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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. 

The Life Of An NBA 15th Man

With just 450 rosters spots in any single seasons, the chances of making the NBA are mathematically miniscule.

To put this into perspective, the chances of claiming a roster spot in the NBA are as slim as winning the lottery.

With that in mind, Chris Copeland hit the jackpot this summer by securing the final roster spot with the New York Knicks after an impressive showcase during the Las Vegas Summer League.

While speaking with Copeland at his locker inside Madison Square Garden, the most unlikely member of the Knicks could not contain his smile and enthusiasm while discussing the realization of his NBA dream in a one-on-one interview with RealGM.

Copeland was a longshot to make New York’s roster out of training camp, but the 28-year-old rookie never stopped believing in his chances.

“I was hungry,” Copeland told RealGM. “I wanted to do anything it took to make the team. A lot of people doubted that I had the ability to make it, but I just kept listening and I had a lot of help from the veterans and people behind the scenes like Allan Houston. A lot of guys gave me advice on how to make it and how make myself look better on that stage and at the end of the day I thank God for the opportunity.”

Copeland has benefited mightily from the tutelage of Kurt Thomas, Marcus Camby and Rasheed Wallace. The three veterans offer 53 years of combined NBA experience for Copeland to learn from.

“Those three guys have really been in my ear as far as being behind me when I was down,” said Copeland.

The constant instruction from the veterans paid dividends as Copeland secured the Knicks' final roster spot.

“Truth be told, when they told me in the office, I kept hearing ‘Pursuit of Happiness’ music,” said Copeland with a bashful laugh. “It was crazy man, it was a beautiful experience that was like a lifetime in the making for me. You know what I mean? I’m speechless even thinking about it.”

The “lifetime” Copeland mentioned is the six-year window it took him to reach the NBA.

After helping Colorado advance to the NIT twice and the NCAA Tournament once over his four-year career in Boulder, Copeland was not selected in the 2006 NBA Draft.

Despite the disappointment, Copeland found a home with the Fort Worth Flyers of the D-League where he averaged 10.1 points per game and shot the ball well from three (.462).

That was the last time Copeland would play professionally in the United States over the subsequent five years before resurfacing with New York. During his five years overseas, Copeland played in Spain, Germany and Belgium.

Copeland developed into a go-to scorer during his final two seasons overseas. Copeland averaged 18.5 points per game with Okapi Aalstar (Belguim) and played well in the 2012 EuroChallenge averaging 20.1 points per game in 11 games.

Despite adjusting to a severely reduced role as the 15th man off New York’s bench, Copeland relishes every moment he is with the team and living his NBA dream.

“It’s such an opportunity,” said Copeland. “People say it, and it’s kind of cliché, ‘you learn everyday,’ but look at this roster. Everyday I’m playing with legends, somebody that was amazing.”

Copeland has also built a relationship with Mike Woodson, a former 11-year NBA player.

Woodson holds his entire roster from Carmelo Anthony to Copeland accountable on every possession during practice and games.

“(Woodson) doesn’t allow me to slack off a minute,” said Copeland. “Everyday I have to push and I have to go hard. That’s just going to make me a better player in the long run because I’ll be more consistent and that’s a different mentality than I’m used to having from playing overseas.”

Woodson told Copeland he made New York’s final roster as the 15th man, but not before making him nervous.

“(Woodson) actually played a prank on me, a trick on me, when he called me into the office,” said Copeland. “(Woodson) made me think they were going to let me go, but they kept me and it was one of the best days of my life.”

When asked specifically what the prank entailed, Copeland preferred to keep it private, but added, “(Woodson) got me good.”

The rookie hopes the next time Woodson summons him into his office, it is to discuss a larger role and not a possible D-League assignment.

It is common practice in the NBA for players at the end of the depth chart to be assigned to a D-League affiliate to stay sharp and get game experience.

However, Copeland hopes to avoid this fate.

“They haven’t said anything to me, but I don’t even want to think about that,” said Copeland. “I want to be here. I’ve been in the D-League. I tried that back when, but for now I just want to be here as long as possible.”

The D-League is a reminder for players that although the realization of the NBA dream is exhilarating, it can become very short-lived.

Copeland remains steadfast that the principles he used to get to New York will keep him in the NBA.

“Work, just work,” said Copeland. “That’s the biggest thing, just keep going and don’t become complacent with anything.” 

Draft Interview: Drew Gordon Of New Mexico

One of the best rebounding prospects in this year's draft is Drew Gordon, but that should come as no surprise since he’s spent his college career “rebounding” from detours on his road to the NBA.

I spoke to Gordon to discuss how he “rebounded” from a rough stint under Ben Howland at UCLA, a torn knee meniscus injury upon transferring to New Mexico, and his damaged reputation from a recent Sports Illustrated article.

Coming out of high school Gordon planned to sign with Washington and Lorenzo Romar, but he encountered his first detour and ultimately signed with UCLA and Howland.

