John Milton once wrote, "Fame is no plant that grows on mortal soil," and nowhere is that more evident today than in the world of professional sports.
In the NBA, young men step in to battle fully mature giants in an exhibition of speed, power, size and skill that 99.9 percent of us can only dream of partaking in. And watching one of those young players develop into something even your normal NBA-er can't match, let alone us mere mortals, is one of the more rewarding experiences as a basketball fan.
It's the pinnacle of achievement, but such success and notoriety never comes without it's fair set of challenges as well. The price of fame, as they say.
We see both sides of this for James Harden highlighted in a piece out Tuesday by Pablo S. Torre for ESPN The Magazine. Much like Harden himself, it's a quirky one.
We see the trappings of Harden's budding superstardom, as the Rockets guard showcases a secret language formed between himself and his best friends to allow themselves some minuscule version of privacy in today's 24-hour news cycle. It's hilariously influenced by the satirical jive from the 2001 (and highly underrated) movie "Pootie Tang". Sah-day-tay, anyone?
But we also get the duality of the superstar experience.
Harden complains to Torre:
"I try to stay level. Even when people are bum-rushing me at Chipotle and I'm trying to order a chicken bowl with extra guac."
That quote comes right after ironically rolling up to the Grand Lux Cafe for a takeout order in a Rolls Royce. Needless to say, bedlam ensues among the plebes.
We also meet Harden's mother, Monja Willis, who serves not only as a surrogate to the Beard's group of childhood friends, but also to the entire Rockets team. She offers regular guidance to Harden's teammates, saying in regards to Dwight Howard:
"...I have to tell him to follow through. Or, 'Bend your knees.' And he does it! It goes in!"
But her excitement for her role as mother to the stars is counteracted by the criticism her world-famous son is often subjected to. Willis tells Torre:
"He tells me to stay off Twitter, stay off Instagram. It's hard. I have to bite my tongue sometimes. Well, a lot."
This fact is also not lost on Rockets GM Daryl Morey, who refers to MVP-runner-up Harden as "the most criticized player in the league" and says to Torre:
"The number one thing that bothers me is this perception that somehow James is tricking the game, like he's somehow getting more free throws than he deserves."
"I'm not necessarily going in there and trying to draw a foul, but if a person can't guard you, he has to foul you. Or I'm going to score. Every. Single. Time."
But for someone so confident in his skills, Harden also has the rare gift of internal insight, a refreshing balance to his otherworldly physical abilities.
In regards to the Rockets unceremonious exit from last year's Western Conference Finals in which he committed 12 turnovers, Harden says:
"I was too antsy, doing things I don't normally do. And for a year of hard work to end that way? That affected me more than any other loss."
And he cares. Deeply. Telling Torre this was the second straight year he cried in the visitor's locker room after an elimination loss.
He cares enough that he personally lobbied for Morey to sign point guard Ty Lawson in the offseason, and although he recognizes that means less ball-dominant play for himself, a man with the eighth-highest usage rate in the NBA last season, he recognizes this not as a threat to his stardom, but as a way to enhance it.
"I'm looking forward to playing off the ball," he says, also telling Torre his goal this season is to improve his efficiency and join just the six other players in NBA history in the 50-40-90 club.
If there's one thing we do know about what fame has done to Harden, it's that it hasn't taken away his desire to work on his game and be the best.
Last season, he promised to better his much-maligned defensive play and finished the season 10th in the NBA in defensive win shares. He also explained to Torre that he wanted to work on driving to the right, his non-dominant side, and that resulted in a 30-percentile increase on isolation drives to his right.
A young, supremely talented superstar navigating his way through a word of untold riches and fortune with the help of his close friends and family and who battles prevalent misconceptions about him by working as hard as possible to improve both himself and his team; what more could the Rockets ask for in a main man?
"He's just amazingly self-motivated," Morey finishes to Torre.
Sah-dah-tay, Daryl. Sah-dah-tay.
Make sure you check out Pablo S. Torre's full cover story on James Harden for ESPN The Magazine, published Tuesday, October 13th.