Wednesday September 30th, 2015

NEW YORK — It’s the final week of the craziest summer of James Harden’s career, and his feet may have managed to steal the spotlight from his beard. One month ago, Harden jumped the Nike ship for a $200 million contract from adidas, and at a recent public appearance he wore Jordans and sent cameramen on a feeding frenzy for his soles. Harden's new deal, which will bring with it a signature sneaker, doesn’t kick in until Oct 1. A non-compete clause with Nike prevents him from wearing the competition in the meantime, but that doesn't mean people aren't riled up about it anyway.

Camera clicks echo around a darkened Chelsea nightclub as Harden, reigning champ and MVP Stephen Curry, and embryonic world-devourer Anthony Davis discuss life as it pertains to the plot of popular video game NBA 2K16. The plot, featured in the game’s new story mode, was drawn up by legendary director Spike Lee. He sits a few feet away, next to Shaquille O’Neal and Ernie Johnson, who moderates the panel. The trio of stars share the game’s cover, and are here to participate in the launch event and talk shop.

As Harden sits on the panel alongside his NBA brethren, semi-candidly discussing their respective rises to fame, your eyes can't help but gravitate toward his mysterious, crackled white leather sneakers with single-knotted black laces. What are those? Amid sneaker limbo, the Rockets star is wearing Balenciaga kicks ​(retail $635). Objectively this should not be significant, but the game’s newly pre-eminent shooting guard should be used to the attention by now.

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The stories of Harden, Curry and Davis are public knowledge. Davis, catapulted by a legendary high school growth spurt, went from being a champion at Kentucky to the No. 1 overall pick in 2012. Curry, a mid-major star at Davidson, heard doubters every step of the way until the Warriors won it all in June. And Harden picked rebuilding Arizona State over the entire Pac-12, rising to be the sixth man in Oklahoma City before springboarding to superstardom in Houston after a franchise-altering trade.

In the contrasting paths of its three stars, 2K16 hit its narrative focus on the nose in the sense that no climb to the top is quite the same, and it wants gamers to vicariously feel the ups and downs through their avatars. 2K16 runs players not just through 82-game seasons, but the accompanying gantlet of new money and celebrity. Harden discusses these topics soon afterward, hunched over in a candle-lit VIP booth, surrounded by his entourage. He is guarded, both literally and figuratively.

“You get all these things thrown at you so fast,” Harden says. “All of it is real. All of it, I go through it every single day.” Though he’s talking about the game’s twists and turns, the maxims apply loosely to the past year of his life, in which he took over the title of being the best shooting guard on Earth, lifted the Rockets to the conference finals and began a summer trip through the tabloids while dating reality star Khloe Kardashian.

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All that multiplied by his new sneaker contract and the most famous facial hair in sports, has brought him here, into the league’s upper echelon of stars and onto the cover of a game he’s played since childhood. To say the least, he’s been busy. “It didn't start the way I wanted it to start,” Harden says, “but it's been a pretty good off-season.”

After the Rockets were convincingly eliminated by Curry’s Warriors in five games, Harden retreated to his native Los Angeles. Maintaining that beard isn’t exactly a cry for anonymity, but regardless, L.A. is not an easy place to hide from cameras, and in the past couple months his on-court stardom progressed to mass notoriety. TMZ has become the rare opponent that pursues Harden looking to draw afoul on-camera.

“Everything’s happening fast,” Harden admits of his rise to video-game-cover status. “I kind of just sit back, relax and just go with the flow. Let the chips fall where they do.” Later, he’ll head back downstairs for a red carpet session, swapping ESPN cameras for MTV. Most of the questions are non-basketball, including who out of Harden, Davis and Curry would pick up the check at dinner, what he thinks of a recent high-profile rap mixtape, and if he finds these interviews boring, to which the answer is no. “I get excited for stuff like this.” Though it’s hard to tell how much he means it sometimes, he's decidedly gracious.

Someone asks Harden what the worst rumor is that he’s heard about himself; he declines to answer and walks away. He stops to make time for the last couple reporters as his PR team tries to shuffle him inside. Then he disappears into the party, where guests test-drive the game, dance around an open bar and eat bite-sized hors d'oeuvres. The famed DJ Premier spins late into the night, as rapper Papoose heaves virtual shots with Kobe Bryant.

***

Harden arrives in a midtown Manhattan office building the next morning for a commercial shoot with Foot Locker. He’s here to tape a teaser for a new campaign called "Play My Tweet,"  in which fans tweet him crazy requests. Each tweet is assigned a specific shot. If Harden makes the shot, he's safe. If he misses, he must fulfill the request. On his way out of the hotel, TMZ caught him wearing Nikes, so the Balenciagas are back on-foot—presumably cause and effect. Harden sits down as a set assistant works delicately around his beard, applying light makeup.

In a space far tamer than the previous night’s party, Harden finds time to talk basketball. He reflects on last season, and Houston’s second-place finish in the west. “It was a whirlwind,” he says. “We had so many injuries that took place. I think from the lineup we started the season with, we only played together I think three or four times.”

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That fact sounds absurd, but he’s got a valid point. It’s easy to forget that the Rockets’ opening-night five of Harden, Patrick Beverley, Trevor Ariza, Terrence Jones and Dwight Howard appeared together in just the first two games of the season. Harden appeared in all but one game, led the team with more than 27 points and seven assists per night. He somehow found time to quiet the jokes about his disinterest in defense, also leading the Rockets in steals. “It meant a lot to have the confidence in myself,” Harden says, “that I can take a team one series away from the Finals, with a lot of injuries.”

He'll have more help this time around. Houston brought in Ty Lawson from Denver during the Western Conference’s off-season arms race, hoping the talented point guard can overcome his history of drinking problems and handle some of Harden’s heavy backcourt duties. They’ve been hanging out over the summer, building rapport. “We’re excited,” Harden says. “This kind of gives him a new boost for his career. Having the opportunity to be on a really good team, make the playoffs and do something special. I think he's going to be great for us.”

Asked how the Rockets will get over the final hump, Harden pauses at length to think, necessitated by the assistant working around his upper lip. “Just being able to execute even better. There were a couple plays, couple quarters in the conference finals where we had never been before as a team.” There’s a school of thought that championship teams have to stumble together first. Harden agrees that last year’s loss was something that had to happen, however difficult it's been since. “We’re in a good place.”

With his makeup complete, Harden heads for the elevator to tape the promo in a cramped studio downstairs. On-camera, he’s exceedingly easy to work with, never complaining, offering to talk trash in a British accent as many times as necessary, and only occasionally checking his phone. This is the final leg of his summer: he’ll fly to Houston the next morning to throw out the first pitch at Minute Maid Park, then get ready for training camp. And so it goes.

It’s not always easy to tell when Harden’s genuinely excited, his cool California demeanor aided by the hair that shrouds many of his facial tells. But there are still surreal moments, despite his new place among the NBA's A-listers. Earlier this month, Beyoncé wore a one-piece, sequined swimsuit version of his jersey on-stage. Harden approved. “I got so many tweets and pictures sent to my phone about that,” he says, chuckling. 

He quickly changes tune, as if trying to deflect the attention. “She's repping Houston, she's from there. She's just showing love back to where she's from.” Still, that moment of discovery had to have been crazy for him, right? “Yeah,” Harden admits sheepishly. His grin, though fleeting, speaks volumes.

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