Bernard James refused to bend to his mother’s plea. “I’m not going,” he said. “It’s not going to happen.” He told her that he wouldn’t be attending his commencement at Florida State University in April. He’d walked enough stages during his six-year stint in the Air Force. It seemed like some sort of graduation came around every few months.
“OK, I guess you are a grown man,” Beverly Cook told her steadfast son. “I guess I’ll just have to deal with it.”
James recognized that familiar mix of resignation and passive-aggressiveness in his mom. He hurried off the phone. “I was a little bit upset,” she recalled afterward. He remembers things a little differently. “She was peee-iiii-sssed,” he said. Cook, after all, didn’t get a chance to go to James’s high school graduation. He dropped out in 10th grade.
Two months later, Cook was adamant about attending a different kind of ceremony. Her family, including all six sons, found their way to Newark for the 2012 NBA draft. It marked the first time they were all in one place in years. James was usually the absent party, off in some far corner of the world — Qatar, Kuwait, Iraq — fulfilling his military obligations as part of the roundest of roundabout paths to the NBA. Annually, the league invites a handful of top prospects to watch their dreams become reality in person. It did not invite Bernard James. Instead, he sat in the crowd with his family.
The first round came and went and James wasn’t summoned. Sherard Reddick, one of Bernard’s brothers, thought about how odd the situation felt. He once dreamed of an NBA career and now played in the American Basketball Association. Now, he was at the draft not for himself, but for his little brother, his goofy, aloof, uncoordinated, and uninterested-in-basketball little brother. How surreal is this? Reddick thought.
In the second round, the Cleveland Cavaliers snatched James with the 33rd overall pick, a selection later dealt to the Dallas Mavericks. Fans attend the NBA draft to boo. They boo Commissioner David Stern. They boo their draft picks. They boo other teams’ draft picks. They boo to boo.
They didn’t boo Bernard James. They chanted “U-S-A” over and over again.
Cook cries easily. But she didn’t cry as she watched the scene unfold on a JumboTron. It didn’t feel real — it was as if this was someone else’s experience.
You think of modern NBA players like parts on an assembly line. You think of kids recognized and ranked by grade school. You think of those same kids, with wisps of a mustache above their lip, touring the country by middle school. You think of teenagers who are household names by high school and the husbands willing to offer their wives in exchange for a one-year sojourn at their alma mater.
You do not think of Bernard James.
James dropped out of high school at 16. He joined the Air Force at 17. The NBA drafted him at 27. His story recalls athletes from generations past who joined the military before embarking on professional careers. But his is different. Much different.
“All the random twists and turns it took … ” James said four weeks later in Las Vegas, where his professional career officially started at the NBA’s summer league. “A lot of things had to go right at the right time for me to be here right now.”
Erick Dumas enlisted in the Air Force early in his adult life and was first stationed in the Philippines. Dumas understood basketball better than he could play it. After his squadron team coach recognized his aptitude for the game, he asked him to coach alongside him.
Dumas still coached a squadron team at California’s Beale Air Force Base years later. One day, while shopping with his wife, a member of his team called him about taking a look at someone new at the base. “A tall drink of water,” he said. Dumas rushed back and spotted a lanky teenager. His massive shoes suggested he still had some growing to do.
“Do you play basketball?” Dumas asked.
“Not much,” James replied.
James belonged to a military family. His stepfather, Darryl Cook, enlisted in the Army and later in the Air Force. The family shuffled from Savannah, Georgia, to Germany to upstate New York and back to Savannah again. James was a typical middle-born child. He internalized everything. Sometimes he seemed mature. Sometimes he seemed mischievous. For years, the family talked about the time he pulled the release off Beverly Cook’s car seat as the family cruised along the Autobahn. The chair whipped back. Cook screamed, thinking she’d flown out of the car.
“He was irresponsible and kind of a knucklehead,” Reddick said.
James’s older brothers were athletic stars at Savannah’s Windsor Forest High, but James decided that his ungainly feet — so big he often tripped over them — would not follow in their footsteps.
“They were the best guys on every team,” James said. “I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t want to have to try to outdo them or live up to what they had already done. I wanted to make my own identity.”
But James didn’t know what he wanted that identity to be. One knockdown in football proved that it wasn’t his sport. He tried out for the freshman basketball team with few expectations, and only because his friends talked him into it.
