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Original Issue

A Traveling Buddy Act

Chance encounters brought together two players and a coach at Artesia High. They followed one another to Arizona State, where star guard James Harden once again is vital to their title hopes

THE FOURTH-FLOOR view of Tempe Town Lake would be splendid, but the shades are drawn because the glare from the descending desert sun makes Ping-Pong impossible. This glassy tower on the road snaking behind Arizona State's landmark "A" Mountain is no dorm—if the architecture doesn't give it away, the sign advertising luxury condos will—and inside it looks as if these college kids are crashing an investment banker's bachelor pad. But the resident of the two-bedroom unit is actually junior communications major Derek Glasser, the Sun Devils' starting point guard and son of premium jeans magnate Michael Glasser. Derek's volleying with sophomore shooting guard Ty Abbott as friends look on, heckling them.

To accommodate the table, several modern couches have been haphazardly pushed aside, and near one of them leans a large TV whose flat screen was broken by a flying Nintendo Wiimote. A giant Sharp Aquos has gone up in its place, and sophomore guard James Harden, an All-America candidate who leads the Pac-10 in scoring and is 10th in the nation, has fixed his gaze on the big screen as he plays Mario Kart, expertly steering Mario clear of a virtual abyss. He would live with Glasser, his old running mate from Artesia High near Los Angeles, but the rent required to avoid violating the NCAA's "extra benefits" rule would be astronomical. Instead, he teams with Glasser in the Arizona State backcourt, and together they're steering the Sun Devils toward their first NCAA tournament appearance in six years.

HARDEN ARRIVED at Arizona State in 2007 as a McDonald's All-American, but he was overshadowed by, among others, two fellow freshmen who went to L.A. instead of leaving it: USC's O.J. Mayo and UCLA's Kevin Love. This season, with Mayo and Love in the NBA, the 6'5", 218-pound Harden was averaging 23.4 points through Sunday, and the Sun Devils (12--2, 1--1 in the Pac-10) were ranked 20th in the latest AP poll. "Arizona State was terrible," he says of the program that has not produced a top 5 NBA pick since Byron Scott was chosen fourth by the San Diego Clippers in 1983, "but I wanted to go somewhere that was different."

Harden is, by nature, unorthodox: Left-handed and bearded, he wears a number 13 jersey and a baggy T-shirt underneath. He's a bull moose of a wing player who can get into the lane at will and shoot efficiently from NBA range, and he's expected to be a top 5 pick in June's NBA draft. His turning pro after this season is all but a foregone conclusion, but the Sun Devils were lucky to get him—as well as Glasser and their old mentor at Artesia. For it was a serendipitous chain of events that brought them to Tempe, of all places.

A STRUGGLING ACTOR and a rube of a high school coach have a chance meeting outside a UCLA gym that's the site of a basketball camp. It's July 1999, and in nine years the actor will be the assistant general manager of an NBA team and the coach will be on the staff of a Division I college program. But on this day they commiserate about the miserable hours of their low-level gigs working the camp. The actor is keeping tabs on the mothers—one of whom, he says, is an ex-Playboy Playmate—dropping off the young campers. He leaves with a number ... the coach's.

The coach is Scott Pera, and he wouldn't be outside the gym if not for a woman, Alyssa Deaven. They met when he was coaching at Annville-Cleona High, in Lebanon County, Pa.—she was acquainted with one of his former players—but after graduating from Penn with a degree in English in '98, she followed friends and a screenwriting dream to L.A. Pera coached Annville-Cleona to the Pennsylvania Class AA title in March '99, then rendezvoused with Deaven in Las Vegas a month later and proposed to her there. Now he's visiting her in L.A., and within a year he will quit his job at Annville-Cleona, they'll get married in Hershey, Pa., and then drive cross-country for good. He'll have only one other friend in California: the actor.

The actor is Neil Olshey, who had bit parts in two soap operas in New York before chasing stardom in Hollywood. A former high school player, he's having more success conducting private hoops workouts—his first client being Artesia High star (and future UCLA and NBA sharpshooter) Jason Kapono, whom Olshey met while serving as an assistant coach at Artesia in 1995.

