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THE FOURTH-FLOOR view of Tempe Town Lake would be splendid, but the shades are drawn because the glare from the descending desert sun makes Ping-Pong impossible. This glassy tower on the road snaking behind Arizona State's landmark "A" Mountain is no dorm—if the architecture doesn't give it away, the sign advertising luxury condos will—and inside it looks as if these college kids are crashing an investment banker's bachelor pad. But the resident of the two-bedroom unit is actually junior communications major Derek Glasser, the Sun Devils' starting point guard and son of premium jeans magnate Michael Glasser. Derek's volleying with sophomore shooting guard Ty Abbott as friends look on, heckling them.
To accommodate the table, several modern couches have been haphazardly pushed aside, and near one of them leans a large TV whose flat screen was broken by a flying Nintendo Wiimote. A giant Sharp Aquos has gone up in its place, and sophomore guard James Harden, an All-America candidate who leads the Pac-10 in scoring and is 10th in the nation, has fixed his gaze on the big screen as he plays Mario Kart, expertly steering Mario clear of a virtual abyss. He would live with Glasser, his old running mate from Artesia High near Los Angeles, but the rent required to avoid violating the NCAA's "extra benefits" rule would be astronomical. Instead, he teams with Glasser in the Arizona State backcourt, and together they're steering the Sun Devils toward their first NCAA tournament appearance in six years.
HARDEN ARRIVED at Arizona State in 2007 as a McDonald's All-American, but he was overshadowed by, among others, two fellow freshmen who went to L.A. instead of leaving it: USC's O.J. Mayo and UCLA's Kevin Love. This season, with Mayo and Love in the NBA, the 6'5", 218-pound Harden was averaging 23.4 points through Sunday, and the Sun Devils (12--2, 1--1 in the Pac-10) were ranked 20th in the latest AP poll. " Arizona State was terrible," he says of the program that has not produced a top 5 NBA pick since Byron Scott was chosen fourth by the San Diego Clippers in 1983, "but I wanted to go somewhere that was different."
Harden is, by nature, unorthodox: Left-handed and bearded, he wears a number 13 jersey and a baggy T-shirt underneath. He's a bull moose of a wing player who can get into the lane at will and shoot efficiently from NBA range, and he's expected to be a top 5 pick in June's NBA draft. His turning pro after this season is all but a foregone conclusion, but the Sun Devils were lucky to get him—as well as Glasser and their old mentor at Artesia. For it was a serendipitous chain of events that brought them to Tempe, of all places.
A STRUGGLING ACTOR and a rube of a high school coach have a chance meeting outside a UCLA gym that's the site of a basketball camp. It's July 1999, and in nine years the actor will be the assistant general manager of an NBA team and the coach will be on the staff of a Division I college program. But on this day they commiserate about the miserable hours of their low-level gigs working the camp. The actor is keeping tabs on the mothers—one of whom, he says, is an ex-Playboy Playmate—dropping off the young campers. He leaves with a number ... the coach's.
The coach is Scott Pera, and he wouldn't be outside the gym if not for a woman, Alyssa Deaven. They met when he was coaching at Annville-Cleona High, in Lebanon County, Pa.—she was acquainted with one of his former players—but after graduating from Penn with a degree in English in '98, she followed friends and a screenwriting dream to L.A. Pera coached Annville-Cleona to the Pennsylvania Class AA title in March '99, then rendezvoused with Deaven in Las Vegas a month later and proposed to her there. Now he's visiting her in L.A., and within a year he will quit his job at Annville-Cleona, they'll get married in Hershey, Pa., and then drive cross-country for good. He'll have only one other friend in California: the actor.
The actor is Neil Olshey, who had bit parts in two soap operas in New York before chasing stardom in Hollywood. A former high school player, he's having more success conducting private hoops workouts—his first client being Artesia High star (and future UCLA and NBA sharpshooter) Jason Kapono, whom Olshey met while serving as an assistant coach at Artesia in 1995.
After Pera and his new bride get settled in Marina del Rey in fall 2000, the coach calls Olshey to see if he wants to get together for a beer. Olshey tells Pera to apply for the head coach's job at Artesia. A 1,900-student school in suburban Lakewood that perennially has one of the top 10 basketball programs in the country, Artesia's a far cry from Annville-Cleona, whose student body of 432 draws from areas including a borough on the outskirts of Amish country. Incredulous, Pera mockingly tells Olshey, "Yeah, and the North Carolina job's open too."
But it's worth a shot: Artesia wants to clean house after a recruiting scandal and is looking for a squeaky-clean outsider rather than a smooth L.A. operator. Olshey's prior connections at Artesia land Pera an interview. Deaven is an assistant at a production company on the Disney lot, and Scott uses her office to fax 30 pages of r�sum� information and newspaper clippings about his state title run in Pennsylvania. Artesia gives Pera the job.
Olshey's own good fortune will lead him to agent Arn Tellem's company, SFX, where in 2001 he's hired as director of player development for predraft prospects, and then to the Clippers in '03 as their director of player development. But before all that, in '02, another Olshey connection will pay off for Pera. Michael Glasser hires Olshey to pick up his sixth grader, Derek, after school and work with him on his game at a rec center in Santa Monica. A couple of years later the father asks Olshey to recommend a high school coach who could help put Derek on a D-I track. Pera is 42--14 after two seasons at Artesia, and he lives near the Glassers. Soon he's the one picking up Derek—at 6:45 a.m., to drive him 40 minutes to Artesia, then back home each night after practice. They become close—"almost like a big brother I never had," Glasser says—and during one ride before the start of his sophomore season, he sadly notes that the team hasn't added any quality freshmen. "Just watch," Pera says. "There's something special about James Harden."