Mike James is a creature of habit. Despite being undrafted in 1998, the veteran point guard has carved out a 10-year NBA career due, in large part, to his tireless work ethic to go along with a high level of confidence.
However, yet another test appeared for James during the twilight of his career. After being casted off by the Washington Wizards during the tail end of the 2009-10 season, James seemed on track to be discarded by the league altogether, which put the 36-year-old out of a job and searching for opportunities to showcase himself. In his mind, he still exhibited all the necessary attributes to remain in the league – but teams felt otherwise.
“I never doubted myself as far as being an NBA ballplayer,” James said in a phone interview on Friday night. “I was put in an unfortunate situation in the years I was in Washington. I was portrayed through the organization as being one way and they were able to spread a word about me that I don’t believe was true about myself. They always say perception is reality, so whatever [people] perceived about me became reality of who I was as a ballplayer and as a person.”
James attempted to change that perception when he spent the 2010-11 campaign overseas, where he started his professional career before signing with the Miami Heat in 2001. He spent the year playing in China and Turkey.
But it wasn’t until January, less than a month into the lockout-shortened season, when James took his talents to the NBA Developmental League that he began to receive the exposure he longed for in hopes of returning to the league. James inked a modest deal with the D-League’s Erie BayHawks – a tough decision for him to make, considering his accomplishments and experience in the NBA, including averaging 20.3 points and 5.8 assists for the Toronto Raptors in 2005-06.
“I just continued to keep believing in myself and keep believing in my skills,” James said. “I worked hard when I believed that I was supposed to be in the league, and then going to the D-League was a tough decision that I had to make. I felt like I was better than going over to the D-League and I’ve earned enough credibility to at least get a tryout from an NBA team. It was hard, especially this season, that I couldn’t even get invited to a basketball camp after the lockout.
“I had to put my pride to the side and say, 'If this is what I have to do in order to get back to where I believe that I want to end my career – in the NBA and being an NBA ballplayer – then I’ve got to put my pride to the side, go to the D-League and showcase myself.' I’m grateful for the opportunity to be able to play in the D-League. But I was believing that I know I’m better than what people believe I am and I know that I still have a lot to give to the game. I had through to the D-League to show it.”
Following a successful run with the BayHawks that included a 23-point, five-rebound, five-assist effort, James first signed with the Chicago Bulls on Jan. 11 amid point guard injury concerns to Derrick Rose and C.J. Watson. But James was waived about two weeks later, and all signs pointed to the Amityville, NY, native signing with his hometown team, the Knicks.
With the Knicks’ gaping hole at point guard clear to everyone, James would have been an ideal acquisition. But then, out of nowhere, Jeremy Lin arrived onto the scene in early February and went on a sensational, league-altering tear that was dubbed “Linsanity.” James was as good as signed by the Knicks and had essentially set his arrival date to New York, but all of that changed in a flash. He would have welcomed a homecoming with open arms and believed the Knicks could have used him, but Lin’s improbable surge allowed New York to stand pat.
“Even the thought of me going back home to play back home to play ball, it would’ve been a great opportunity, and I believe that I would’ve been able to fit with that team,” James said. “But then Linsanity happened. I’m grateful for him for the opportunity that he was able to show for himself and the success that he’s having for his own career, where he had no name at all and now he’s a household name in the NBA. That’s a great opportunity for him, but it was unfortunate for me because he had his success and they didn’t really feel like there was a need for me [anymore] to be there.”
Fortunately for the Bulls, James remained on the free-agent market and the organization signed him to a 10-day contract on Feb. 14, when Rose was sidelined because of an injury. After that deal expired, he was re-signed earlier than expected on March 14, as both Rose and Watson again continued to deal with nagging injuries. James’ second and final 10-day deal expired on March 23, but, as reported on March 1, the Bulls had long planned to bring James back for the rest of the season when his salary would not count toward the luxury tax. Indeed, James was signed for good on April 5, his fourth stint with the Bulls.
Before James was signed for the remainder of the year, a good friend of his told him that he had the best part-time job in the world. James was able to spend more time than usual with his family and play his off-the-court role as a father and a husband while staying in basketball shape and ready for a call from the Bulls.
