Can James Harden Have It All and Remain True to Himself? He Sure Thinks He Can

Kevin Ding@@KevinDingNBA Senior WriterOctober 21, 2015

Houston Rockets' James Harden laughs from the bench during the first half of an NBA  preseason basketball game against the Phoenix Suns, Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2015, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York)
Matt York/Associated Press

HOUSTON  These are interesting days for James Harden, filled with an abundance of scrutiny and analysis of his career and life.

What's the deal with this new Kardashian-endorsed, crossover NBA superstar? Who's the mysterious man who lurks behind the big blank eyes and massive mask of facial hair?

It's so very simple.

"It's not trying to be different," Harden told Bleacher Report. "It's just being myself. Everyone in the world is different. No matter where you are in the world, if you can just be yourself—and obviously you respect others and you're nice and kind—don't try to be someone else. I think you'll be happier that way."

That's the mission statement for Harden's exploding off-court empire, but it's also the premise of his success.   

Making any experience into his own personal comfort zone is one heck of a way to ensure anything that happens plays out on his turf.

That's how he turned the tables on the game itself: Instead of Harden being afraid of someone taking the ball from him, defenders have learned to dread going after the ball in fear of fouling him.

It is with the same sangfroid that Harden crashes into the paint and sets his own pace now that his off-court activity is everywhere.

The $200 million jump from Nike to Adidas.

The Houston Rockets backing their guy, becoming the first NBA franchise to make Harden-endorsed BodyArmor an official team sports drink on Monday.

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 23:  TV personality Khloe Kardashian attends Opening Ceremony and Calvin Klein Jeans' celebration launch of the #mycalvins Denim Series with special guest Kendall Jenner at Chateau Marmont on April 23, 2015 in Los Angeles, Californ
John Sciulli/Getty Images

The breathless reports of his dating Khloe Kardashian, complete with paparazzi tracking what the two order at Chipotle.

He acknowledges the 26th birthday party Kardashian threw for him on a yacht and the big deal with Adidas were "both pretty awesome," but the most important thing to happen?

"Rest was the key for me," Harden said. "Just coming off a long season and preparing myself for another long season."

It's not a comment calculated to deflect attention away from his relationship with Kardashian or the potential Lamar Odom distraction, although it is in keeping with Harden's my-way nature to sidestep Khloe questions. Harden never discussed his personal life before; he's not going to start now. He's not one to warm right up to people.

Rest was the key for Harden because was that tired at the end of his near-MVP season, taking the Rockets to the Western Conference finals despite Dwight Howard playing just half the season's games. And Harden is also prideful about his craft. (The No. 2 offseason highlight after rest, he said, was the work he did on his game when he got in the gym.)

"Basketball is what has gotten me here," said Harden. "I would never lose focus of that. I would never get sidetracked. Basketball before anything."

When you look around the league, you get a sense of which guys have an unwavering goal to be the best player in basketball—and which ones would rather be famous and popular than put in such heavy lifting.

James Harden averaged 28.4 points, 7.8 rebounds and 6.4 assists in five games against the Warriors in the 2015 Western Conference Finals.
James Harden averaged 28.4 points, 7.8 rebounds and 6.4 assists in five games against the Warriors in the 2015 Western Conference Finals.Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Harden places himself in a unique category on this topic.

Allow him to explain.

First, while many players may think they want it all, not everyone can handle the additional responsibilities and expectations without losing their vision and their footing in the storm.

"You can think whatever you want as a kid: 'I want to be a professional basketball player!' You don't really know everything that comes with it," he said. "Some people can handle it; some people can adjust and get used to it and be comfortable and just go with it. But there are some who can't.

"You see a lot of that happening: guys who can't handle the success or whatever it is. It just doesn't turn out for them. For me, I try not to get overwhelmed. I just live day by day and take on the challenge of being great as each day comes my way."

Second, as satisfying as it is to dominate a basketball game, the honest truth is that inspiring people beyond sports is a terrifically powerful thing.

"Coming across a kid in a different country, making him smile, spending however much time I am with him—kind of making his day, kind of making his life—that's a different joy that I get," Harden said.

So the answer for Harden is that he wants it all: to be the best player in the game and a transcendent figure off the court.

"Both for me," he said. "I strive every day to be the best basketball player I can be. I work extremely hard to be in the gym and perfect my craft. On that same note, being a global icon, that means you're impacting not just basketball players, but everyone. I want to be a positive role model, a positive image, not just for basketball."

HOUSTON, TX - OCTOBER 03:  (L-R) Houston Rockets players Dwight Howard and James Harden attend the UFC 192 event at the Toyota Center on October 3, 2015 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

When you are that comfortable in your own skin, beard or no beard, you are that confident about what you can accomplish.

It goes back to the earlier point about why Harden's mindset just to be himself lies as the springboard for his success.

Asked if he always had this self-assurance, Harden replied: "Yep. Always.

"Obviously, I've evolved as a person, but for the most part, it's how I was raised. My mom said, 'Always have confidence, because if you don't have confidence in yourself, nobody else will.'"

And now we've reached the stage where the rest of the world is developing the confidence in Harden that he already has in himself.

Harden is not surprised. He is not rattled.

When asked if he is contractually obligated by his new endorsement partners not to shave, keeping up the image, Harden doesn't exactly answer.

Yet he manages to answer every question anyone might ever have about him:

"It's who I am. It's James. The beard is going to be here."

Kevin Ding is an NBA senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.

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