“You know how it is in high school,” James said. “You’ve got peer pressure. You just want to fit in. You don’t want to be an outcast. You don’t want to be the person who the cool kids are making fun of. When you’re under pressure like that, you’ll do stuff you don’t want to do just to make your life easier. I felt like I was on the outside looking in and I guess I did want to know what it was like on the inside with the cool kids.”
James left the tryouts upon realizing that the first 10 days consisted strictly of running. He returned once on-court drills began, but the coach rebuffed him.
This is the moment in most feel-good stories when a mentor arrives. Perhaps someone who saw James’s brother star for the school and realized he shared the same genes. Or maybe a teacher recognizing a good student who, with a little bit of encouragement, could be a great one.
But there was no mentor. James didn’t run to anybody. Instead, he ran away from everything.
“[Here’s] a little history of how Savannah is: 80 to 90 percent of young black males either end up doing nothing with their lives at a dead-end job working at McDonald’s or at a grocery store,” James said. “Or they get in trouble, start selling drugs, end up in jail, or get killed over some foolishness. A lot of my friends were starting to go that way. I guess that’s when a lot of people figure out what they are going to do with their lives, whether they are going to stay on track or go down that wrong path. It’s around that 10th-grade year. A lot of guys that I knew were doing the wrong thing, and that wasn’t really me. I didn’t want to go to jail. I didn’t want to sell drugs. I just wanted to get away from all that.”
James dropped out gradually. I don’t care about this class, he thought one day. It’s easy and I’ll pass when the test comes around. His absences grew to two or three days a week. Then, he only showed up once a week. James was a good student — he dropped out only to avoid delinquents.
“I just wanted to get away from it all,” James said. “I didn’t like having people constantly trying to make me feel inadequate, like my value is any less because I didn’t have the new Jordans. That was my motivation at first. I guess to just feel like I was worth something. I didn’t like going to school every day just to get beat down emotionally.”
He enjoyed studying space exploration and filled his time going to bookstores and reading. His family had no idea.
“They weren’t bad parents,” James said. “They weren’t the most emotionally supportive. It was almost like a military lifestyle. It was Suck it up and get the job done, basically. That was how we grew up. There wasn’t a whole lot of talking about feelings. There wasn’t a whole lot of hugging and comforting.” But Beverly Cook couldn’t combat what she did not know. “He never said a word to me or Dad,” Cook said.
The school called Cook and informed her of her son’s frequent absences. “Of course, I got my butt whooped,” James said.
The family was faced with a dilemma. “I was one of them tough mamas,” Cook said. “I was like, ‘Nuh-uh. I am not raising a house of heathens. You will be good American citizens if I have to beat it into you.’ That was my motto.” James refused a return to school. He would have to repeat his 10th-grade year and that would only exacerbate the issue. He’d studied his options. He already belonged to a military family. People were already telling him what to do all the time. He might as well get paid for it. James, at 17, told his mother and stepfather that he intended to join the Air Force.
After his brother, Darryl, joined the Army at 17, he fought in the Persian Gulf War. James can still remember his mother worrying, waiting for phone calls at night, praying the wrong call wouldn’t come. “I can’t sit up at night worrying about this young man at war and go through this again,” Beverly Cook determined. James stood resolute. So did Darryl Cook. “I did it,” Darryl told Beverly. “He’ll be fine. He’s smart and he’ll catch on to things. Until he figures out what he wants to do in life, he’s still doing something productive and he’s traveling and earning a paycheck. They give him a place to live and he’s serving the country.”
Beverly Cook found herself outnumbered, and eventually signed off. She literally had to sign off for James to enter the Air Force because her son was not yet 18. He entered into the Youth Challenge Program and earned his GED.
James faced Dumas at Beale a few months after completing basic training in San Antonio. Did he play basketball?
“You do now,” Dumas told him.
Stand in the paint and block shots,” Dumas instructed James. “Rebound. Play defense.”
James didn’t know the ins and outs of the game, the angles, the nudges and pushes that a seasoned player utilizes. But he listened and had a natural feel that could not be taught. Dumas had enough players who demanded the ball, players taller than James who insisted that they play on the perimeter. James deferred, preferring the interior, where a player can get by on hustle just as much as skill.
He performed on the court with the same determination he’d shown at the base. The same kid who dropped out of basketball tryouts because of the running was expertly following directions. “You don’t have a choice,” James said. “You had to do it. It took that part of the equation out of it.”
