And even before that, in high school, Harden may have been a McDonald's All-American and a Parade All-American, but his beard won no awards and got no recognition.
That's because it didn't exist.
At Artesia High School in Lakewood, Calif., Harden had a silky-smooth face to match his smooth-as-silk game. That's because the teenager's face was one where no hair would yet grow.
Here's a highlight reel of Harden in high school. His clean-shaven countenance is virtually unrecognizable—though his aggressive game is instantly familiar.
Harden entered Arizona State as the school's most coveted signee ever, and ASU's first high school McDonald's All-American since 1984. But the Sun Devils clearly didn't want him for his whiskers, which had yet to make their presence known. That's right—nary a hair on this college freshman chinny-chin-chin.
Harden had a sensational first year; he led his squad, 8-22 prior to Harden's arrival, to a 21-13 record. For his efforts, he earned first team All-Pac-10 honors.
But the beard? Still MIA. By year's end, though, Harden finally had some growth—the aforementioned peach fuzz.
Flash forward to the summer after his freshman year. Harden now had managed to coax a small goatee onto his countenance…but it was nothing exceptional. How did this ordinary facial hair transform to extraordinary?
Through Harden's clever harnessing of a common college student phenomenon.
Harden just didn't feel like shaving. And so, the beard began to grow in earnest.
Much like Sampson's long hair gave him strength, Harden's beard coincided with his game going into overdrive. His Sun Devils won 25 games, enjoying back-to-back 20 win seasons for the first time since Ronald Reagan was first sworn in.
After his sophomore year, Harden's beard was in full swing, as were First-Team All-American honors from outlets like the Associated Press, Sporting News, FOXSports.com and CBSSports.com. Harden had become just the fifth player in Pac-10 history to lead the league in scoring (20.1 points per game) and steals (1.69 per game).
Harden entered the NBA as the Oklahoma City Thunder's third overall pick. Had his beard at this time been drafted, however, it would have lucky to have gone late in the second round. Though full and thick, it bore no resemblance to the ZZ Top-styled monstrosity we all know and love.
Fortunately for beard fans, Harden continued to embrace his inner sloth, at least so far as shaving was concerned. When it came to scoring, Harden was always working.
As Harden went from 9.9 points in his rookie campaign to 12.2 in his second year to 16.8 and a second-youngest Sixth Man Of The Year Award in his third season, The Beard grew and grew and grew, like something out of a Dr. Seuss novel.
It captured the imagination of Thunder fans; by Harden's third year, one could find The Beard everywhere in Oklahoma City, from building facades to cake toppings to pineapples to tattoos. Speculation on how long The Beard would get fueled this cartoon. A YouTube spoof on the popular Maroon 5 song "Moves Like Jagger" got hundreds of thousands of hits. Advertisers even gave The Beard superhuman qualities, like the power of regeneration in this FootLocker commercial.
The Beard continued to grow, and the phenomenon continued to capture NBA fans' imaginations as the Thunder reached the NBA Finals, and then The Beard helped the Americans win Olympic gold.
Then came October 27, 2012.
Harden was traded to the Rockets for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb and draft picks.
The Beard had landed. And October 31—the day Harden signed his five-year extension—was the day The Beard Appeared all over the metropolitan area.
More important to any true Rockets fan than the length of his beard, however, is Harden's lengthy presence as an NBA scoring leader. He's been on the list all season long, and currently resides in fifth place with 26.1 points per game.
About the only one who's not sure about The Beard is Harden's own mom. She was first quoted as saying she desperately wants him to shave it off...but days later, she recanted and said the birds' nest looks good. She also revealed perhaps another motivation for growing The Beard in the first place: Harden, like every college kid, wanted to look older.
Regardless of how Mom feels, Harden's beard is awfully popular in Houston. After all, Harden and his teammates have made the Houston Rockets one of the league's highest-scoring teams, and vaulted this young roster into the Western Conference playoff discussion.
But Fear not, Fear The Beard fans. Even if Harden fails to nab an NBA championship this year, he is still a shoo-in for another trophy.
The World Beard Championship in Las Vegas.
Want Harden to enter? Email the Rockets at this address.
And James, make sure those breathtaking bristles enjoy their run of the town while they can.
Because the Astros might need a closer.
And Brian Wilson is available.
Stats accurate as of 1/2/13.
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