Somebody to root for in the NBA


LITTLE ROCK — Not a fan of the NBA, the league’s draft was of little interest.

Kentucky’s Anthony Davis was the surefire No. 1 and there were no Arkansas connections so it was the morning after before Bernard James’ name surfaced.

Only then did it come up by happenstance. Plodding on a treadmill, I heard one of the ESPN guys talk with Cleveland coach Byron Scott about the Cavaliers drafting Dion Waiters and Tyler Zeller. The follow-up involved the selection of James early in the second round and Scott’s response that the 27-year-old could play 10 years in the NBA despite his age.

Following a commercial, the host explained that the rights to James had been traded to Dallas. You don’t have to be a sports fan to appreciate and applaud his roundabout road to NBA rookie.

Enlisting in the Air Force at 17 came easy for James. After all, his father served 15 years in the Army and seven in the Air Force. James, who earned his GED after dropping out of high school, did tours in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Qatar. Once, a 40-millimeter round landed 30 yards from him, killing six detainees and wounding others.

When Cleveland selected him with the 33rd pick, a spontaneous chant of “U-S-A” erupted among the informed fans at the draft in Newark, N.J.

James, who grew five inches to 6-foot-10 after he enlisted, said he never thought about playing in the NBA until he completed two years at a community college and one year at Florida State. For him, basketball was a ticket to college to pursue a degree that would make his parents proud.

He didn’t play basketball in school and swears he was 14 or 15 before he picked up a ball. When he joined the military, a supervisor asked if he played basketball. No, he said. You do now, the supervisor said.

That night, he put on a show and his team won big. His cohorts gushed about him being on their team and he was hooked. The gym became a regular stop.

FSU coach Leonard Hamilton offered James a scholarship after seeing him in a U.S. Armed Forces All-Star Tournament in Las Vegas. He led the Seminoles to the first Atlantic Coast Conference championship in school history and two straight NCAA tournament appearances.

In demand by national media, the oldest collegian selected in the draft in the past 20 years, James has a perspective unique to NBA rookies:

— On his age: “I don’t have years and years of basketball on my body. … Some of these guys have played year-round and beat their bodies up. My body is going to hold up and I’ll be able to play m uch later into my thirties than a lot of these other guys.”

—On the world of young athletes who know only basketball: “They’ve been playing since they were about eight years old and they don’t realize what it’s like in the real world, having a real job and working for $30,000 or $40,000 a year. I’ve definitely learned not to let a single day go to waste.”

— On being part of a team: “A lot of guys don’t really have a grasp on that. They’re only thinking about themselves and their game, rather than thinking about the big picture and the team.”

— On being a role player: “I’m not under the impression that I’m going to go out there and be Kobe Bryant for a team. … I’m going to rebound, block shots and play defense well. If you get a couple of points out of me, that’ll be a bonus.”

One other note about the draft — Davis has been compared to Kevin Durant, but he will not immediately hit 3-pointers with the proficiency of the former Texas star.

In his only year in Austin, Durant attempted more than 200 3-pointers and made better than 40 percent. In his year at Lexington, Davis tried 20 and made three.

Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His e-mail address is hking@arkansasnews.com.