The endearing bond between Monja Willis and James Harden began Aug. 26, 1989, and the mother-son duo has been virtually inseparable ever since.
The sports world bears witness to their close relationship on any given game day, when Willis can be seen courtside at the Toyota Center, watching her son dominate for the Houston Rockets.
Her seat is strategically located, to the left of the basketball stanchion and adjacent to the home team's tunnel entrance.
Whenever Harden takes the court, Willis' approving gaze is among the first he sees, and when he exits, it's among the last.
As her bearded and spiky-coiffed son does his work, driving to the cup, shooting step-back threes and Eurostepping past defenders on his way to an NBA-best 33.3 points per game, Willis is right there, celebrating his exploits, beaming with pride.
This season hasn't been what Willis had hoped for, though. The Rockets (21-15) sputtered to a disappointing start but have blasted their way back up to tie for fourth place in the Western Conference standings. Still, that's a far cry from last year, when they finished with a franchise-best 65-17 record.
Houston's early struggles have some pundits going on record claiming that their window for a championship has closed.
Losing can have an adverse effect on fans. Their vigor for the team can turn to anger, anguish and finger-pointing. But to those fans who want to complain about Harden's herculean efforts, don't do it within earshot of his mother.
"I just turn around and say: 'Listen, don't talk about my son. He's working hard out there. You don't want nobody talking about your son or your daughter, so you treat my son with that same respect. And besides that, you've never played basketball, so you don't know what it takes to be out there on that court,'" Willis said. "I tell 'em. I just let 'em know."
Fans aren't the only ones who can get an earful from Willis.
Basically, anyone, especially internet trolls, who comes at her son is in for a rude awakening.
"He [James] tells me, 'Mom, stay off Facebook' and all social media, so I don't have some of them," Willis said. "I have Instagram because I show my kids and my grandkids, sneak in there sometimes. But I'm still going to be a mom, my feelings still get hurt, just like any other mom. Anybody talk about your kids, your feelings are going to get hurt. So whether they are playing basketball or working at McDonald's, if somebody talks about your kid, you'll have an attitude about it."
Whether Willis is challenging fan and troll comments or not, her presence at Harden's games is nothing new.
Despite her long hours as a service dispatcher at AT&T, she was at almost every game throughout her son's life, from grade school to AAU to Artesia High School in nearby Lakewood, California, when Harden stepped into the spotlight on a game-winning shot as a freshman vs. Redondo Union and bookended his prep career with back-to-back state championships.
From there, she traveled to see him in Tempe, Arizona, where he was Pac-10 Player of the Year and a consensus All-American in 2009 for Arizona State.
Then it was on to Oklahoma City, where she was a fixture at games in Chesapeake Energy Arena when Harden played sixth man for the Thunder.
Now Willis is in Houston, where her son has become a cultural phenomenon fueling the Rockets' analytics revolution, and she's still ensconced in his life, both on and off the court.
"She was really supportive growing up, as she is now," Harden said. "And she keeps me going and motivated now, too."
Creative, explosive and cunning, the six-time All-Star is part of the vanguard, turning the inner levels of NBA arenas into fashion runways, advertising campaigns into the "unnormal" and basketball courts into individual showcases punctuated by virtuoso buckets and 50-point triple-doubles.
It's hard to imagine now, but all of this almost didn't happen.
Harden, the youngest of three children, was given the nickname "Lucky" by his mother.
"You know how you have a nickname growing up? But he didn't know where his came from," Willis said.
He never knew what his alternate moniker meant until recently, when she told him the story behind it.
"I had two miscarriages before I had him," she said. "They had to stitch my uterus up in order for me to [keep the pregnancy], and when he was delivered, we just called him 'Lucky' because he was lucky to be here. He was a blessing."
Harden was in shock when he heard.
"He was like, 'Wow,'" she said.
The uncertainty, helplessness and isolation that some women endure because of miscarriages have only recently come to the forefront. Psychologists say pregnancy loss has often been a taboo subject because it can cause feelings of undue inadequacy. This, as well as the unfair stigma that can surround miscarriage, can make it difficult for women to talk about their experiences openly and for their experiences to be taken seriously when they do.
