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Bernard James: From Active Military Duty To The NBA

Bernard James has fought battles and been in the trenches, both literally and figuratively, his entire life and across the world.

James recently spoke with RealGM to discuss the battles he faced on his way to becoming a rookie in the NBA with the Dallas Mavericks and what his future holds going forward.

James grew up in Savannah, Georgia until he was five. James then moved to Germany for three years, followed by a move to New York for three years, before he ultimately returned to Savannah.

During that time, James had a distant relationship with his biological father.

“I know him,” said James. “We speak to this day. He was never really a father figure to me. The relationship between me and my biological father is more of a friendship. It’s not in any way like a family type relationship that we have just because he never had that role in my life. I mean there’s no hard feelings towards him or anything, but my stepfather (Darryl Cook) raised me and treated me like his son since I was two years old. He’s my dad.”

James’ mom, Beverly Cook, was the stabilizing parental figure in his life growing up and the two continue to keep in touch despite the large geographical distance between them.

“We both have a lot going on so we talk maybe once a week,” said James. “We don’t really see each other very often just because I’m traveling and she’s traveling sometimes too so we just kind of meet up whenever we can. We have a good relationship and we’re close.”

Despite a close relationship with his mom, the two failed to see eye-to-eye on his decision to drop out of high school in 10th grade at the age of 16 to join the military.

“I felt like I just needed a change, an immediate change,” said James. “That was the only way I saw out. Had I finished high school and just graduated, then what? It would have been two years and then after those two years what would I do? The military presented itself and it just seemed like the best option just to get out of Savannah and pretty much start over, start a new track, and start heading in a positive direction again I guess.”

After researching the daily military lifestyle and talking it over with his stepfather, James made the life-changing decision to enlist. Darryl Cook was a career military man himself and provided the insight James needed to make the best decision for his future.

“Growing up in a military family, I had a pretty regimented lifestyle,” said James. “My stepfather was pretty strict. So I knew the whole following orders discipline aspect of it and it wasn’t going to be a problem because I was always used to that. After finding out more abut the military, more about what I’d be doing, and what day-to-day life would be like, it was just kind of a lock from there. I knew that I would do well and be able to excel.”

During his time as a Staff Sergeant in the Air Force, James was assigned to tours of duty in Qatar, Kuwait and Iraq.

“When I was deployed, I actually did different jobs each time that I deployed,” said James. “It went anywhere from base security, guarding a fence around a base, to working as a U.S. customs official when I was in Kuwait assessing goods and equipment and stuff that was heading back to the base, to working at a containment facility when I was in Iraq guarding 22,000 suspected terrorists.”

To put this into perspective, many young adults James’ age at this time are heading to college while living independently for the first time on a college campus with security for protection.

For James, his daily anxiety was fearing for his life in the midst of war.

“Iraq was pretty dangerous,” said James. “In Iraq, dealing with detainees, you know half the guys in there would look you in your face and tell you that they’d kill you if they’d get the chance. I guess just that constant threat of death, that’s the scariest part, and you’ve got to kind of come to terms with it and you’ve still got to do your job.”

College students study algorithms, conduct experiments in laboratories, or integrate within group projects.

James’ class sessions were quite different. James learned how to protect himself and stay alive in the event of combat.

“There’s a lot of different techniques and procedures that you’re taught to keep you as safe as possible,” said James. “We have all types of protective gear and stuff like that, probably about 50-60 pounds of gear that we wear every single minute of every day to keep us safe and give us the best chance of survival.”

Despite all the violence surrounding James in the Air Force, the basketball court provided James peace of mind and a distraction during free time.

James’ first supervisor and intramural basketball coach in the Air Force, Erick Dumas, discovered James’ talent during that free time.

Dumas told him to volunteer for the intramural team. As a result, James did as any good military man would do; he followed his orders from his supervisor.

Eventually, James traveled to Hawaii four times and played in tournaments.

“That was a big part of my experience,” said James. “Developing as a player and learning how to play organized basketball with (Dumas) in those tournaments.”

After picking up a basketball for the first time around eight or 10 years old, James played his first organized game ever at 17 in those tournaments under Dumas’ tutelage. 

While playing in the Air Force, James caught an unexpected break that would change the direction of his life forever.

An unknown Atlantic Coast Conference referee officiated the tournaments and scouted James. The referee ultimately liked what he saw from the raw 6-foot-10 athlete.

