Player Capsule (Plus): James Harden and the Journey of a Lifetime

Posted on Tue 23 October 2012 in 2012 Player Capsules by Aaron McGuire

As Josh Hudelson prepares to leave Deep Springs College and head to Columbia University as an anthropology major, there are a few things he is taking care of—among them, slaughtering a cow and spending the night with the corpse in a 40-degree meat locker... In addition to sleeping with the slaughtered, frozen cows, he has been tanning sheepskin, for what purpose he doesn’t know yet. But there are scraps of sheep flesh lying all over the living quarters and in the shower, the way most college dorm rooms are littered with pizza crusts. “This place smells because I’ve got some rotting materials,” he says, breezing through the dorm. He has no plans to clean it up.

The above excerpt is taken -- unedited -- from an excellent article by Evgenia Perez highlighting a place that few even know exists. It describes an episode from the undergraduate experience of a current Ph.D. student studying ethnomusicology at New York University. The average reaction tends to range somewhere between utter revulsion and complete befuddlement. "Where in God's name would something like that happen?" It reads like a deranged farm story, a cautionary tale of an agricultural experiment gone -- perhaps -- a tad too far.

Funny enough, that isn't actually that far off.

Located in an expanse of the dessicated Sierra valleys athwart California and Nevada, Deep Springs College is essentially the successful realization of a centuries-old dream. More specifically, it's the successful realization of the alternatingly beautiful and horrifying fever-dream of founder L.L. Nunn. The conceit is simple -- take some of America's best and brightest and force them to pave their own way, living on the land and by their own devices in a self-governed, self-sustaining Christian paradise. Hard labor with a dose of Derrida. Take the boys far away from the trappings of modernity and technology, allowing them to become men within the crucible of spiritual isolation and hard labor. From such curious beginnings, Nunn felt the leaders of tomorrow would rise up and take their rightful place as the leading lights in modern society, squelching the flow of progressivism and exhorting a new conformity. The meek shall inherit the Earth, but only if the new-age Cowboy doesn't get there first.

• • •

Properly appreciating James Harden requires a level of contextualization and examination that -- in a general sense -- is beyond most people. Myself included. Take for instance this actual scene from late last season, its skeleton far too common. I turn down the volume on a Thunder game, watching for hours of enraptured silence at the quiet brilliance of Durant and the fearless showmanship of Westbrook. I look at the box score, later, only to stare in shock -- Russell had 15, Durant had 29, and Harden -- somehow -- had put up 40! He'd dropped 40 points, and I'd barely even noticed! It's rarely quite that stark, but the point stands. There are certain players whose time on the court actively marks you. They come off the bench to an electric jolt -- they grasp your collar, wrench you upright, and demand your attention. They force you to come to terms with their play, whether good or bad. They burrow into your mind and force you to consider them. James Harden is not one of those players. I keep thinking back to the general way that the public describes Harden's game. Namely, in relation to his spiritual predecessor. I cringe every time people compare James Harden to the symphonic fusillade of Manu Ginobili -- their games are similar in a statistical sense alone, Harden's wooden shot falling well-short of the beatified sparkle that underlines Manu's craft. They are similar in tertiaries and statistical profiles -- but they are worlds apart in their aesthetics and the joy they take in their craft.

Their statistical metrics are similar, and it's certainly possible that Harden could be much better. Someday. But he can scarcely hope to reach Manu's style. Not yet, anyway. There's a sense, with Manu, that he can -- and will -- take over at any point of the game. That he'll simply start taking and making a barrage of unstoppable, unconscionable threes. Can Harden do that? Perhaps -- but his aesthetics, to this point, don't indicate it. This isn't to say he's bad. Harden does just about everything you'd want from a star player in the NBA, scoring-wise. He draws a ridiculous number of free throws, drains threes like nobody's business, and stays within his boundaries on the offensive end. Harden does not overreach, as a general rule. He does not ball-hog, he does not assert. He slithers, more aptly, hiding on the offensive end behind screens and misdirections, vanishing in a parade of smoke and mirrors that makes the release -- when it comes -- so easy and yawn-worthy that people ignore the hoops he had to jump through to get there. Not to mention the fact that simply being able to get himself open so consistently -- as Harden is wont to do -- is a skill in and of itself. A rather underheralded one, and one that Harden is as good at as Durant is bad.