“This is what I had to do this year,” he said of not being in a stable situation for most of the season. “I’ve been in this league awhile and it’s unfortunate that I had to go through it this year, but at the same time, I looked at this year as a year to just show who I still am. So many times people tried to tell me I can’t be as good as I was … so this is the year that the truth popped up.”
The well-articulated James made an impression on his Bulls teammates from the outset of his tenure in Chicago.
On the court, James showed that he was “the Mike James of old, not the old Mike James,” putting up three impressive performances in which he was one of the team’s key contributors. Six games into his Bulls career, James dropped nine points and 10 assists in just 17 minutes of action against the Charlotte Bobcats on Jan. 21. He posted eight points and four assists and was critical on the defensive end of the floor, effectively guarding Rajon Rondo, in an 89-80 win over the Boston Celtics on Feb. 14. Two days later, James notched his best statistical outing of the season, with 16 points, seven assists and three rebounds against the New Jersey Nets. Most impressively, James turned the ball over a combined four times in those three contests.
Off the court, James immediately meshed with teammates because of his work ethic, commitment and team-first mindset, attributes that are a constant among Bulls players. Luol Deng said earlier this season that James “is a great guy to have in the locker room, a guy that's going to be there early so everyone sees that.”
James took great pride in being well-respected and well-liked by the Bulls’ locker room. Like coach Tom Thibodeau, James has a never-satisfied mentality. But, for him, it was a culmination of all the hard work he has put in over the course of his career, a sign that he still belonged at the highest level, whether he is needed to impact the game on or off the court.
“It’s great that the guys on the team saw my character and saw who I was, not just on the court, but off the court,” James said. “I’m a hard worker. I won’t work this hard when I’m done with the game, but as long as I’m playing this game, this is how I believe that I’m supposed to prepare. I’ve never trusted my skill, I’ve never trusted my talent, but I’ve always trusted in my work ethic … so for people to acknowledge my work ethic, it was definitely a great feeling, especially coming from the captains and the leaders of the team.”
Thibodeau knows James as well as any coach James has been around. James played with the Houston Rockets in 2004-05 when Thibodeau was the lead assistant coach under Jeff Van Gundy. Both men held each other in high regard and shared a natural bond due to the fact that they are known as hard workers at their respective crafts, so if anyone thought James could still have success in NBA games, it was Thibodeau.
“Coach Thibs and I had a relationship when I first played when he was the head assistant with the Houston Rockets under Jeff Van Gundy,” James said. “I had the same work ethic then, so if anyone knew that I’ve fallen off or my body type isn’t the same or my work ethic isn’t the same, coach Thibs would have been the first one to notice it and recognize it because he was the one that saw me when I was a young player in the NBA playing with the Rockets. He is able to see me now as an older veteran but still have the same work ethic that I had when I first came into the league.”
As a reserve guard for the 2004 champion Detroit Pistons, James has substance to his voice, and he is fully confident that the Bulls have all the ingredients to win the title this season.
“Even when someone as great as Derrick Rose goes down – [a player] who probably would have been MVP back-to-back again this year if injuries didn’t keep him out of basketball games – yet we’re still able to win … and have the best record in the NBA,” he said. “Man, that has to go a long way, and that also shows you Thibs’ coaching ability and his skill as a coach and a general.”
For his part, James has a timetable in mind when it comes to how much longer he wants to play in the NBA before retiring. He is averaging 4.3 points and 2.5 assists for the Bulls this season and has proven that he still has the skill and mindset to remain in the league, whether that’s in Chicago or elsewhere.
“I want to play two more years,” James said. “I believe that I work hard in the summer, and the hardest thing for me is my summertime preparation. And I still get excited about the summertime.
“I look forward to this summer. I look forward to drills, playing for coach John Lucas and doing all the things to prepare you for the following season. That still excites me, and I believe that I’ve only got two more summers of that in me. And once I can’t prepare no longer in the summertime, then I know it’s time for me to give up and throw my shoes on top of the wire. I really want to play two more seasons, and after that I’m going to call it quits.”