Some young basketball players attract big-time college recruiters by starring on championship high school teams. Others do it by dazzling on AAU traveling squads, dominating top-flight summer camps or showboating in all-star games.
Bernard James did none of that.
His proving ground was the U.S. Air Force. He enlisted in 2002 as a rail-thin 17-year-old, just 185 pounds on his 6-foot-5 frame. He came out in 2008 five inches taller, 40 pounds heavier and seasoned by the duty, danger and responsibility that came with three deployments to the Middle East.
James’s third deployment was spent working as a security guard at Camp Bucca, a military prison outside Basra in southern Iraq that once housed 22,000 detainees. (It was recently transformed into a hotel by its new owner, an Iraqi development company.) During James’s tour, riots broke out roughly once a week, he recalled. And mortar attacks were near monthly occurrences — one so close it killed seven detainees, injured 67 and left James with a slight hearing loss and memories that will not fade.
“Going in [to the Air Force], I was kind of immature and inexperienced — a somewhat sheltered kid,” James said in a recent telephone interview. “Coming out, I was definitely a man. I had matured a lot. My work ethic had grown. And I learned how to be responsible and a productive member of society.”
James’s uncommon maturity is just part of what’s in store for the young Maryland Terrapins (12-4, 2-1) when they travel to Tallahassee for Tuesday’s game against Florida State (11-6, 2-1), which flexed its muscle with a 90-57 dismantling of No. 3 North Carolina this past weekend.
Three weeks shy of his 27th birthday, the 6-10 James (now 240 pounds) supplies the bulk of the Seminoles’ rebounds. He accounts for 9.1 of the team’s 40.4 per-game average (11th best in NCAA Division I). He’s also adding just over 10 points and two blocks per game. And he is the emotional anchor when the Seminoles’ poise deserts them.
“He’s a guy we all look up to,” said senior guard Deividas Dulkys, 23, of Lithuania, who exploded for a career-high 32 points against North Carolina. “[James] is not the biggest talker on the team, but when he says something, everybody listens to him: One, because he’s much older; and two, he has life experience — not necessarily basketball experience — but life experience that we believe can help us.”
A native of Savannah, Ga., James never played high school basketball and only started learning basic offensive and defensive schemes after being drafted to compete on an intramural team while in the Air Force.
Footage of his performance in an armed-forces tournament at Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas found its way to a Florida State recruiter. And after James bolstered his academic profile at Tallahassee Community College, Coach Leonard Hamilton extended a scholarship.
“We’re accustomed to looking under more rocks and knocking on more doors and maybe being turned down more,” Hamilton said, conceding that James’s route to Division I was unorthodox but chafing at a suggestion that he took a chance in signing him.
“We felt we had a committed athlete who showed a certain level of maturity. We knew he could learn, so we just had to teach him as a parent. I never felt it was [taking] a chance.”
In his final season of NCAA eligibility, James is on track to graduate this spring with a degree in economics. But he describes his basketball game as still “a work in progress,” with his offense slightly more evolved than his defense.
“When I got here I was really fundamentally unsound,” James said. “[The coaches] went back and gave me a foundation. I’ve improved in every area of the game.”
And he continues to work on being a leader for his teammates.
“A lot of times they do look to me to pull the team back together and keep us on a good track,” James said. “At times that has been tough for me. I’ve embraced it since the beginning, but I’m still learning to be a leader on the basketball court. It was a lot easier [in the Air Force]. I knew exactly what I needed to do and what I needed to say.”