Is it an indictment on the NBA commentariat that Harden isn't "more" noticed? Not really, and I'd argue it's because of the exact contrapositive to the things that make him excellent. There are flaws to Harden's game, and many lie in the exact things that make his game whole. While he's excellent at getting himself open, he's also not phenomenal at shooting even lightly contested shots -- in last year's NBA Finals, this problem came to full display. When faced with constant pressure from Wade and a smothering defense, Harden found himself unable to enact his skillset and unable to take the open shots he so feasted upon in the regular season. Even against the relatively permissive Spurs defense, Harden had trouble getting wide open shots, and it bothered him enough in that series to force Durant to step to another level. When his free throw attempts dry up, he struggles to generate efficient offense on his lonesome. His passing -- good when he isn't pressured -- gets worse and worse as you assign him more responsibility. His lack of overreaching -- while admirable -- is taken a level too far, on many occasions. There is a happy medium between shooting too much and shooting too little. Harden is not that happy medium. Frankly, to this point? He's not even all that close. And he needs to draw closer, as he grows into his frame and his game.

• • •

"Sounds like a weird cowboy cult for repressed homosexuals." (User provis99 of the Democratic Underground)

One of the funnier contradictions about Deep Springs that most don't realize is that -- in actuality -- it's a hilariously inefficient project. At least as a farm. Sure, the labor is free, but the quality is so godawful that it scarcely matters. There's a single-minded focus and intensity you need to actually be successful farmers, to successfully live on the land. By definition, Deep Springs attendees don't tend to have that. After all -- how could they? Deep Springs is a relatively elitist institution, at its core. If you don't have SAT scores in the top 1%, you stand almost no chance of getting in. You need to write somewhere in the neighborhood of 150-200 pages of essays to even be considered, per some sources. 50-75% of Deep Springs "graduates" go on to get an actual bachelors from an Ivy League school. Eggheads don't just stumble unknowingly into Deep Springs -- to get to that kind of a situation, you need to be of a certain kind of person, a certain sort of duck.

Harden is a similar sort of odd duck, if you take him in his proper context. Here, you have a player that actually sent Sam Presti a letter detailing the many reasons why he'd be an excellent fit in Oklahoma City. A player who understood -- before he was old enough to legally drink! -- that he wanted to be the quixotic sixth-man on a star-studded future contender. He had played with Durant and Westbrook through AAU ball, but as relative equals -- before Miami had come together, before the Lakers had their sterling offseason, before the "superteam" became a much-ballyhooed reality. Before all that, Harden himself could see so clearly the outlines of a superteam, so clearly delineated roles, he did his part to actively seek it out. More than most players, Harden deserves credit for the way he found his team. He did as much to form the Thunder's big three as Westbrook or Durant did themselves. And this is, admittedly, something of an oddball route. Most people accept their draft position as an exogenous factor they can't really control. Harden wanted to take control in an offseason only to cede control in the real season. An odd way to go.

Speaking of odd ways to go, here's a shocker: people who willingly write 200 pages of essays simply don't tend to be ranchers, either. Not good ones, anyway. They're creative, thoughtful, odd. But not ranchers. If you read the musings of those who graduate -- for instance, the Deep Springs portion of this interview with writer William T. Vollman -- you notice a few consistent themes. In my experience with his work, I don't think it's out of line to say that Vollman tends to be a bit too pleased with himself. Here, though, he can't really get too exultant with his self-praise: he says he did merely "OK" with the manual labor. He also notes that the students were pretty arrogant, and that he had never really worked with his hands at all before he got to Deep Springs. All reasonable. Vollman's story tends to be the norm, among the non-admissions-catalogue Deep Springs stories I've read. Nobody who goes to Deep Springs thinks they're very bad at their jobs, but they often admit that OTHER students are arrogant, and OTHERS aren't great at their job. But the point wasn't really for anyone to be phenomenal at their jobs -- the point was to be OK, and to learn the true meaning of self-sufficiency. To use labor and work as a means to learn about themselves and the world around them.

