James Harden, on top of the world

I celebrated my 23rd birthday 12,000 feet about sea level in a small guest house overlooking a dramatic valley carved with steppes where the villagers farmed rice and vegetables. My french fries that night came from a potato pulled from the earth minutes before it was cooked — I saw my tiny Nepalese innkeeper/chef carrying the still dirty spud in from the backyard. I stayed up all night — or at least what counts for all night on a trek, when you rise with the sun and fall into the rhythm imposed by natural light — drinking local moonshine, a clear distilled brew called Raksi, with my guide Purna, who repeatedly beat me in gin rummy despite claiming to have no understanding of the rules. For the first time in a week I had running water in my room. It was all superdeluxe. After all the hands had been played, I walked across the grass lawn between the kitchen and my room and paused to sit and admire the black sky overcrowded with stars. It was serene and beautiful, and I thought to myself, “What the —-  am I doing with my life?”

First, how I got to Nepal:

My senior year of college brought me, for the first time in my life, the sickening sensation that I may not have control over my future. Friends were signing up left and right to join the investment banking ranks a couple hours north in New York. They received signing bonuses and picked out neighborhoods, made plans to live together. Others, those who had spent four years in a liberal arts major as I had, were lining up marketing jobs or preparing for an internship before heading off to law school. Or at least that’s how it felt at the time, and I decided I would remove myself from the whole process by jumping ship to the other side of the world. I landed a job teaching high school English at the American International School in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

To this day I cannot fully explain what in god’s green earth possessed me to unflinchingly commit to this far flung job. Did I want to be a teacher? Maybe. Did I want to live 15,000 miles from my family and friends as a requirement of my profession? No, it was always temporary.

As much as anything, I likely felt a need to extricate myself from the stream of people who confidently marched from our collegiate dream into a world where they wouldn’t be rewarded for curiosity but turning a profit. Maybe I was just scared I couldn’t hack it in the big ol’ talent pool.

In any event, I wanted to go and so I went.

I’m not a teacher now and, even though the circumstances of my tenure at AIS Dhaka are unlikely to be replicated by any future teaching opportunities, I know enough to know I don’t want to do be in a classroom full time.

But my time there did result in a subtle career break.

For the first time in my life, I couldn’t find basketball on TV. Badminton, sure, and even live telecasts of young Korean men playing Starcraft complete with fevered announcing rattling in the background. But no basketball. So in 2009 I began to read about the NBA online for the first time in my life, and quickly found Henry Abbott’s TrueHoop blog.

I hated it at first. And John Hollinger — who was this guy? Cool numbers, nerd! But it was what I had. And slowly, over the course of that 2008-2009 season, I began to question whether Kobe Bryant really was actually than LeBron James; I developed a jones for the Bullets, and eagerly awaited Zach Lowe posts on Celtics Hub. The switch that I wanted to write myself didn’t flip on for nearly a whole year after I had returned from the states, but the getting acquainted with the TrueHoop Network opened up the possibility that if I did write, lots of people might one day read it.

Today, I’m getting paid (not very much) to write about the NBA over at TrueHoop. I had no idea then, but deciding to go to Bangladesh, where there are only a handful of decaying basketball gyms in the entire country, eventually lead to a career that has me planted in Brooklyn, walking distance from the futuristic, billion dollar Barclays Center where I’ll watch a number of games this season with a press credential around my neck.

The year abroad opened up the specific future I live today. Whether or not consequences are intended hardly bears on whether they are impactful.

Who knows if James Harden made the right decision when he refused Oklahoma City’s offer. Did he simply misread Presti’s offer as a bluff? As a result he’s on a worse team, away from his close Thunder friends and in line to make many millions more than he would have had he stayed. All this is true, but hardly captures the expansive and personal calculus that goes into the final judgment on this kind of decision. Whether he “made the right call” is unknowable at this point, judgment in this moment only takes into account the past and speculates on a narrow vision of his future happiness as defined by his professional life.

And who can prove that winning a championship brings sustained happiness? Even without a championship, doesn’t Charles Barkley seem far happier than ring-laden Michael Jordan?

James Harden didn’t get to choose where he worked when he left college. This might be the first real post-college career decision he’s made — the extent he knew he was making one when his team told him he’d be traded if he did not accept the 4 year $54 million contract.

Welcome to the future you’ve created, James, and perhaps to looking back and wondering “what if.” Thank goodness only my family and a few friends have probably ever even considered my brief post-grad life and wondered how else it might have gone. Harden’s choice will be endlessly analyzed by strangers, possibly for years to come.

We know he made a life-changing decision, but we know almost nothing about the life to come. Being 23 is all about learning to live with all the doors that, as time advances, close around you even as the future blossoms.

If James Harden doesn’t already know that, he will soon. His career is in rarified air, miles high. He’s made his decision and taken control of his career. Here’s hoping he makes the most of it.

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  1. [...] Beckley Mason of HoopSpeak: “Welcome to the future you’ve created, James, and perhaps to looking back and wondering “what if.” Thank goodness only my family and a few friends have probably ever even considered my brief post-grad life and wondered how else it might have gone. Harden’s choice will be endlessly analyzed by strangers, possibly for years to come. We know he made a life-changing decision, but we know almost nothing about the life to come. Being 23 is all about learning to live with all the doors that, as time advances, close around you even as the future blossoms. If James Harden doesn’t already know that, he will soon. His career is in rarified air, miles high. He’s made his decision and taken control of his career. Here’s hoping he makes the most of it.” [...]

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