James deployed for the first time to Qatar in March 2003, where he worked perimeter security and guarded planes. The temperature typically rose to 120 degrees, dipping to about 70 degrees at night. The fine-grain sand reflected the sun, and it was impossible to see without the aid of sunglasses. A larger base rested about 45 minutes away and housed a McDonald’s. Troops splurged as much as $100 there in one trip. “You would see an old-ass cheeseburger in somebody’s locker two weeks later and they would be like, ‘Oh yeah, I’m still going to eat that,'” James said.
In Qatar, James played in several three-on-three base tournaments, where he won $1,000 gift certificates to the base store. The thought that he could be rewarded for his basketball skills had never crossed his mind before. He returned to Beale after 10 months. Word of his acumen spread. One day, Staff Sergeant Rob Grey, a regular running mate of James’s, witnessed the best basketball play he has ever seen. James lost the ball and a scrum ensued. Out of nowhere, he emerged from the crowd with the ball and delivered a two-handed, rim-rattling dunk. “He was literally the equivalent of Shaq in the military,” Grey said. “There was nothing anybody could do.”
James trained as a customs agent and deployed to Kuwait in 2005. He played in another league when he wasn’t viewing Saddam Hussein’s trove of confiscated riches — golden weapons, golden toilets, chrome-plated cars. They played a tournament every month. He’d sprouted another couple inches by then and grown to about 6-foot-6. Led by James, his team never lost.
He continued developing when he arrived back in the United States. An ACC referee worked a tournament James played in and, wowed by his play, called a couple of coaches and suggested that they scout him.1 Florida State’s Leonard Hamilton followed up and watched James play at the U.S. Armed Forces All-Star tournament in 2005.
No one interviewed for this story would relay the name of the referee out of the — correct — assumption that he would be viewed as favoring some ACC schools over others.
As various ACC teams came calling,2 James applied for Palace Chase, a program that allows troops to transfer from active duty when presented with a promising opportunity. His request was denied, and he deployed for the final time to Iraq’s Camp Bucca in 2007. James realized that the stakes would be higher during this deployment and worried whether he knew everything needed to survive.
James said every ACC team except for Duke and North Carolina contacted him.
Camp Bucca loosely entrapped roughly 20,000 detainees in 11 compounds. Only chain-link fences separated James from the detainees. They can bust out anytime they want, James thought to himself. Each compound had a religious leader with whom the troops negotiated daily to prevent riots. Still, James witnessed several stabbings among the detainees. One day — “The most humid day I’ve ever experienced in my life,” Dumas, also at Camp Bucca, recalled — a rocket struck the camp. The blast rocked Compound 8 as James was conducting his morning count of the detainees, killing six and wounding 68 more. A hole gaped through the fence. Chaos reigned. The detainees filtered out through the fence, not in an attempt to escape, but from fear of more attacks. Dumas snapped out of bed and immediately worried for James, whose deployment was supposed to have ended two months before the blast. Though James escaped harm and worked with others to round up the detainees and secure the broken fence, his ears rang from the sound of the blast for days.
Florida State’s Hamilton, meanwhile, continued his pursuit of James as best he could. “It’s not like you could pick up the phone and call those guys,” he said.
He talked often with Beverly Cook, who relayed the messages to James. Hamilton, a fellow Christian, said all the right things. James’s degree should be his focal point, he told her, even if he bypassed Florida State.
James settled back at Beale after nearly nine months in Iraq. College enticed him. Coaches kept calling. Still, he thought of it all as a dream. He had the security of the Air Force and kept improving rank. Why give all that up?
“I never really thought it was going to work out,” James said. “I was still seriously playing with the idea of reenlisting with the Air Force and not getting out at all and not joining college. The way the military is built, it makes you feel [financially] safe and secure while you’re in the military. You know you have a paycheck. You’re always going to have a job. It kind of makes the civilian world look scary because you don’t have that type of security on the outside. That’s a reason why a lot of guys end up reenlisting. A lot of guys want to get out of the military, but they enlist because they’re afraid that they are going to get out and not be able to find a job or be broke. It’s a scary feeling just to leave everything that you have known for the last four to six years and try to start a new life.”
His friends questioned why he would give it all up. They told him that he would be taking a step backward. He was feeling like that kid who was susceptible to peer pressure all over again, the one who tried out for basketball because they told him he should. “That just scared the hell out of me,” James admitted. “I was that close to reenlisting.”
