Monja Willis nicknamed her baby boy "Lucky.” Lucky because, after two miscarriages before giving birth to her youngest child, she considered James Harden Jr. fortunate to even see the light of day.
Nineteen years later, Willis proudly watched her son put on an NBA uniform for the first time after being introduced as the Thunder’s newest shooting guard Saturday. "I’m just happy for him,” said Willis, with a smile that stretched from ear to ear. "He’s just blessed to be here.” Of course, here is where Harden always thought he’d be. But getting here was never a certainty. He’d have to overcome asthma and attitude problems, neglect from college coaches and James Harden Sr. "But hard work and dedication, a lot of time in the gym, a lot of prayers and a lot of motivation kept me in the gym,” Harden said. "And I’m here now.” Harden was dead set on becoming a professional basketball player since junior high school. His mother, a maintenance administrator for AT&T for the last 28 years, would encourage him to have a fall-back plan. To sign up for courses that could one day lead to a career. But Willis was always met with the same response: "Mom, I want to play basketball.” Eventually, mom conceded and began cheering on her son’s dream. "OK,” she said. "Do what you need to do to get there.” Things didn’t start off so well. Harden walked onto the Artesia High School campus in Lakewood, Calif., as a plump freshman who relied on a nearby asthma pump. But he made varsity in his first year, the only player to do so that season at national power Artesia, which is known for producing current and former NBA players Jason Kapono, Ed and Charles O’Bannon, Tom Tolbert and Tony Farmar. His coach, Scott Pera, had two jerseys remaining, No. 13 and No. 45. Lucky chose 13. "A 6-foot-1 fat kid who could stand in the deep corner and shoot floater 3s,” is how former high school and college teammate Derek Glasser once described Harden. Add to that, the kid had an awkward lefty set shot that started from his hip and an often indifferent attitude that caused him to fake injuries so he could loaf through drills. His father, a former Navy seaman who has described himself as a "knucklehead,” was in and out of prison for drugs and other charges and wasn’t around to teach his son principles of hard work. It was up to older teammates like Glasser and coach Pera to straighten out Harden and instill a stronger work ethic.