“I actually kind of blew the guy off when he talked to me,” said James. “We talked after that tournament and he told me he was going to pass my name to a couple of coaches and that he was an ACC referee. I said ‘Ok, cool man.’ I wasn’t rude or anything, I told him I appreciated everything, but you know I just didn’t think anything was going to come of it. A couple of months later, to my surprise, college coaches had contacted me and that started the process for me to choose to go to Florida State.”

James never got the chance to see or thank the unknown referee again after the tournament. James said despite not knowing the name of the referee, he would “definitely” have recognized him if the two crossed paths again.

With that in mind, James has a special message for the random referee whose act of kindness altered his life for the better.

“If he hadn’t passed my name on there’s no telling if anyone would ever have taken a peek,” said James. “In the military, basketball is kind of obscure. There are very few people that actually know about it. I think even fewer people that even know people are in position to help good players out. I just say thank you and he’s another person, another stranger, along my journey that’s helped me in a huge way that would change my entire journey if not for him.”

It is fitting that the referee served as the final piece guiding James toward playing basketball. James never saw potential in earning a living as a basketball player, as it was those in the military that encouraged him to explore this opportunity.

“The reason why I’m playing basketball now is because I was kind of forced to play basketball by a supervisor when I first joined the Air Force,” said James. “So, I really wouldn’t be here today in the NBA if I hadn’t joined.”

While playing basketball in the Air Force ultimately gave him the fundamentals to become an NBA player, James reflects fondly on the people he met along the way as the lasting impression of his time overseas.

“Definitely two things,” said James on what he mostly took away from his military experience. “One, really getting an experience that no one outside the military could ever experience. Two, all the people that I met. I met a lot of good people that have helped me along the way and I still keep in contact with a few guys that I really connected with in the military and kind of really became my family.”

After serving in the Air Force for six years overseas, James made his return to the United States at 23.

The move was a culture shock for James who attended Tallahassee Community College for two years before transferring to Florida State.

“I hated it man,” said James. “My first year in junior college, I hated it. I just felt like nobody took things seriously and guys just didn’t care. Half the time I was justifiable. The other half was just me being used to that military type of discipline, motivation, and everyone being gung-ho about everything. I get here and I’m dealing with kids again that don’t really have a whole lot of direction, most of these guys have been playing basketball their whole lives, and pretty much been spoon fed and spoiled. Just dealing with that was a huge adjustment for me. It took a little bit to kind of understand how to interact with them and really learn to navigate college and being a college athlete.”

James worked on basketball fundamentals against a fellow 6-foot-10 big man named A.J. This was the first time James had the opportunity to play against someone his own size, which presented a new challenge and learning curve.

“I improved a lot over those two years just because of him,” said James. “I really wouldn’t have been able to play at Florida State had it not been for him because I wouldn’t of had that experience playing against somebody my height with arms as long as mine, learning how to shoot over people that are my height, and rebound over people that are my height.”

After finishing his two years at Tallahassee Community College, James was ready to play in the ACC for Florida State.

However, despite having the opportunity for a significant role on the basketball team against rivals such as Duke and North Carolina, it was Florida State head coach Leonard Hamilton’s desire to help him succeed in the classroom that was the deciding factor in his decision to sign.

“Coach Hamilton, out of all the coaches that I spoke to, spoke to my mother and he was the only one who really put a focus on education,” said James. “He told me basically as long as I was willing to work hard he could guarantee me that I would leave with a college degree and no other coach told me that. Another coach was telling me about what I was going to be doing on the court and what kind of basketball star they were going to make me. You know at this point, basketball wasn’t really the main focus for me as education. I didn’t really see there being a professional future, but I knew if I got a degree that could help a lot with anything that I decided to do later on in life. It would open up a lot of doors for me.”

James told RealGM he ultimately chose Florida State over Utah State, Purdue, several other ACC schools, and multiple small Division-I programs.

Florida State associate head coach Stan Jones challenged James everyday by pushing his limits to help the raw athlete achieve his fullest potential.

Jones developed James’ basketball I.Q. to play the game at a high level, deal with adversity, and adjust to any game situation.

Jones also helped James perfect his jump hook shot in the post with both hands giving him the go-to moves he needed to score.

“(Jones) was the primary person that worked with me from an all around aspect of basketball and off the court too just helping me grow too as a person and a man,” said James. “He was there for me everyday. The funny thing is he was the coach that I hated the most in college because he’d constantly challenge me. But as my time was coming to an end, and I realized he wasn’t going to be there anymore, I realized that I really did appreciate everything he had done for me and how much I had grown in those two years that I was there because he refused to let me just coast along.”

