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The Houston Rockets are in town to play the Warriors. The visiting team will probably enter Oracle Arena about 5:30 p.m. tonight. Which means James Harden’s beard would make its entrance at, say, 5:29.

The beard may be attached to one of the NBA’s best players, but it has taken on a life of its own. The candy company Trolli acknowledged as much when it produced a commercial that featured Harden’s disembodied beard answering questions at a press conference. A Twitter account for “James Harden’s Beard” has 17,600 followers.

Granted, Harden’s chin hair is magnificent. Regal. Timeless. He looks like a modern-day Hannibal who, having guided his elephants over the Alps, has stopped to shoot free throws. He’s a 6-foot-5 pharaoh with a step-back jumper. Harden’s beard is so substantial that it should be eligible for the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year award.

And Harden is not alone in his hirsute glory. We are in the Golden Age of Sports Scruf. Never have so many hairs graced the chins of so many athletes.

Quarterbacks Andrew Luck and Ryan Fitzpatrick can turn an NFL game into a stare-down of Civil War generals. MMA champion Conor McGregor and MLS soccer player Nat Borchars appear to have imported their beards straight from the Scottish highlands. The variety is practically endless, from the crisply manicured geometry of Boston Red Sox slugger David Ortiz to the always-perfect stubble of NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson to the bullpen burliness of Brian Wilson and Sergio Romo.

“I’m known for it,” admitted Romo, the Giants closer. “Everywhere I go, there’s no way I can sit there and say I’m not who I am when people come up and ask me, ‘Hey, are you Sergio Romo?’ I can’t sit there and say no or make up something witty or funny, because of the dang beard. I’d venture to say it’s somewhat unique.”

Locally, Wilson and Romo are the patron saints of beards. It began during the 2010 season. Romo was the Giants setup man then, and Wilson the closer. They got hot at the same time — “we hadn’t given up a run for like a month,” Romo said — and decided that razors would jinx the streak. In other words, it was not a shave situation.

Because Wilson was the guy throwing the ninth inning, he received most of the attention. Ballpark vendors made a killing selling “Fear the Beard” T-shirts that featured an outline of Wilson’s facial hair.

“I kind of figure like he and I started it together,” Romo said. “And I will say, he made it cool. He made it visible and out there. He gave it that more popular vibe.”

Wilson almost certainly dyed his beard black, though he never admitted it. Whatever. It made him a legend. In 2013, a company called 800Razors.com reportedly offered Wilson, then with the Dodgers, $1 million to cut it off. He declined. Later that year, another report stated that the Yankees were interested in signing Wilson (then unemployed), but wanted him to shave. Again, he said no.

Meanwhile, Romo’s voluptuous beard had replaced Wilson’s on the mound at AT&T Park.

“I was surprised at how full it was,” Romo said. “Like, I didn’t have any spots. It didn’t have one area lighter than the other. It was just, boom!, you have a beard. I was like, ‘Oh, cool.’ ”

Romo’s is a common experience: the professional athlete pleasantly taken aback by the power of his own hair follicles.

“I was surprised at the color,” said A’s closer Sean Doolittle, whose shaggy beard resembles the Sherman-Williams hue Amber Wave. “I had no idea that it would be, like, red. And it’s kind of blond in the middle of it, in the front. People always ask me if I dyed it.”

Doolittle began growing out his beard along with several other members of the A’s bullpen in 2013.

“Guys, if they were having a bad outing or they weren’t throwing well, they’d shave it off,” Doolittle said. “By that point I was like too attached to it, I guess. I’d never had one before and I kind of liked it. I fell farther and farther down the rabbit hole after that.”

That was a watershed year for baseball beards. It was also in 2013 that Doolittle’s Oakland teammates Josh Reddick and Coco Crisp challenged one another to a duel of chin hairs.

“Obviously, I won that one,” said Reddick, an outfielder.

Reddick added, “He showed up and he does commercials, and it was like, ‘ooh.’ Because he had patches and everything.”

