Before Game One in Houston, a company stuck a giant sculpture of James Harden’s near the entrance of the arena. A person entering the stadium could take photos of it, walk inside it, whatever, who cares, interactivity is not what I’m here to talk about.
This sculpture is ambitious, I will give it that. It really is very large and, in some highly abstract ways, it invokes James Harden. There’s the beard, the red uniform, the fauxhawk. Those are the elements of Harden iconography. It makes me go “Hmm that is James Harden.”
But aside from that, this colossal bust of the presumed NBA MVP COMPLETELY FUCKING FAILS to capture what James Harden is in any other meaningful way. What the fuck is that smile, lips clenched tight as if holding in a thousand bees or some shit? Harden’s mouth is nearly never close, handsome white teeth perpetually radiating from his forest of facial hair. The eyes are insanely wrong, totally expressionless, sitting under furrowed eyebrows with a flat determination.
This is a sculpture that abandons Harden, the player and the man, guts everything that makes him truly unique and fills up his symbology with the nonsense of “The Athlete” as an ideal; that kind of focused, serious, fair-play minded totem of dull, night-after-night excellence. It is, beyond all conceivable odds, a gigantic theme park sculpture of basketball’s Trickster God that totally lacks any sense of whimsy whatsoever.
Where’s the fucking sparkle, man? Where's the guy I watch out there, swinging his ass into defenders to create fouls, tricking refs and completely not giving a shit when the world give him heat for it. Where are those big, wet eyes that drowsily scan the court, half interested in what’s going on around him before snapping into engagement at the first vision of an available drive or a defender collapsing in front of him?
Why is James Harden, Hoops Loki himself, being depicted as Hoops Thor? Will history make this same fuck up, remembering a dude who, like, half of all people loathed for his excessive dependence on foul shots and tricky nonsense, as some kind of Michael Jordan clone? A Dominant Athlete who Did it the Right Way? How many athletes have lost the textures of their existence to a sports narrative churn that seeks to turn everyone into Joe DiMaggio?
Here and there I encounter a video of a James Harden dunk, and it always feels… strange, to me. A stepback three, a crossover layup, drawing a foul on some sucker—these all feel like the James Harden I know and adore. But when he leaves the craft I associate him with behind, tears down the lane, and dunks on some bum—here, Kevin Durant—I feel as if I have, for a hot moment, stopped watching James Harden and started watching some completely different dude, some athletic dynamo who can dominate the competition with pure force of will. For a second, he isn’t flesh and blood Harden, resplendent in a Willy Wonka get up and hauling his defenders through a tunnel of terror. He is Comically Large Bust Harden, a dude who drives and yanks on rims like everyone else.
I mean, here he is, Dunking on Kevin Durant, the Warriors’ best player and a dude he once played with, the kind of guy that James Harden dunking on would, I think, normally evoke some profound reaction out of people. But the crowd just kind of sits on their seats, continuing to watch the game. No foul, no Harden flexing, nothing. He does something that, when pretty much any other player does it, is the most embarrassing shit you can do to a defender, and yet, run of play continues unabated, the crowd doesn’t lost their shit, the broadcast crew doesn’t take a second out to memorialize Durant, nothing.
Isn’t it strange that a star-on-star banging in the middle of this playoff duel doesn’t bring that much out of you? Harden has established his own stylistic and aesthetic world that is so wildly divergent from pretty much any other NBA player that the joy of watching him (If you take joy from him at all) simply doesn’t exist in his athleticism or domination or any shit like that. It's all about the way he warps reality around himself.
My favorite Harden play from Houston’s previous series against the Utah Jazz was an EXTREMELY dumb foul he drew against Joe Ingles in the backcourt. Basically, he catches the ball, kind of ambles in the backcourt while Ingles gets back on defense, then proceeds to openly swing his entire giant ass into him, kind of signaling to the cop on the floor that he was trying to dribble into the front court, but oh God this guy hit me in the ass, somehow, and I am falling?
When you see it from a top down angle, it makes absolutely no sense how this shit works, but down on the floor, those dude fall for it every time. It drives people fucking crazy when they watch it or when it happens to them. Watch Ingles, a dick in his own way, sarcastically clapping for Harden’s performance. It’s INCREDIBLE, man! You just watched like four dudes get tricked by this genius, some shit you can’t even imagine anyone else pulling off.
Maybe you’re like me, and you love it, eat that shit up, or maybe you’re like Ingles or my editor, and it just drives you up a wall [Editor's note: it is trash basketball]. Whatever it is, it’s certainly a FEELING, something that yanks on your brain. It makes the mere act of slamming on a guy nearly dull in comparison. You don’t, as the saying goes, go to the taco joint for hamburgers.
At the end of Harden’s dunk on Durant, he flies off the rim and stumbles around, and, for a second, we see the real Harden again. Even though it looked deeply conventional on the ride and on the slam, we learn James was actually working at the bleeding edge of his athleticism the whole time, barely able to dismount after expending all that effort and imbalance in getting a ball around the hand of a larger defender. After a second where he was Michael Jordan, it breaks, and he is James Harden again. Thank God, I say, the first one was enough.
This article originally appeared on VICE Sports US.