After taking the most extreme route and dropping out of high school, joining the Air Force and fearing for his life everyday, and learning the fundamentals of basketball at Tallahassee CC and Florida State, it all culminated with one moment.

The Cleveland Cavaliers selected James in the second round of the 2012 NBA Draft (33rd overall) on June 28.

James was subsequently traded to the Mavericks along with Jared Cunnigham (24th overall) and Jae Crowder (34th overall) in exchange for Kelenna Azubuike and Tyler Zeller (17th overall) to Cleveland.

When NBA Deputy Commissioner Adam Silver called James’ name, the crowd began chanting “U-S-A.”

It was then that James stood, walked to the stage, and had a reflective flashback on his journey to get to this point.

“My entire journey, up until that point, was just kind of running through my head,” said James. “There’s just been so many amazing things that have happened along the way where people did things for me that they didn’t have to do, or things that they normally didn’t do, to help me out. Some of these people were complete strangers, but they made the decision to help me out and just all that led me to that point.”

Even with all the help and guidance James received from numerous people, he still doubted his chances of making the NBA.

“I knew all I needed was a chance and I was kind of unsure if anybody was going to give me a chance just because of me being older,” said James. “Once I heard my name called I knew I got my foot in the door and that was all I needed. I was going to work my butt off and do whatever it took to make somebody’s team whether it was the Mavericks or somebody else.”

His mother Beverly probably never thought she’d hear a “U-S-A” chant for her son, let alone see him selected at the NBA Draft before her eyes.

“It was just a really good feeling to have everyone chanting “U-S-A,” said James. “It just felt really good and made me proud to serve my country.”

Now that James is in the NBA, his advanced age is no longer a factor. In fact, James would generally be considered in the prime of his career at the age of 27. However, James’ ceiling is considerably higher than most players his age because he began playing at a later age, is still raw, and has less mileage on his legs.

Now that James is realizing his NBA potential, he’s had to conform to the flow of the NBA game.

Fittingly enough, James went back to the basics and recalled advice he received from Stan Jones on adapting to the pace of the NBA.

“The NBA and college, they’re a lot different,” said James. “In the NBA, actually Coach Jones put it the best. He would always tell me in college that college kids play fast, but they think slow and in the NBA guys think fast, but they play slow. That’s exactly how it is. It’s so much of a mind game in the NBA more than anything. It’s not really about how high or fast you can jump, those things help of course, but if you’re smart the smartest players are the ones that do the most damage out there on the court.”

James has also improved his post game with the help of Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle.

“He taught me a couple of moves and a couple of counters to them that I’ve been developing since Day 1 that I’ve been here with the Mavericks,” said James. “I’ve made a lot of progress and I’m really developing into a player that they can use. I can be a big part of this team in the future once some of these veterans start to retire and leave room for somebody to step up.”

Despite his advanced age as a rookie, James stressed he still has to learn much more.

“There’s a lot of the struggles and adjustments that we’ve got to get used to about living this lifestyle, being on such a public stage, and constantly being scrutinized about everything you do on and off the court,” said James.

Dallas is loaded with veterans to guide the rookie and help him develop in all aspects of the NBA.

Before Delonte West was released, James received tips from the guard after practices while they sat next to each other in the locker room.

Chris Kaman, currently in his 10th season, also worked with James over the summer. Both players would practice early in the morning as Kaman taught James post moves to add to his repertoire and showed James how to use leverage in the post to box out and get inside position on the low block.

Vince Carter and Shawn Marion have also helped James find a niche on the team and feel integrated.

James’ development was in full force on Dec. 20 against the Miami Heat as he posted career-highs in points (12), rebounds (nine), and minutes (22).

James hopes this is a sign of bigger and better things to come in the future.

“This season, there’s definitely room for me to earn more minutes because of my rebounding ability,” said James. “I think I’m the best rebounder on the team. My goal for the overall season is to really just understand my role, to embrace it, and do it well whether it’s five minutes a game or 30 minutes a game. Whenever coach Rick (Carlisle) puts me in, just take advantage of those minutes, and play as hard as I can every time. Just be that energy guy out there every time out there on the court that’s contagious and will spread to my teammates and make them play harder too.”

While James’ role remains to be seen, the rookie forward certainly knows one thing, it’s how to win battles in the trenches of life. 

 

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