Nick Harden has rode the proverbial rollercoaster the past five years.
Harden, a senior Dakota Wesleyan University men’s basketball player, has experienced more highs and lows than the average college basketball player.
The 1,000-point scorer was an honorable mention All-American selection and first-team all-conference honoree his sophomore season. He’s on his way to earning all-conference honors again this season.
He’s faced challenging times, too. Harden transferred twice, suffered a season-ending injury as a junior that almost led to depression and considered not playing his senior season.
“My college experience has definitely been a rollercoaster,” Harden said. “... As soon as I got to Wesleyan, I put my seatbelt on and it was just a ride with ups and downs.”
All this while being more than nine hours from his hometown of Park Forest, Illinois. But if there’s a person equipped for the up-and-down journey, Paulette Harden said it’s her son.
“Nicholas will find a positive way to make it through his journey and he has,” Paulette Harden said. “He’s been through a lot. I will say as a proud mom, Nick has done a nice job and he’s handled a lot.”
This season, he’s again handling point guard duties for the 17-7 Tigers, who host Jamestown University at 4 p.m. today at the Corn Palace. The left-handed and speedy guard impacted both ends of the floor for DWU. He’s averaging team-highs in points (17.6) and assists (3.9) per game. He’s seventh nationally in total steals (52).
“Nick’s physical capabilities on the defensive end and offensive end make him really, really tough and a high-level player,” Dakota Wesleyan University coach Matt Wilber said.
Harden is the latest all-conference point guard under Wilber’s watch at DWU, joining the likes of Joey Mitchell and Tate Martin in recent seasons. Wilber said his relationship with Harden has gone through peaks and valleys, but it’s only strengthened their bond and they’re normally on the same page.
“He knows what I am going to say in every situation and that’s tough sometimes because he’s heard it all,” Wilber said. “He’s a quiet kid, but his ears are on and he’s listening. He’s made me a much better coach and I am thankful for that.”
Harden honed his basketball skills in Park Forest, which is a southern suburb of Chicago.
A Derrick Rose and Chicago Bulls’ fan, Harden was regularly at local parks or gyms with his friends perfecting his handles and sweet jumper.
“I just found joy in it and everybody else found joy in it,” Harden said. “What got me going was everyone said I can do something with it and keep going with it.”
Harden was a key player for the Rich East High School boys basketball team, which featured two other future college players in Calvin Harrington (Fort Hays State University) and Jalen Hardy (Governors State University).
Harden and Harrington both signed with Bemidji State University out of high school. Harden redshirted and later transferred to Midland University for the 2016-17 season.
The Warriors played at a two-day classic in Mitchell and that’s when Harden was exposed to DWU’s style of play. He was intrigued by former DWU All-American point guard Tate Martin and his freedom in the offense.
“Tate Martin inspired me,” Harden said. “Just with the way Wilber let Tate Martin be free and be confident … I wanted to play in a system like that.”
Harden wasn’t enrolled at a school the following fall semester in 2017. Harden’s trip to Mitchell stuck with him and he later contacted Martin about joining the team. Harden joined the Tigers the next semester and along with Martin, then a graduate assistant, was a scout-team guard.
But it also meant Harden was more than 600 miles away from family, friends and mom.
“I was a little nervous,” Paulette said. “I couldn’t go with him. So it made it a little stressful, but Nick is a positive kid.”
Harden’s teammates have made it a positive experience for him. Harden is one of four out-of-state players on the varsity roster and the furthest one away from home.
“He definitely brings in a different culture,” said DWU junior forward and Langford native Mason Larson, who is one of 12 South Dakotans on the roster. “It’s one of those deals where he’s living in our world a little bit. I think he’s adapting to that very well.”
Harden’s rollercoaster-like career reached a low point last season. Harden was suspended two games for an academic issue and campus dorm violation. He was set to return, but ruptured his Achilles in practice and missed the rest of the season.
The positive Harden then fell into a rut.
“The toughest part is when I got injured because I almost led into depression, honestly,” Harden said. “But what got me going with that was coming to practice and after practice hanging out with the guys and not trying to be alone.”
Harden leaned on his teammates and they did their best to hold him up. He credits Larson for always thinking positive during his injury.
The roles are reversed this season as Larson has missed the past four games with a foot injury. Harden is now in Larson’s ear pushing him to get back.
“He’s like ‘I am not done playing my last basketball game with you,’ ” Larson said. “ ‘You need to get back on the court and we need to play more basketball games together.’ So that’s kind of been my goal is just be there for him off the court and be there for him hopefully on there, too.”
A promise to mom
Harden admits he considered not playing this season and thinking his time playing competitive basketball was over. But after discussing it with Paulette, Harden knew his time as a student-athlete wasn’t finished yet.
“It’s more about education than sports for her, and if it wasn’t for basketball, I honestly wouldn’t probably be in college,” said Harden, a criminal justice major. “I know now that I am in college, she tells me every day she wants me to get a degree and I am going to do this for her. I am going to go all the way with it and finish what I started.”
Paulette and Nick haven’t seen each other since before he left home for fall semester. They regularly talk on the phone and FaceTime multiple times each week. Paulette watches the DWU games online, but she’s never been to Mitchell to watch him play. The Tigers played two games last season in Joliet, Illinois, and Harden had a host of friends and family members in attendance.
Paulette will be in Mitchell in May to watch Nick’s greatest achievement: his college graduation.
“I am just glad he chose South Dakota and I am glad he’s happy with DWU,” Paulette said. “He’s done a good job down there. I hope his coach is proud of him and I am sure other kids and other players are proud of Nicholas. Because I sure am.”