James Harden wants you to know his story.
But not the one you think you know.
Not the one about him being an alleged malcontent who, because he couldn’t get along with his fellow superstar and Houston Rockets teammate, Dwight Howard, caused an unrepairable rift in the locker room that led to the kind of toxic chemistry that saw the firing of head coach Kevin McHale only months after reaching the Western Conference Finals. Not the one about him being the NBA’s second-leading scorer that didn’t get voted onto any of the All-NBA teams last year after making the All-NBA First Team two years in a row (2013-14 and 2014-15). Not the one about him playing defense as if he were a lost kid in New York City looking up at skyscrapers as his man makes his move to the basket.
And certainly not the one about him becoming the master flopper, only seeking to rack up foul calls as he Eurosteps his way to the cup.
What he wants you to know is this: he’s really just that same kid who grew up in Los Angeles idolizing Kobe Bryant, wanting to one day be like him. He wanted to be in the NBA. He wanted to be a superstar. He wanted to be the one with the ball in his hands with the game on the line and hit that game-winning shot. But most of all, he wanted to be a winner. He wants you to know he’s working really hard to get there. And now that the Rockets are officially his team, he wants you to know that he’s taking the responsibility of being a leader very seriously and that this year, he’s motivated more than ever to come out and claim the crown. So everyone else in the league better watch the throne.
HOOP caught up with Harden in Houston, where he was on hand to help unveil his signature Harden Vol. 1 line with adidas.
Now that your signature line is here, how do you feel about kids clamoring to wear your signature sneaker and your signature apparel?
It touches me right here (points to his heart), because I was one of those kids who was just walking around looking up to the Kobes and Jordans and wanted to get their shoes. Now, my shoe is out. I’ve worked so hard to get to this point and for it to be here, it’s a dream come true. I know people are going to like it and that’s the most exciting part about it.
The sneaker design team mentioned that you wanted to distinguish your kicks by using the “volume” designation. Why was that?
It was extremely important to me to tell my story with this line. Most of the story that you know or you think you know is on the court. I think it was imperative for me to express where I came from and how I got to this point and everything in between. So there were a lot of meetings, a lot of FaceTime. We were really detailed about it to where something creative, something dope was going to happen and here it is.
A lot of basketball analysts said the Rockets were “broken” last season. What happened to the team that went to the Western Conference Finals in 2014-15?
There was a lot going on [last year]. The first few weeks McHale was gone. There was just a lot of distractions and a lot going on last season. [Dwight Howard] had his opinion and his voice and I also had mine. Teammates aren’t always going to be on the same page at all times.
What was last year like for you personally?
Honestly, last year was frustrating. Numbers, individually, were pretty solid. But just the love and excitement wasn’t there, and so I had to look in the mirror this summer and realize that I had to change. I got to get back to how I was. So my focus level, the things that I can control, I have to be a lot better at and once I get myself figured out, and then I can help others. That was one of the main things that I focused on this summer. So I’m in a good place right now. I’m excited and that’s why I gathered the guys together over the summer to get this thing going.
Speaking of the summer, you organized two sessions to foster team chemistry. Was that a move to make yourself a better leader?
Yes. I always got room to grow as a leader, but I always see improvement. That’s one of the area’s that I improved on this summer is holding myself accountable and not looking anywhere else but at myself. Last year just wasn’t good for me, and so I’ve gotta be better and I will be better, so that’s where we are and I looked in the mirror and I figured out that I gotta be better as a basketball player, as a person, then it will be easier for me to lead. I don’t like to keep going back to the Oklahoma City days, but that’s what made us so good—always together, off the court, going to the movies—and that translates to chemistry, playing really well knowing each other on the court, it’s good for us. Miami was really good for us. We been in the gym every single day so we’re a little bit ahead now going into the season.
Now that you have Mike D’Antoni, a coach known for his offensive genius, what do you remember from those Phoenix days when you were at Arizona State University?
They got buckets! They got buckets, all of ‘em. Everybody… Raja Bell and Boris Diaw. Amar’e [Stoudemire] dunking on people, making the fancy play, the basic play, just that whole system. Everybody ate on that team.
Is that what you’re expecting this season?
For sure. Obviously we can score the ball extremely well. But that’s what he does. He makes the really good players better players and he has a formula that’s proven and worked.
How are you approaching your new role as D’Antoni calls it, “points” guard?
Me being a point guard doing the ballhandling, it’s my job to get guys shots, get them the ball, and just make the right decision. From Eric, Ryan… just everybody. No matter who is out there on the court together, that’s key for our team.
How do you think the team will fare this season, especially since you have super teams out West like the Golden State Warriors?
I think we have more than enough in that locker room to win, and we’re willing and able to compete with anybody any given night.
And what are your personal goals this season?
I just wanna win, that’s it.