Many years before James Harden was an NBA Most Valuable Player, he was terrorizing hitters on Southern California youth baseball diamonds. Harden, now with the Brooklyn Nets, is in his 12th NBA season, and basketball has been good to him. That’s evidenced by his three scoring titles, seven All-NBA selections, and nine All-Star appearances. In 2017–18, Harden became the first player in NBA history to win the Sixth Man of the Year award and later become an MVP.
He’s one of just two players in NBA history to win both awards, joining Bill Walton, who was MVP in 1977–78 and Sixth Man of the Year in 1985–86. Harden’s award as the NBA’s top reserve came with the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2011–12, followed by his MVP win with the Houston Rockets.
But how close did the NBA come to losing The Beard to baseball?
A ‘little Randy Johnson’?
Growing up in Compton, California, Harden’s mother had worries about her sons getting into the gang lifestyle. Though Monja Willis wasn’t a sports fan, she steered James and his older brother to sports as a way to keep them active and on the right path, according to Marc J. Spears of The Undefeated.
“He started out playing baseball,” Willis said. “I took him to a gym and he was too young to do the (basketball) fundamentals. He could shoot, he just couldn’t do the fundamentals, so he didn’t want to do that. ‘Mom, I don’t want to do that.’ OK, you’re not ready. I put him on baseball for about three years.”
While her oldest son played football, Harden said he excelled on the diamond as both a left-handed pitcher and a first baseman. But he transitioned to organized basketball as a preteen and never looked back. It began in a city recreation league in Watts. He stayed busy enough with school and sports that he was never without something to do.
“I was playing T-ball at first,” Harden said. “My mom always took me to practice after school. I was always on the move. I didn’t really have time to sit around and start hanging out with whoever. After T-ball I went to basketball, and after starting to play basketball, that’s when I fell in love with it. I just kept going. It was a cycle from here on out.”
As for his skill as a baseball player, Harden said: “I was a little Randy Johnson.”
Even at 6-foot-5, he would be, considering Johnson went 6-foot-10. Harden’s destiny was on the court rather than the diamond, however.
James Harden went from McDonald’s All-American to NBA stardom
Harden was a McDonald’s All-American at Artesia High School in Lakewood, California, riding the bus for the long trip from Compton and working on his game before classes. He was also big in AAU ball and won championships at both the high school and travel team levels. After two seasons at Arizona State, Harden was the third overall pick by the Thunder in 2009.
Like many basketball stars before him, Harden is giving back to the next generation. He sponsors four AAU teams, two in Arizona and two in Houston, where he starred for the Rockets for eight seasons.
On the court, he has already assembled a Hall of Fame resume. He has averaged 25.2 points, 6.5 assists and 5.5 rebounds in 34.5 minutes per game over his career, shooting 51.3 percent from 2-point range, 36.3 percent from 3-point land, and 85.9 percent from the foul line.
Harden won three straight scoring titles in Houston from 2017–18 through last season and led the NBA in assists in 2016–17. His 36.1 points per game in 2018–19 gave him the highest scoring average since Michael Jordan put up 37.1 points per night in 1986–87.
The dollars made sense for Harden
Harden has earned more than $224 million during his NBA career, according to Spotrac. He will make roughly $44.3 million next season and holds a $47.4 million option for 2022–23. Those terms are under a four-year extension he signed while with the Rockets in July 2017, and he has never hit free agency during his NBA career.
Compared to the salaries of the top pitchers in Major League Baseball, Harden appears to have made the right choice.
The highest-paid pitchers in baseball this season are Jacob deGrom of the New York Mets and Gerrit Cole of the New York Yankees, each at $36 million. Looking at left-handers, Los Angeles Dodgers star Clayton Kershaw tops the list at $31 million this season, a figure that is eighth overall among pitchers.
That’s not to say Harden couldn’t have made his fortune on the diamond. But it’s a long road from T-ball to the top tier of the major leagues.
Statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference.