James Harden was born on August 26, 1989, in Los Angeles, to James Harden Sr. and Monja Willis. The Philadelphia 76ers star is not close with his father and was raised by a single mother, along with his older brother and sister, in a close-knit family in Compton.
Here’s what you need to know about James Harden’s family:
1. James Harden Was Raised by His Mother, Monja Willis, Who Called Her Youngest of Three Children ‘Lucky’
Harden’s parents are James Harden Sr. and Monja Willis, but the NBA star was raised by his mother only as Harden Sr. was in and out of prison throughout his childhood. “I was the mom and the dad,” she told ESPN of Harden’s upbringing. He was the youngest of her three children and there was a 10-year gap between him and the second youngest as Willis had a few miscarriages. “We called him lucky because he was lucky to be here,” she told Time.
Harden shared that when he was growing up, his father wasn’t really around much. “He was in jail so we really didn’t spend time together at all,” he told ESPN. “I mean he would get out on occasions but it was just like, it was pointless cause I had no trust in him, no faith in him. So it was just me and my mom.” He felt “fortunate” to have a mother like Willis, who was “strong,” he told Time.
Willis worked for almost 30 years as an AT&T service dispatcher until her retirement in 2009. Since then, she’s followed Harden to whatever city he went to for his career, and he told ESPN the two are “attached at the hip.”
2. Monja Willis Encouraged Her Children to Play Sports In Order to Stay Out of Trouble
Growing up in Compton came with a lot of risks for Willis’ children, and it was really important for her to make sure that Harden and his siblings stay off the streets. Two of Willis’ brothers were killed in different homicides in South Los Angeles in 1993 and it made her very protective over her children and work hard to make sure they followed a good path.
“It was pretty dangerous, like a lot of environments around the world,” Harden told Andscape of growing up in Compton. “The more you can try to focus on the positive and stay away from [the streets], the better off you’ll be.”
Willis wanted to keep a good relationship with her children so that they could always confide in her but added that she wanted them to think of her as their mother and not a friend. Any problem you have, I’d rather hear from you than someone on the street. It’s teamwork.” However, she admitted that “It was hard trying to raise three kids on a single income,” she told ESPN. “I felt like if I let my guards down then the gangs would get [Harden]. Then I’d be burying my kids.”
Willis encouraged Harden and his brother to pursue sports so that they would have somewhere safe to channel their energy. She shared that Harden wasn’t a “troublemaker” in school and quickly took to baseball. “I put him on baseball for about three years,” she said because Harden wasn’t interested in learning the fundamentals of basketball when he was younger.
Harden’s older brother played football, Willis told Andscape. Eventually, Harden switched to basketball and fell in love with it. She confessed that she didn’t really like sports but she knew it would be critical to keep her children busy. “He was good then,” she shared of Harden’s skills on the court. “I saw the potential then.”
3. James Harden Has Thanked His Mom for Coaching Him & Encouraging His Dream
Willis recalled her son telling her his dream of playing in the NBA. “He already knew what he wanted to do,” she told ESPN. “‘Mom I’m going to the NBA.'” A photo of a note Harden left for his mother when he was in ninth grade has been widely shared online. “Could u wake me up at 7:00. And could u leave me a couple of dollars?” he wrote. “P.S. Keep this paper. Imma be a star.”
On many occasions, Harden has credited his successful career to his mother. His favorite holiday memory was “Getting a new basketball and then when my mom put a court in the backyard,” he told People. “Back then, I was just having fun… little did I know it would turn into where I am at today. Thanks, mom, you built this!”
His mother followed from him California to Arizona State when he was in college, he told ESPN. “She just didn’t wanna leave me,” he shared with a smile. Now, Willis is like a mother not just to Harden but to his closest friends and some teammates too. “Her coaching on the sidelines is, Follow through!” he told ESPN in 2015, back when he was playing for Houston Rockets.
“It depends on who you’re talking to,” Willis added. “If it’s Dwight [Howard], I have to tell him to follow through. Or: Bend your knees! And he does it! And it goes in!”
4. James Harden Has an Older Brother & Sister & His Brother Played Collegiate Football
Harden’s older brother is Akili Roberson, and he also pursued sports as a youngster. He played football when the boys were growing up and Harden said, “When I was a kid and he was in high school, I was at all of his games. When he was at Kansas, I went there a few times. That’s when Roy Williams was the coach. I went to a few of his camps,” he told the Oklahoman.
Roberson, who now works as a barber, played at Kansas before pursuing a career overseas, Harden told the publication. “He’s done [with playing],” he shared. “He played overseas. Now, he’s just with me all the time at my games trying to guide me through this process.”
He said his brother was “excited” for the NBA star and explained that “if he sees something he can help me out with, he’ll definitely let me know.” Harden also has an older sister named Arnique Jelks, who is a stylist and interior designer, according to her Instagram.
5. James Harden Shared the Importance of His Circle of Close Friends & Family
Harden’s family is very supportive of the NBA star and he described them as his “power team” in a feature for Adidas. His family includes not just his mother and siblings but his childhood best friends too, and he told Adidas, “The reason I chose family as my patch is ‘cos, when you look at where I started from and where I am today, and it’s like the same people. Whether it’s blood or somebody I met when I was younger that I call blood. That’s what drives me every single day, what I wake up for every single day.”
He said it was important for him to “elevate” those around him and allow them to have opportunities and be successful too. And while the NBA star takes care of business on the court, his mother is his manager of sorts off the court. “I’m in the background, working hard for him,” she told Fox. “It’s hard to build a team. I don’t just trust anyone, especially with my son’s business.”
Although Harden is now in Philadelphia, he shared in 2022 that he still considers Houston to be his home. “My family is here — my mom, my sister, my brother — so this is the place I would call home,” he told Haute Time. “I feel like this city deserves for me to still put my stamp on it even though I’m no longer playing here. I’ve got to find ways to continue to do that, and I will.”