But he’d grown over the years, his resolve hardened. It would be his choice and his success or failure. “I just went with my heart, and what my instincts were telling me [was] to get out and try to get my education,” he said.
James’s career nearly ended before it began. At 23, he enrolled as a non-qualifier at Tallahassee Community College. The stay would be a pit stop on his way to Florida State if he successfully navigated the two years. But he fractured his patella in one of his first practices. He feared that his body had already betrayed him, and he toyed with giving up.
“You’re looking at a young man who just served six years in the service and he’s coming out and going into school where most people at that time are coming out of [high] school,” said Eddie Barnes, TCC’s coach. “[But] he knew he had some talent and he wanted to taste some of that stuff in college. You could see that.”
James stayed and rehabilitated. He struggled to adjust to the temperament of his younger teammates. He often referred to them as “snotty-nosed kids.” He went from the military, where everybody always listened, to an atmosphere where few did. “But when he talked, people listened,” Barnes said.
James averaged 13.6 points and 9.8 rebounds in two years at TCC. He scored 38 points and grabbed 16 rebounds in a game against Northwest Florida State College. “We knew we had a player,” Barnes said. “We just didn’t know how high a player — he showed us he had the capabilities of being up there.”
He signed with Florida State after guiding TCC to the FCCAA championship game. Okaro White joined the team the same year. They worked out and had many of the same classes. It didn’t take long for White to start hearing the rumors. “Hey, man. How old are you?” White asked one day.
“Oh my goodness,” White said after James told him he was 26. “There’s a nine-year difference between me and you.”
His new teammates playfully called him “Sarge,” “Granddad,” “Pops,” and “senior citizen.” James did things a little differently, like cutting his own hair. Once, when he left a bald spot, they teased him for weeks that he’d actually lost that hair. They noticed that whenever they went out to eat he liked to sit with his back against the wall and survey all the entrances and exits.
James scored 15 points in his first NCAA game, against North Florida. He cracked double digits only once in the next nine games, failing to score a single point when Florida State hosted no. 2 Ohio State. Fans packed the gym as a national audience watched at home. Hamilton could tell this was the first time James had been in such an environment. He sensed James’s tentativeness. Even by this point, James doubted that he could compete in the ACC. This was the conference that he and his brothers watched on television growing up. Did he really belong?
“You’re as good as anyone in this gym,” Hamilton told James. “In fact, you’re more talented. Just relax and go play.” “Yes, sir,” James responded.
Ohio State defeated Florida State that day, but Hamilton didn’t see doubt in James’s eyes once the game began.
“Bernard, tell me why you are at Florida State,” associate head coach Stan Jones asked James a few games later.
“Coach, I just want to get my degree and go back into the military as an officer,” James said.
Jones has been alongside Hamilton at several stops, including in the NBA with the Washington Wizards in 2001. He knew a prospect when he saw one. “Bernard, I think that’s great and that’s wonderful for you to serve your country, but let me explain to you the details that are out there through basketball,” Jones told him. “If you really lock in here and commit yourself to this basketball thing, you can still go back into the military at some point after you play for six or so years with some money in the bank. [And you won’t have] any stress financially.”
That is nice, James thought. But he didn’t necessarily think it was true. A coach’s job is to pump a player’s confidence to unrealistic heights.
He continued to follow instructions. He once asked Jones to scream at him more. “I never had a player in my 36 years of coaching come up to me and say that,” Jones said. James stayed quiet and deferred to the younger players around him. Though he had nearly a decade on them, they were more mature in basketball years. Jones noticed that James led in a different way. He adhered to commands so well that the other players had no choice but to fall in line. They also bonded with him. James offered a perspective on life they couldn’t find elsewhere. “He’s a person I look up to,” White said. “I’m almost too shy to say it, but I really look up to him as an older brother. Joking with him, I say that I see him as a father.”
James truly arrived during the 2010-11 season on Christmas Day: Thanks to his 15 points and 10 rebounds, Florida State upset no. 15 Baylor. He became a defensive force and flashed a surprisingly feathery touch around the basket. During the NCAA tournament, James claimed eight points, nine rebounds, and five blocks in Florida State’s Sweet 16 overtime loss to eventual Final Four finishers VCU.
By this spring, he realized he belonged in the ACC and considered, for the first time, the possibility of a future in the game. “After Coach Jones talked to me, I took it that maybe I missed the boat,” James said. “I do have the talent for it. At that point, it was more me proving that if things had went different earlier in my life, then I could have been in the NBA. That would have been enough for me. I would have been OK with that. You can’t go back and change your mistakes. What happened, happened. Just knowing that that was a possibility, that would have been enough for me.”
