National : James excelling at Florida State after serving in military
Bernard James lived through riots, mortar attacks and bombings as an Air Force Military Police member.
James did tours in Qatar and Kuwait before he was stationed in Camp Bucca in southern Iraq to assist the army in watching 22,000 suspected terrorists as recently as August 2007.
Fast forward 4.5 years, and the 27-year-old James, who hadn’t played organized basketball until the age of 17, is now competing at Florida State.
‘Well, I’ve been asked so many questions about the tours he served in Iraq and basketball, and I think maybe some of us are altogether different,’ FSU head coach Leonard Hamilton said Monday on the Atlantic Coast Conference coaches’ teleconference. ‘The most important thing is Bernard is a young man who is learning the game of basketball.
‘The game of basketball is new to him. So he’s not very experienced from a basketball standpoint, but he’s experienced in life, which gives him a certain level of maturity where he listens, he’s coachable and he follows directions.’
But before James joined the Air Force at age 17, he was an immature kid who was cut from the Windsor Forest High School (Ga.) basketball team as a freshman after skipping the first week of practice when coaches focused on running. He repeated the ninth grade twice and dropped out of high school at 16. He later earned his GED and joined the Air Force.
And on his first night at Beale Air Force Base in Northern California, his supervisor sent the 6-foot-5 teenager to a base basketball game. James shined on both ends of the court and immediately turned heads. He soon earned a spot on the 15-man Air Force team, selected from a pool of more than 400,000 men enlisted at the time.
In 2005, Hamilton discovered James in Las Vegas at a U.S. Armed Forces All-Star Tournament.
After completing his service in 2008, he enrolled at Tallahassee Community College, a convenient three-mile drive up West Pensacola Street from FSU, to improve his academic standing and fine-tune his raw game.
‘It was never a question about his athleticism. It was never a question about whether or not he could rebound the ball,’ TCC head coach Eddie Barnes said. ‘… He had tremendous timing as far as blocked shots and rebounding, but teaching him how to play defense, how to position himself down in the post, start to be able to use right and left hands on jump hooks and shots.
‘It’s just, it’s been a process.’
Barnes and Hamilton watched James together in his first real action since returning from his third and final deployment, when Barnes brought the Eagles to FSU that July for a scrimmage with the Seminoles.
Matching up with 7-foot-1 center Solomon Alabi, a two-time ACC All-Defensive team selection who currently plays for NBA’s Toronto Raptors, James more than held his own.
Even then, Barnes said, it was clear that James would be returning two years later —and not for another scrimmage.
‘They were going up and down the floor, and the ball would go up and you would see all these big guys play above the rim, and then you’d see BJ above them,’ Barnes said. ‘That was one thing coach Ham asked me. He said, ‘What’d you think?’ I said, ‘He’s at least a hand above everybody else.”
Playing 52 games in two seasons under Barnes, he chalked up 24 double-doubles and averaged 13.6 points and 9.8 rebounds per game.
James transferred to FSU before the 2010-11 season and quickly adjusted from junior college play, tallying 15 points and 10 rebounds in the Seminoles’ season-opener against North Florida.
He went on to average 8.6 points, 5.9 rebounds and a team-best 2.4 blocks as a junior. Against second-seeded Notre Dame in the NCAA Tournament, James paced the 10th-seeded Seminoles with 14 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks to advance to the Sweet 16.
His 65.7 field goal percentage was the second best in program history.
Many first-year Division-I players may be shaken by the rowdy environments of Duke and North Carolina. But Barnes said for James, who learned to keep a cool head during bombings in the Middle East, thousands of screaming fans likely paled in comparison.
‘ESPN asked me one time, ‘How do you think he would handle going into Cameron (Indoor Stadium) or the Dean Dome, or places like that?” Barnes said. ‘I don’t think those places are bothering him because this is a young man who’s had bombs blowing up around him.’
Playing at Cameron in front of 9,314 Jan. 21, James poured in 12 points on 5-of-7 shooting, grabbed eight rebounds and blocked two shots as the Seminoles upset the Blue Devils. For the season, James is averaging 10.2 points and 8.6 rebounds.
He is a big reason the Seminoles are tied with North Carolina atop the ACC standings with 7-1 records in conference, and he has earned the praise of Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski, whose Blue Devils trail FSU and UNC by one game in the standings.
‘There’s nobody in our league who brings more maturity to the court than he does — physical, mental, emotional,’ Krzyzewski said Monday on the ACC coaches’ teleconference. ‘His skill set, he’s a tremendous shot blocker and offensive rebounder, and a very unselfish, outstanding player. In other words, he’s all about what the team is doing. Everybody in our league would want him on our team.’
After this season, Barnes said James definitely has aspirations of playing in the NBA. He said a team like the San Antonio Spurs, which values role players, could be very interested in him as someone who does ‘the nasty stuff’ like defending, rebounding and running the floor.
And still, with little organized basketball experience under his belt, James is still learning.
‘He’s just learning and growing, and he has a young body as it relates to basketball,’ Hamilton said. ‘His legs, they haven’t been beat up. He hasn’t played on the cement and all the AAU ball and all the high school ball. So he has an excellent, athletic body, and I think that his best basketball is ahead of him.’
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