LOS ANGELES — James Harden hops off of the fire truck that has his face plastered across it and waves at the crowd. It’s a sunny Sunday afternoon at Audubon Middle School in Southern California, and the bearded bigwig has arrived.
Along with his mom, Monja Willis, Harden weaves his way toward the stage. And when he arrives, when he’s finally able to take a breath, he peers out at the green outdoor basketball courts and smiles.
“This is awesome,” he then says into the microphone.
Harden is here at this school — his old middle school — as part of an Adidas event called the “Imma Be a Star” block party. The event is based around the unveiling of new outdoor courts paid for by Harden and Adidas.
More specifically, though, Harden is here in Los Angeles for the 2018 NBA awards. After scoring an NBA-best 30.4 points per game, Harden is the heavy favorite to win the league’s Most Valuable Player award Monday night.
The award has been nearly a foregone conclusion for weeks, even after Harden’s Houston Rockets lost to the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference finals. At 28, the six-time NBA All-Star turned in his best year ever, knocking down his step-back 3-pointer with ease and dishing to teammates like his mom never could have imagined.
Willis never could have imagined any of this, frankly, but that did not prevent her from stashing notes Harden wrote to her when he was a freshman in high school. He would scribble the notes late at night, including this one in particular: “Could you wake me up at 7 a.m., and could you leave me a couple of dollars?
“P.S., keep this paper. Imma be a star.”
Willis laughs when a reporter asks about this particular note.
“I didn’t think it would happen then,” Willis tells Yahoo Sports. “I didn’t think that note was that important. I just left him some money, you know?”
There’s a certain — and maybe even special — power in belief, though, and Willis says she always believed Harden would succeed. A similar feeling is why Los Angeles-based coach Antione Smith says he feels pride to stand here on this Sunday.
“Without James being around this area, none of this would be available for these kids,” Smith adds.
Over on the stage, in front of the hundreds who attended, Harden shuffles his feet and answers questions about his career path. He tells kids to always have a positive attitude. He tells them to be genuine with every person they meet.
At the end of the Q-and-A, both he and Willis (who is also on the stage) step to their left to watch a video. It begins, showing clips of his playing days at Audubon, his college days at Arizona State and his NBA highlights. When it ends, Harden hugs his mom and thanks her for her role in his life.
He then hops off of the stage and makes his way to his left. The new outdoor courts await.