After Pera and his new bride get settled in Marina del Rey in fall 2000, the coach calls Olshey to see if he wants to get together for a beer. Olshey tells Pera to apply for the head coach's job at Artesia. A 1,900-student school in suburban Lakewood that perennially has one of the top 10 basketball programs in the country, Artesia's a far cry from Annville-Cleona, whose student body of 432 draws from areas including a borough on the outskirts of Amish country. Incredulous, Pera mockingly tells Olshey, "Yeah, and the North Carolina job's open too."

But it's worth a shot: Artesia wants to clean house after a recruiting scandal and is looking for a squeaky-clean outsider rather than a smooth L.A. operator. Olshey's prior connections at Artesia land Pera an interview. Deaven is an assistant at a production company on the Disney lot, and Scott uses her office to fax 30 pages of résumé information and newspaper clippings about his state title run in Pennsylvania. Artesia gives Pera the job.

Olshey's own good fortune will lead him to agent Arn Tellem's company, SFX, where in 2001 he's hired as director of player development for predraft prospects, and then to the Clippers in '03 as their director of player development. But before all that, in '02, another Olshey connection will pay off for Pera. Michael Glasser hires Olshey to pick up his sixth grader, Derek, after school and work with him on his game at a rec center in Santa Monica. A couple of years later the father asks Olshey to recommend a high school coach who could help put Derek on a D-I track. Pera is 42--14 after two seasons at Artesia, and he lives near the Glassers. Soon he's the one picking up Derek—at 6:45 a.m., to drive him 40 minutes to Artesia, then back home each night after practice. They become close—"almost like a big brother I never had," Glasser says—and during one ride before the start of his sophomore season, he sadly notes that the team hasn't added any quality freshmen. "Just watch," Pera says. "There's something special about James Harden."

MONJA WILLIS used to call him Lucky, because James was lucky just to make it into the world. He was born 14 years after her first child, Akili Roberson, and 10 years, two miscarriages and one procedure after her second, Arnique Jelks. When James makes the varsity at Artesia as a freshman, Pera only has two jersey numbers left. Lucky picks number 13.

When Glasser calls Harden "fat" in one interview, it displeases Harden. So they agree on other terms that can be used to describe him, such as "lazy," "could barely touch the backboard" and "shot only blooper threes from the hip." A dozen games into the 2003--04 season Harden hits five out of five bloopers in a win over South Gate, whose star is UCLA-bound center Lorenzo Mata. "My first recruiting letter came in right after that," Harden says. "Handwritten, from UCLA."

To his father, a former Navy seaman whom Willis never married, he's Junior—James Harden is Pop's name too—but that nickname doesn't stick because Senior isn't around enough. "I was a knucklehead," the father will lament late in 2008, recalling how he went to prison twice on drug and other charges. By the time James reaches high school he has shut out his dad. "What's the point of me talking to you if you keep going in and out of jail?" he says.

Pera just calls him James, and challenges him to play through his asthma by getting in shape, to craft his awkward hip shot into a textbook jumper, to become such a complete player that by 2006 he has become a five-star recruit. Artesia goes 33--1 and wins a state title in March '06, Harden's junior year, and a month later he and Pera are talking in the Artesia gym. "This is hard," Pera says, "but I'm thinking about leaving."

Harden gives Pera his blessing to pursue a college job, and something more—the promise that if Pera lands a high-major gig, Harden will "seriously consider" coming along. "Then here's the deal," Pera tells him. "Let's sacrifice one year together for hopefully being together four more after that."

HERB SENDEK heads west in April 2006, fleeing the ungratefuls at North Carolina State who cared less about his success (five straight NCAA tournament trips) than about his singular failure (not wresting Tobacco Road bragging rights from Duke and North Carolina). At Arizona State, a program that finished 11--17 and tied for eighth in the Pac-10 in 2005--06, Sendek, as coach, is starting from scratch. And he needs help.

