The tradition stretches back six years, to when James Harden began his rookie season in Oklahoma City, after the team drafted the Los Angeles native with the third overall pick in the 2009 NBA Draft. Before just about every one of his more than 400 games as a pro, Harden exchanges text messages with a friend and former coach.
Rice University associate head coach Scott Pera says, “I send him a message before every game and James will always respond. Sometimes it’s just one word and sometimes it’s a lot more than that. I’ve known him a long time, so I can sense when he is frustrated or when he’s feeling good. I can watch games and see almost instantly how it’s going to go for him. I send him motivational quotes sometimes and he appreciates it.”
Harden and Pera go back a dozen years, when Harden tried out for Pera’s varsity basketball squad at Artesia High School in California. After coaching the guard for three seasons, Pera joined the Arizona State staff in 2006, and the future consensus All-American and 2009 Pac-10 Player of the Year followed his mentor to Tempe. And while Harden, now an all-star and all-pro player for the Houston Rockets, receives direction and coaching from the Rockets’ staff, he still listens to advice from his mentor from his early days.
“I pick my spots. If I see something wrong mechanically, I’ll say something to him,” Pera said. “He knows I watch – if I don’t watch live I’ll still watch all his clips. If he’s in a shooting slump, I’ll tell him you’ve got to tuck your shoulder in or your feet are all wrong or check your hand position. He’ll always write back, ‘I got you, Coach’ or ‘Will do.’ “
For the first five years of Harden’s NBA career, those calls and texts were the primary means of communication for the pair. However, there were a few exceptions to be made, particularly as Harden and his team had success deep into the season.
“He brought me in for Game One of the 2012 NBA Finals,” Pera recalled. “I was also at the Western Conference Finals against the Spurs that year. He brought me out for some of those big games in Oklahoma City. We interacted a lot, but I just didn’t see him face-to-face very much. I would see him some when I was coaching at Arizona State and he came back over the summer, or when they would play against the Suns. I’d go to those games and see him and we would get together whenever possible. It wasn’t always a lot, but we exchanged a lot of texts and phone calls.”
That dynamic changed last spring when Pera joined the Rice staff under first-year head coach Mike Rhoades.
Harden told Houston’s Fox 26 Sports at the time, “Great, great for him. He's a tremendous coach. He coached me three years in high school. He developed me from being a young guy. He coached me at Arizona State. He has a great opportunity to be closer to me, and what a great university in Rice. He's my mentor from ninth grade on. He's got me to where I am now. He's helped me mature from a kid to a grown man. I'm happy to have him closer, close by me."
Pera said, “First of all, his reaction to me coming here was great. He was really excited when I told him. Then when I got here, I had the option to stay in a hotel until my family arrived, but instead I stayed with him for seven weeks. He has a guest house and we didn’t always see each other a ton. I was getting to work for I don’t know how many hours a day and he was playing with Team USA, and overseas a lot.”
“We did spend some time together. Once it got closer to the season, he came around here to campus some and I get to go to his games every now and then. Once the April comes around, I’ll see him more because I’ll be able to go to more games. I look forward to the playoffs this year and to go to some games. Christmastime was great, though – we were able to spend some time together at Christmas. He’s really great with my daughters, and they love him.”
Now that Pera and his family have settled in Houston, he has been able to share his experiences on South Main with one of the city’s most recognizable athletes.
“We talk about Rice. James always wants to know how our team is. That’s his biggest thing – how good are we going to be. He’s interested in our players and he wants to know if we’re recruiting good players. He knows me well and he’s always been complimentary of me and he knows how good of friends that Coach Rhoades and I are. James didn’t know Mike before I moved here, but now he thinks we’ll turn it around here and he’ll be excited if we do.”
Harden even wants to come see the Owls play in person this season – a task easier said than done with the grueling NBA slate.
“He was mad that they had a flight the same time as our game against UTEP a few weeks ago. We played at 2:30 and they flew out at 3, so he couldn’t come to the game. It’s been nearly impossible, but he’s looking for an opportunity. It’s been crazy how rare the opportunities have been with his schedule. I know he’d love to watch our guys play. We hope that can work out before the season ends.”
As tough as it is for Harden and Pera to find chances to support each other during the season, the Rice coach is already excited for an opportunity next month with his former high school and college players.
“Next month on the 18th, Arizona State is putting his jersey in the rafters and he’s flying me in with him to be there for it. They’re playing against UCLA and it should be quite a scene. I’ll have to take a red-eye flight to Florida to catch up with our team before our game the next day, but that will be cool and I’m looking forward to it.”
With Harden at the forefront of nearly every MVP conversation this season, Pera had a chance to weigh in on his former player and what has made this season so special.
“He’s a really smart guy. At every level he’s been at, whatever deficiencies or flaws he’s had, he’s had a tremendous ability to fix or improve them. I think it’s a combination of his maturity, his desire to want to win and his ability to see and understand what he needs to do. He’s one of the top five players in the world. I’m biased, but he’s up there in that conversation. He’s the smartest guy I’ve ever coached. He was smart at age 13. His basketball IQ is off the charts. That was the one thing that stuck out before he grew into his body and matured into this great player.”