Former First Lady Michelle Obama put a spotlight on the common but misunderstood occurrence when she shared in her bestselling book Becoming that she had a miscarriage. She said it was "utterly devastating" and felt "lonely, painful and demoralizing almost on a cellular level." Her candidness has inspired nationwide conversations about losing pregnancies to complications.
Willis' move to have a cervical cerclage (a procedure that keeps the cervix closed) during pregnancy was the ultimate medical safeguard for her son back in 1989, and she's still making sure that he's protected, even though he's grown and is his own man.
"You never stop being his mom," Willis said. "I retired from the phone company; I haven't retired from being his mom. I'll always be his mom. I just asked him: 'James, do you want me to retire and be your manager, or do you want me to just continue working?' He said: 'No, just retire. You've been managing me all this time, continue.'
"That just put a smile on my face because, I'm not trying to throw anybody under the bus, but you see how Don King just came in and took all these people's money? I didn't want anybody taking my son's stuff. He worked too hard for it. He worked too hard to get to where he was. So I just felt like it was time for me to just let that job go and go continue to manage him on a different level, and so it's been fun."
It's a different game for Harden. In the summer of 2017, he signed the biggest contract extension in NBA history at the time: four years, $160 million. It gave him a total of $228 million over six seasons with his prior deal and went through the 2022-23 season.
Add to that the 13-year, $200 million contract he signed with Adidas in 2015, and it's easy to see why Willis was worried about the wolves coming out of the woodwork.
"Oh my God, it's been a learning experience," she said. "It's so many trials and tribulations that you go through when your son or your daughter gets to that next level. People come at you; they come for that money. It's a different game."
Raising a family in Compton, California, money wasn't as accessible, but Willis made ends meet the best way she knew how.
"I was in this predicament where I was trying to raise my three kids by myself, and it was hard," she said. "I worked hard, and I managed my money wisely because I know that it was just me, raising my three kids. So I couldn't go out there and buy Louis Vuitton purses when I know I had to buy my son tennis shoes or buy my daughter a dress or get her hair done or pay a bill. I just had to manage my money wisely."
Michael Jordan once revealed that his mother was instrumental in helping him achieve greatness: "My mother is my root, my foundation. She planted the seed that I base my life on, and that is the belief that the ability to achieve starts in your mind."
Willis planted the seed in her son to be great at whatever he chose to pursue in life. James Harden chose to be a basketball player and became the NBA's MVP.
"It's been a journey for both of us," Willis said. "Life-learned lessons. Watching him play from knee-high on up. So to get that MVP was like, 'Whew.' You know like when you go through school, and you just get C's and B's? And when you finally get that A, it's like, 'I'm proud of that report card.' All them A's. Yes! Job well done."
The 6'5", 220-pound shooting guard is an improvisational wizard with a basketball in his hands—like Miles Davis with his trumpet—and still doing very well at his job, but with Chris Paul out with a Grade 2 left hamstring injury, it's going to be a long season ahead.
If the bearded man in the No. 13 jersey can get Houston back to the playoffs after losing CP3 for an extended period, Harden will be a top contender for a second MVP despite the mocking memes and the hate that he's been getting at the outset.
"Of course I should be in that conversation," Harden said about his MVP chances after scoring a game-high 45 points to beat the Boston Celtics 127-113 at home. "I receive a lot of hate, but it won't stop me from going out there and killing every single night, being that dog that I am. You can name a few other people that should be in the conversation, but realistically, it's coming back."
Even if he doesn't win it—even if he doesn't lead his team to a deep playoff run—if he carries his team back to respectability, that will be a feat unto itself. No matter what happens, his mother will be right there in the arena, just left of the basketball stanchion, cheering him on.
"My proudest moment is every day that I can see his face and he's smiling," Willis said. "Whether it's the draft or that MVP. Just when I see him come on that court, those are my proudest moments, because I know that I could have had a miscarriage and I wouldn't be sitting there on that court watching my son play."
Maurice Bobb covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow Maurice on Twitter, @ReeseReport.