Not anymore. He had 18 points and 11 rebounds in the second game of his senior season against Central Florida and followed that up with 15 points and 11 rebounds against Stetson. He shot 15-for-17 in the two games. He grabbed 14 rebounds in an overtime loss to no. 4 UConn and chipped in eight points and nine boards in a 90-57 thrashing of no. 3 North Carolina. Florida State captured its first ACC tournament championship before bowing out in the third round of the NCAA tournament. He averaged 10.8 points, 8.1 rebounds, and 2.3 blocks for the season. “Once it all ended, I was like, ‘All right, what’s next?'” James said.
James didn’t work out with the Mavericks. He didn’t interview with them. He didn’t know he would land with them as he walked onstage to greet NBA deputy commissioner Adam Silver in June. Relief swept over him with each step. He had worried in the past couple days that he wouldn’t be drafted after all. The Heat and Wizards, he said, had medically red-flagged him because of the kneecap he broke back in community college. The news surprised him. He’d played solidly on the knee through four college seasons.
James has come far, but nothing is guaranteed. He still has to make the Mavericks’ roster, and he is prepared to scrap for a spot. The Mavericks are prepared for him to make the team. “We’re fully expecting that he’s going to come into training camp and fight for a position, but based on what we see now, there’s no reason to think that when the dust settles, he’s not going to be there,” said Donnie Nelson, Dallas’s general manager.
Coach Rick Carlisle, on hand in Las Vegas, marveled at the progress James showed in just a handful of practices with the Mavericks. James posted numbers similar to his college averages in the five summer league games, with 10.2 points, nine rebounds, and 2.6 blocks.
“We followed him at Florida State and we’re clearly fans,” Carlisle said. “He’s long. He’s a shot-blocker. He plays the game with passion. That’s a big thing for us. He’s also the kind of character that we want inside of our locker room. He’s a big integrity guy. He’s had an unbelievable wealth of experience that we think is going to serve him well.”3
“The way that he came a little bit later to the game was intriguing,” Nelson added. “I think there’s some really nice upside there. When you come in with that kind of a package — he’s a great kid, great work ethic — when you start out with those basic components, it’s a big plus. The other thing is, we like his age. Some teams will shy away from kids that are that old. But his body is more mature. He can step right in and hit the ground running in terms of the physicality of his position. Those are all things that we like and why we took him as high as we did.”
Dallas rearranged their frontcourt this offseason in hopes of making a run at Dwight Howard in 2013. Lamar Odom, Brendan Haywood, and Ian Mahinmi are gone. The newcomers include Elton Brand and Chris Kaman. These Mavericks are not the championship team of two years ago — they’re still in search of players instead of projects. And as Carlisle put it: “Twenty-seven is still young for an older guy.” James’s legs are young in basketball years. There will be minutes to be had if he continues to progress.
“Maturity is important,” Mark Cuban wrote in an e-mail. “He has plenty of it. No question he will work hard. As a second-round pick, we want a player who can contribute, regardless of his age. We are excited to have him on the team.”
James’s family still worries that he keeps too much inside. “There are a lot of things that I learned about recently that I never knew in the past,” Reddick said. “Stuff that, as a big brother, he could have come and talked to me about. I guess him being a person who holds his emotions in affects the times he could have come and talked to me about things.” Most of his confessions to reporters are revelations to the family. “That concerns me because everybody needs to vent somewhere,” Beverly Cook said. “I’m hoping he’s venting with somebody.”
Still, her son is an inspiration, living proof that dreams can be realized no matter how late in life. Cook says she plans to resume school and finish recording a gospel album. “Whether it goes top of the charts, that’s not the point,” Cook said. “The point is to do something that is worth pursuing. I’m going to do it.”
Jones, James’s former associate coach at Florida State, believes that he will inspire others, too. “Here was a nerdy kid who didn’t really know where he fit on the planet,” Jones said. “School wasn’t really the place for him when he was younger. But the military gave him direction and discipline, and his genetics allowed a great opportunity on a super stage. How well he plays is yet to be determined, but he’s off to a great start.”
Before finding his way to the NBA, he had to see Qatar, Kuwait, Iraq, Tallahassee. You don’t think of Bernard James when you think of today’s NBA players. But you might soon.