It turns out Sendek, Olshey and Pera share a friend: ubiquitous sneaker-company executive Sonny Vaccaro, who lives in L.A., has employed Olshey and Pera as coaches at his ABCD camps and has seen Harden play. Vaccaro knows Pera is looking to jump; he knows how good Harden is; he knows how much Sendek could use Harden. So Vaccaro sets things in motion with a call to the new Sun Devils coach.

ASU's director of basketball operations job comes open in May 2006, when Pera just happens to be coaching Harden's AAU team in Tucson. Pera needs to get to Tempe for an interview with Sendek. On her way back to L.A., Willis happens to be going through Phoenix to check on a house she might retire to after she leaves AT&T, where she's worked as a maintenance administrator since 1981. Pera hitches a ride with her.

The pieces keep coming together: Within days Pera joins the Sun Devils' staff; in July, Glasser, who had verbally committed to USC but was not feeling the same love from the Trojans, changes his mind and switches to ASU; in August, Harden, who was seriously considering Washington, verbally commits to the Sun Devils. That winter he wins another state title at Artesia, while Glasser starts at point guard for an ASU team that finishes 2--16 in the Pac-10 (8--22 overall). "[James] calls me from the airport after the McDonald's [All-America] Game," Glasser says, "and is like, 'These guys are getting announced as Duke and North Carolina [recruits], and when they say, 'James Harden, Arizona State,' it's kind of embarrassing.' But he knew he was coming here to leave his name, to say, 'I turned it around.'"

AS A SOPHOMORE at ASU, Harden is a 54.7% shooter who hits 43.8% of his three-point attempts and seems to start plays from the right wing 90% of the time. From there his southpaw signature move, the hard-left first step, is particularly lethal, especially when a defender's momentum is carrying him in the opposite direction. Sendek changed his offense last season from the plodding Princeton-like system to a more fast-paced motion scheme, to put Harden in better position to score.

In the Sun Devils' possession Pera has cued up in his office, from a Dec. 7 rout of Nebraska, Harden encounters four Cornhuskers: The first two fly at him as he catches the ball in his favorite spot near the right sideline, then continue past him as he pump-fakes right and goes left; the second two come running but realize what Harden already knows: It's too late. Harden needs just one dribble to reach the lane, and one of the Nebraska players fouls him in an act of surrender.

"People ask me, Who is James like?" Pera says. "[He's similar to] Brandon Roy or Paul Pierce. He's not superquick, but if there's a place on the court he needs to get to, he gets there. That's what makes him so attractive to the NBA. Fifty million people watching could know, Don't let him go there, and yet he still goes there!"

On the floor and on the shelves behind Pera lies documentation of where he and Harden have been together. There's a photo of Pera, Harden and Glasser outside Arco Arena in Sacramento after they won the state title in '06, and a newspaper story about Pera's and Harden's being named Southern California coach and player of the year, respectively. There's a box score from Arizona State's 88--58 win over UTEP on Nov. 30, when Harden scored 40 points, and the statistical comparisons that Pera calculates to motivate his star player. This year it's Harden versus the nation's best wing players; last year it was Harden versus the nation's best freshmen; six years ago it was Harden versus the Los Angeles Times's top high school freshmen, a list from which he was excluded.

Pera stays committed to advancing their plot, because if it had never been set in motion, if it had never intersected and led to so many mutual benefits, then a pudgy hip-shooter and an unemployed coach might have forever been adrift.

Olshey (left) had bit parts in SOAP OPERAS, but was having more success giving private hoops workouts when he met Pera.



See which college hoops teams are up and which ones are down in Luke Winn's Power Rankings each Thursday.



Photograph by John W. McDonough

GUARD DUTY With backcourt mate Glasser (12) feeding him, Harden was averaging a Pac-10 best 23.4 points through Sunday.



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TRIO GRAND After (top, from left) Harden, Pera and Glasser won a state title at Artesia in 2006, they got together again in Tempe.



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BIG LIFT With Harden's arrival, the Sun Devils jumped from eight wins in 2006--07 to 21 and an NIT appearance last season.