It was also in 2013 that the Red Sox became the hairiest collection of men since the trial of Galileo. In spring training that season, Petaluma native Jonny Gomes and teammates Mike Napoli and Dustin Pedroia decided to stop shaving. The Sox, rebounding from a terrible year, got off to an 18-8 start and the beards started bursting forth like popcorn kernels.

By the end of that campaign, Boston players were playfully tugging on one another’s beards to celebrate home runs, and fans were wearing their own — real or fake — to Fenway Park. Oh, and the Red Sox won the World Series.

The Carolina Panthers didn’t match that hairytale story this year, but they came pretty close. As they cruised to the NFC championship, several of the Panthers, led by tight end Greg Olsen and center Ryan Kalil, started getting shaggier and shaggier.

Not linebacker Luke Kuechly, though. “He can’t grow a beard,” Kalil said. “That’s why he has the seventies ’fro that he grew.”

The Panthers had the NFL’s best record at 15-1 this season, though they fell to the Denver Broncos 24-10 at Levi’s Stadium on Sunday. The loss stung, but some welcomed the end of the line.

“It’s getting annoying down here,” backup quarterback Derek Anderson said during Super Bowl Opening Night a week ago, scratching the middle of his chin.

Anderson said he would shave it within a week after the Super Bowl, win or lose.

For some athletes, the reason for growing a beard might be because they finally can. Many college and minor-league baseball players, for example, aren’t allowed to sport facial hair. Others simply must mature into the role.

“In college I could grow like eight hairs on my face,” said A’s relief pitcher John Axford.

Axford is more of a mustache guy than a beard guy, though he was sporting modest versions of both when sighted at Oakland’s FanFest in January. He peeled back some hair on the right side of his jawline to reveal a patch that never grows in, but it’s a small concern for a guy who once wore a handlebar mustache so ornate he might have been tempted to tie a widow to the railroad tracks.

Axford’s ever-changing fur is part of baseball lore now. Just as one great leaper appreciates another’s slam dunks, athletes tend to keep a mental checklist of sports’ best beards.

“I played with (Colorado Rockies relief pitcher) Jason Motte, and it’s like hair growing out of hair,” Axford said. “It’s unbelievable. Same with (Washington Nationals outfielder) Jayson Werth. They’re not facially challenged.”

“I always tell people that the beard I think I would like to aspire to someday was Brett Keisel, the defensive lineman for the Steelers,” Doolittle said.

Who wouldn’t? Keisel’s face looks like it’s covered with a forest of gently waving seagrass. He is routinely stopped on the street so that guys with normal beards can snap photos with their idol. The Press Democrat attempted to interview Keisel, who is retired, but his assistant said he was busy fulfilling “Super Bowl commitments with Head and Shoulders.”

One question the bearded athlete hears a lot: Doesn’t it get hot and itchy when you’re playing your sport? The answer, apparently, is no. Not even on hot days.

“The weather doesn’t bother me, but eating does,” said Kalil, the Carolina offensive lineman. “So the longer the ’stache gets, a lot of my favorite foods get thrown out, like burgers and hot dogs. I’m this kind of weirdo now at the burger joint, cutting up my burger like I’m a little kid. It’s the only way to eat it now, otherwise you just get a mouthful of mustache.”

But here’s the real dirty little secret of macho-man beards: A face full of wiry hair might project an image of devil-may-care rakishness, but these pets require a lot of maintenance. Shampoo. Conditioner. Beard oils. Detanglers. Trims.

“Myself, it’s more shampoo and conditioner every time I wash my hair, every time I shower” Romo said. “And a little bit of combing it now and then just to make sure it doesn’t go frizzy or super poofy and wild and grow in different directions all the time.”

“Detangling spray was huge,” Reddick said. “Because that hurts when you’re pulling out knots on that thing.”

As Romo notes, there’s another requirement of growing a great sports beard. It’s patience.

“Other countries, it’s considered like a status thing,” Romo said. “You always think, ‘Man, how did they get theirs so long?’ Wow, I understand the status thing now, because it takes so much time to get there.”

Derek Anderson might be looking forward to seeing his chin again. Romo’s beard isn’t going anywhere for a while. The two of them have come too far together.

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter @Skinny_Post.

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