Spurs, in the Western Conference Finals. It started off rough as the Spurs' championship pedigree and experience showed in the first two games. Down 0-2 in the series, the Thunder ended up winning 4 games straight to take down the Spurs. James Harden was a huge part of the comeback as he hit big shot, after big shot. He was extremely clutch in the series.
Unfortunately OKC would lose to the Miami Heat's "The Big Three" in the NBA Finals. James Harden was missing in action in that series. He couldn't buy a bucket. LeBron James was overpowering him on the defensive end, so many thought Harden was tired trying to guard King James. Chalk the Thunder loss to inexperience, they were young, they would be back. But money talks and well you know the rest. James Harden's rookie contract was almost up. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook got paid. The Thunder decided to re-up Serge Ibaka during that season. With his new fame and status, “The Beard" was looking to be paid. Where would the Thunder get money to pay Harden, especially after locking up KD, Russ and Serge to long term deals. OKC was basically choosing Ibaka and defense over James' offense and play-making. Maybe they thought "The Beard" would give them a hometown discount and accept his role as 6th man on a championship contender.
*Photo via Getty Images
As the beard got longer and fuller, you could tell James' ego started feeding into his new found fame and the persona of " The Beard". Who can blame him, he was a young, good, recognizable player and about to be a free agent. And with young players it's mainly about the money than winning games, also Harden has always come off the bench and was the third wheel behind Durant and Westbrook. What if he started and was the number 1 option on his own team. James probably wanted to leave the nest and spread his wings to fly. Deep down the Oklahoma City Thunder sensed this so they traded "The Beard" to the Houston Rockets before the 2012-2013 regular season. It was shocking to the basketball world since Harden had one more year, but the Thunder didn't want to deal with the distraction and they wanted to get some assets back. The Rockets signed him to a long term deal asap. " The Beard" was the new main attraction in Houston.