Saturday, July 7, 2012 | 5:01 p.m.
During the 2008 Beijing Olympics, James Harden was preparing for his sophomore year at Arizona State. A standout by Pac-10 standards if not quite a national star, Harden watched USA Basketball’s run to the gold medal without the ‘One day that will be me’ thoughts that most of the current Team USA members once had.
See, Harden’s not supposed to be here. He sticks out almost as much as his now famous beard. In 2008, he wasn’t on any kind of list for potential team members in 2012. Heck, he wasn’t even on that list a few months ago.
Yet here he is. On Saturday, Harden officially became a member of Team USA when Jerry Colangelo and coach Mike Krzyzewski made their announcements at Wynn Las Vegas.
“It’s the best phase of my life,” said Harden, a 22-year-old Sixth Man of the Year for the Oklahoma City Thunder. “All the hard work and dedication is paying off.”
When training camp opened Friday at the Mendenhall Center, Harden was one of six players in the so-called contenders group, along with Blake Griffin, Andre Iguodala, Rudy Gay, Eric Gordon and Anthony Davis. He and Davis — the No. 1 overall pick of the New Orleans Hornets — were the only ones who weren’t on the 20-man preliminary roster released in January.
Combine that with his lack of USA Basketball experience — this will be his first event with the national team — and Harden is easily the biggest surprise on the 12-man team. The rest of the roster includes Griffin, Iguodala, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Deron Williams, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, Kevin Love, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler.
All of them have previously played for either an Olympic or World Championship team except for Harden and Griffin, who is a two-time NBA All-Star, former Rookie of the Year and Slam Dunk Champion. Which is to say, Griffin was on the radar. Harden was not.
Harden got there with a little luck and a stellar season that culminated in an NBA Finals loss to James and the Miami Heat.
The luck mostly has to do with injuries. If someone like Dwyane Wade weren’t recovering from surgery, there wouldn’t be room for Harden. Of course, you could say the same thing about a few other players on the roster who owe their spots at least in part to the misfortune of their peers.
But the more interesting angle is looking at how Harden is playing the best basketball of his life at exactly the right time to earn a chance to make the team.
Harden said he never hesitated when Colangelo asked him to be a part of the USA Basketball organization.
“Whatever my plans were, I was going to cancel them,” he said.
On Friday, Harden seemed very relaxed after practice. He talked about how special it would be to go to London and share the experience with Thunder teammates Durant and Westbrook, but added that he wasn’t nervous about the decision. On Saturday, he admitted he did actually have some jitters Friday night. And really, how could he not?
This was a big moment, one that he never expected but nonetheless wanted. About an hour after Saturday’s practice, Colangelo and Krzyzewski gathered with Harden, Griffin and Iguodala to tell them they were no longer contenders. They had made it.
In that meeting, each player heard what was expected of them and how they would fit into the team. For Harden, it didn’t sound any different from his role with the Thunder: come off the bench and change the game. He’s already proven to be stellar in that position and Colangelo figured it would add to the team.
USA Basketball’s perceived weakness as it prepares for the Olympics is size. Griffin helps with that, but more importantly, Colangelo doesn’t see it as a weakness. Team USA will be heavy favorites to win gold — only Spain comes close — and Colangelo likes the team’s chances against anyone, including the 2008 Team USA.
“We think we’re deeper, we think we’re better,” Colangelo said. “And only time will tell. The journey is just beginning.”
USA Basketball’s first exhibition game is Thursday, July 12, at 6 p.m. against the Dominican Republic at the Thomas & Mack Center. That will be the public’s first chance to see how this elite team plays together, how the players coexist.
Nobody knows the answer to that quite yet. But Harden is grateful that he’s one of the lucky few who get to find out.
“There are a lot of guys who play in the NBA,” Harden said. “There aren’t a lot of guys who have a chance to win a gold medal, too.”
Now Harden is one of them. He belongs.