The beard is still lush and vibrant, an impenetrable forest of facial camouflage. The man behind it, also known as The Beard, is equally spirited and inscrutable. But his steel-wooled facade has just cracked, albeit slightly.
So, about that 30th birthday you recently celebrated…
"Don't remind me!" James Harden interjects, as if the mere mention of the milestone might buckle his knees and send his hairline into recession.
The Houston Rockets star isn't here for your rocking-chair jokes, your stats on mid-career players or your musings on athletic mortality. He is, however, smiling wryly through this gentle protest, his defensiveness more than offset by his bravado.
Yes, Harden stared down 30 candles on Aug. 26, and yes, it was a bit jarring—"in the worst way," he tells B/R—but The Beard has never felt friskier or more confident.
And why not? The man has back-to-back scoring titles, a half-dozen All-NBA awards and a semi-permanent place in the MVP race. One of his best friends and fellow All-Stars, Russell Westbrook, joined his team this summer. And his greatest nemesis is in tatters.
The Golden State Warriors, who have stymied Harden at every turn for years, are mortal again, having lost Kevin Durant to Brooklyn and Klay Thompson to a serious knee injury.
There are no dynasties to topple, no superteams blocking the horizon.
The NBA suddenly feels wide-open, a portrait of superstar equilibrium: LeBron and AD (Lakers), Kawhi and PG13 (Clippers), Embiid and Simmons (76ers), KD and Kyrie (Nets).
And in Houston, James and Russ.
It's now the Rockets, not the Warriors, who boast two recent MVPs.