Alex Harden is on a path destined to finish as the best woman to play basketball at Wichita State, but this wasn’t always meant to be.
At Southeast High in Springfield, Ill., Harden was not touted as a blue-chip prospect. She was hailed as a freak athlete, which really was just a veiled criticism of her dependence on her genetic makeup to excel rather than her skill set.
Wichita State coach Jody Adams has never been shy about Harden’s athletic ability, labeling it “All-American” caliber, but even she had a lengthy list of questions when Harden committed to WSU in 2011.
“Was she going to be coachable? Was she going to be mature? Was she going to work hard? Was she going to out-work people?” Adams says. “We just didn’t know how she would respond.”
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Harden’s response was yes to all of the above – and more. She elevated every facet of her game, which in turn, elevated Wichita State to a conference championship and NCAA Tournament appearance – with more on the horizon.
If Harden is able to match her production this season – 17.1 points, 6.0 rebounds, 5.1 assists, 2.2 steals, 1.1 blocks – next year, she would be on pace to finish as WSU’s career leader in points and assists, as well as seventh or better in three more categories.
This all coming with Harden poised to become the third player in Missouri Valley Conference history to win Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year in the same season, joining Drake’s Wanda Ford (1985) and Missouri State’s Secelia Winkfield (1993) in elite company.
Not to mention Harden has been the best player for WSU for the better part of a year now, during which time the Shockers have won their first conference championship, appeared in their first NCAA Tournament, recorded a program-best 20-game winning streak, and can clinch a share of their second straight Valley title Sunday against Indiana State.
But Harden’s story is not one of revenge. It’s not about proving those scouts and coaches wrong. And it’s not about silencing her skeptics.
This is a different kind of quest for Harden.
“It’s about one thing,” she says, smiling. “Making more history.”
• • •
The one thing that is guaranteed to draw Harden out of her reserved nature is to challenge her. In anything, it doesn’t matter.
Over the years, stories of Harden’s competitive streak have accumulated. They range from the mild, such as challenging anyone to a shooting contest, to the extreme, such as wrestling teammate Michaela Dapprich to determine who’s the strongest. But the original one, the one that started it all, remains the favorite of Harden.
It begins during Harden’s first month on campus, as she was transitioning onto a team with then-juniors Jessica Diamond, Chynna Turner, and Jazimen Gordon set as team leaders. The trio had heard Adams rave about Harden’s track prowess, so Gordon, a former track star in high school, wanted to test the rookie.
When confronted, Harden not only did not back down, but she challenged Gordon to a 100-meter dash on the track. Twelve seconds later, Harden prevailed.
“That kind of took me by surprise when she challenged me,” Gordon reminisces. “But I saw something, something special in her in that moment. Most freshmen are timid and try to feel their way out. She wasn’t like that. She was ready to accept that challenge.”
Wichita State has needed Harden to morph into a new role each season – from a role player to the go-to player to the vocal leader of the team – and she has excelled in them all.
Harden believes that competitive drive to achieve tasks is inherited from her father, Wilbert Harden. It was her father that created weekend-long Monopoly games with the family – “You sleep with your pieces and your money,” Harden says – and it was her father that refused to allow his daughter to win.
It was an obstacle, albeit in board-game form, but it served as a life lesson for Harden to relentlessly pursue a goal.
Finally, just shy of her 15th birthday, Harden knocked off the reigning champ of the household.
“It was one and done,” Harden says. “I got my victory and I walked off.”
• • •
Most little girls with big hopes in basketball romanticize about making a big shot. Harden was not like most little girls.
She had dreams of playing lockdown defense to make sure that big shot never gets off.
“I knew I could never shoot 100 percent,” Harden says. “No matter how many shots I make, another team could overpower me. If you do defense and work with your teammates, there are a lot more things that can come from that.”
When Harden arrived at Wichita State, she discovered Adams was teaching an entirely different game. A new world of basketball was opened to Harden, who was amazed with the amount of details.
She soon learned that the location of her passes mattered. Her positioning on the court mattered. Her every dribble and every footstep mattered.
Harden immersed herself in the new challenge, in the details.
“It had a calming effect when I stepped on a basketball court,” Harden says. “It shuts off everything else about life. It was kind of my getaway place from everything. School, family, friends, everything.”
Now Harden sees and plays the game in a different way. Everything she does is calculated, which explains how she has increased efficiency (51.5 field-goal percentage) on more shots this season.
At times, Harden is too analytical of her game. The coaching staff has to remind her from time to time to play freely, which Adams thinks is a sign that Harden is only grazing the ceiling of her potential.
“Alex is such a thinker and you don’t want her to be like that on the court,” Adams says. “You want her to play for the love of the game, and use her intangibles and use her instincts during the game.”
Perhaps Harden’s most impressive feat is turning the question of “if” she can compile a triple-double to “when” she will do it.
While she has recorded three double-doubles this season, Harden has threatened a triple-double on five occasions, logging double-digit points with at least seven tallies in two other categories.
“I think I’m capable of doing it,” Harden says. “And when it happens, I probably won’t even know. It’s just about playing the game and letting it come to you.”
• • •
Harden will be the best women’s basketball player at Wichita State, but it won’t be because of how many points she scores or records she breaks or individual accolades she achieves.
It will be because she had the innate ability to make the other four players on the court alongside her better. Harden’s total value to the program cannot be measured in statistics, even though those will likely tell a compelling story.
If last season’s senior class is to be remembered as the foundation of the Jody Adams era, then Harden is the towering skyscraper that emerged from it. She is the leading scorer, the leading creator, and the leading voice.
“I do think she will be one of the best to ever come through Wichita State, if not the best,” Adams says. “That’s still to be told.”
But what matters most is that when Harden is at her best, it draws the best from those around her. There is a commitment there, between Harden and her teammates, and it wasn’t forged by default.
Harden had to stand up for herself, she had to scrap, she had to accept every challenge to earn that type of trust.
“We don’t want Alex to have to do it all, but she does take a little pressure off of us,” junior Kelsey Jacobs says. “We know when the shot clock is going down, we can put the ball in Alex’s hands and she can create any shot that she wants. Not only for herself, but for us, too.”
Before Harden entered the program, talk of the NCAA Tournament was wishful thinking.
Now it’s an expectation.
“We don’t really talk about the WNIT or the WBI anymore,” senior Michelle Price says. “We only talk about the NCAAs. And not just going, either, but winning in the NCAAs.”
If Harden does collect the MVC Player of the Year award this season, which would be a first for a WSU player, she would have a direct tie to essentially every meaningful record in the history book.
Harden set out to achieve history and she’s accomplished it.
And don’t think she’s running out of ideas.
“There’s always something to improve on,” Harden says. “Pushing to become a better player, having a better team, going a little farther in the NCAAs. I’m always going to find something different to make history.”