In the NBA, self-sufficiency isn't necessarily gunning for numbers. And craving it isn't necessarily detrimental to the broader context of an NBA team. In fact, I'd argue it's exactly the opposite. Self-sufficiency in the NBA is figuring out how to sidle into the team concept in a way that helps everyone around you improve. Gunning for your own numbers doesn't necessarily keep you in the league for long -- look at Stephon Marbury, or Gilbert Arenas, or Allen Iverson. The game left them behind before they left the game behind. The true meaning of self-sufficiency in the NBA is somewhat of an anathema to the concept's lonely ideal -- being self-sufficient to ensure your own longevity regardless of situation requires a measured assessment. You need to determine what to provide that maximizes your appearance as a player by maximizing your team's potential. Right now? That's exactly what Harden does, and while he hasn't made that personal leap into an all-star or an all-NBA player quite yet, he's been placed into a journey that's a bit less straightforward than that of a Kyrie Irving or a Blake Griffin.

• • •

So, what does the ultimate fulfillment of an elitist fever-dream of isolation and farming have to teach us about a player like Harden? What's important about Harden is much like what's actually important about Deep Springs -- it's not about the profits, or the classes, or the final result of their initial labors. It's not about the seeds you plant, it's about the planting of the seeds. What makes Harden interesting to watch is the broad-scale picture that surrounds and cushions his game, not the intimate moments where players like Manu and Westbrook and Dirk bludgeon with their craft. Harden's is an off-kilter journey, to be sure. It's one of learning to coexist before you take over. It's one of coming, learning, accepting lumps. A disappointment his rookie season, but one that drifted closer and closer to star status with every month that followed. And now? One of the best 20-something players in the league, and the heir apparent for the title of "greatest shooting guard on the planet."

Within the central contradiction of Deep Springs -- the inefficient labor of the non-laboring students -- lies the grain of truth that skims the cream from the milk. The point of Deep Springs is not (and has never been) to act as an enterprise meant to make money. Or, more broadly, to operate within the prearranged format of society, culture, or profit at all. The point is to provide a sandbox that allows the self-selected group of elites to tear down those structures. The point is to make them anew. You may not make them perfectly, you may not create immaculate structures on the first go-around. Or, really, ever. But that's not the point. The point is the journey of creation, the joy of discovering for oneself the things that make one whole. Self-sufficiency as a means to an end. It's not vocational training for the sake of itself -- it's vocational training as a broader mechanism to learn how to approach the world. The most successful Deep Springs graduates seem to internalize this general grain of wisdom.

Harden never went to Deep Springs. But he seems to have gotten the picture. He's now a player whose potential for more shines through in such an overwhelming radiance that not one team in the NBA would refuse him a max contract, if he decides to go searching. And like the suburbanite elites of Deep Springs, if you're only working off the broader descriptions, you can't imagine he wouldn't, can you? He's not exactly a country boy -- nothing about Harden screams "Oklahoma." The parties, the eccentrics, the California vibe that underlines his style. He's about as out-of-place in Oklahoma as the average Deep Springs first-year on their first cattle herding. But both adapt. Both throw themselves into the team concept. They solve the situation. Both arrive to positions where they have the opportunity to move on. In Harden's case, to almost any team he wants to. But if he decides to stay, that's fine too. The journey doesn't have to come to some neat and tidy conclusion. The journey can be messy, odd, and off-kilter. It can come in waves and crests. The mystery of an unknown close is part of what makes it so enticing and alluring -- it doesn't need to end in some predefined, prepackaged way.

In fact, to those as young as he? It really doesn't have to end at all.

• • •

"Everything is arranged so that it be this way, this is what is called Culture."

For more capsules on members of the Oklahoma City Thunder, see our Thunder directory.