“Some family issues came up with my family members that were down in LA," said Gordon. "So I made a last second decision to be closer to them and be there if they needed me. UCLA was right around the corner. I figured that would be a good spot for me to wind up and it was a good program."

However, the experience for Gordon at UCLA didn’t go according to plan both on and off the court. During Gordon’s freshman season, he averaged only 11 minutes per game. The following sophomore season, Gordon played in only six games before parting ways with the team.

Gordon’s time at UCLA became a revisited topic thanks to a Sports Illustrated article that negatively portrayed him during his time with the program.

“It’s not anything close to who I am and how I act as a person. The article was hurtful, but a setback is a setup for a great comeback. It’s not the end of the world. It’s not something that’s going to knock me down. I have to take it in stride and keep moving forward,” said Gordon.

For Gordon, his two years as an underclassman at UCLA had a major impact on the future of his college basketball career on the court and his life off it.

“Going through it was difficult, you have to really figure out what you want early in life," said Gordon. "It was rough throughout the whole process at UCLA. Just learning from your mistakes and figuring out what you actually wanted in life was really helpful. It really made me grow into who I am today and make the University of New Mexico so successful for me."

Hoping for a fresh start, Gordon decided to transfer to New Mexico.

“I knew the assistant coach Wyking Jones at the time,” said Gordon. “You don’t get a lot of do-overs in college like that. For me it was a chance to go somewhere where I knew somebody, where I trusted somebody, and have them be able to take care of me.”

Gordon’s new start got off on the wrong foot, literally, as he experienced another detour. Gordon had surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee.

Despite the injury, Gordon was determined to rebound from it.

“Our trainer (Nate Burney) at school did an amazing job with my rehab and was really on top of things,” said Gordon. “The knee injury really motivated me to make sure my body is right and nothing like that happens again God willing.”

That was the only blemish on Gordon’s two seasons at New Mexico as he averaged just over 13 points and nearly 11 rebounds per game, including a third round trip in the NCAA Tournament last season.

According to Gordon, much of the credit for his success at New Mexico was due to Steve Alford.

“He really paid attention to what my strengths and weaknesses were and really tried to key in and fix those, try to perfect those," said Gordon. "He took time to work with me individually as a player and a person as opposed to just trying to fit me into his system. I think that really benefited me as a player and as a person."

The Mountain West Conference also gave Gordon a chance to expand his game and prepare for the NBA.

“It really helped me out being able to be more vocal on the court and play a bigger part in the team,” said Gordon. “My second year at New Mexico I was playing against double and triple teams a lot so it really made me work. It really made me figure out how to get rebounds, take that extra step, and get that hustle point.”

Despite the recent presence of Kawhi Leonard and Jimmer Fredette, the Mountain West Conference isn’t routinely associated with top NBA prospects.

“Regardless of what conference you play in, or where you play, it’s tough to average a double-double for two years straight,” said Gordon. “If recognition comes along that’s great. I like to win. I like to play basketball. That’s all that really matters to me.”

Gordon has earned recognition from various NBA teams and has worked out for the Warriors, Thunder, Cavaliers, Timberwolves, Celtics, Kings, Heat, Raptors, and Spurs. Gordon also participated in the Santa Barbara, Nets and NBA Draft Combines.

In those workouts and combines, Gordon showed teams his total skill set package and he changed the perception of his game around the league.

“I’ve got a pretty decent pick-and-pop game. I can hit the open jumper. I’ve got pretty good touch around the basket to a 15-18 foot shot. I think it’s been overlooked a little bit because it wasn’t really necessary at New Mexico and how our offense was because I played a lot around the basket. I’ve really worked hard on trying to get my jumper better and making sure that everything is on point,” said Gordon. “A lot of people are surprised by how good of shape I’m in and the fact that I’m able to knock down jumpers. A lot of people just pictured me as a garbage man. It’s always nice to know that I’m able to surprise people.”

When Gordon isn’t working out for NBA teams you can find him training with P3 Sports Science in Santa Barbara.

“They’ve been doing a lot of stuff with me including back-to-the-basket stuff, face-ups, and working on my whole game all around and it’s really paid off. I’m confident in my jump shot and my back-to-the-basket game,” said Gordon.

Gordon currently projects as an early second round pick hoping to crack the first round bubble. Gordon is reminiscent of Udonis Haslem and Brandon Bass.

As a four-year college prospect, Gordon feels he’s ready for the demanding NBA play on the court and the lifestyle off it.

“I think one of the major things is I was able to finish college and get a degree. That’s something that is looked highly upon, especially at the next level. The willingness to commit and finish out what you started and keep going at it until it’s done. I think it really speaks highly of me as a person and my work ethic,” said Gordon. “When I’m not playing basketball I don’t know what to do with myself. So I’d rather work out and get better than hang out with friends, which can help out in the long run because not many people are not willing to do that.”

In addition, Gordon is also an excellent rebounder in the literal sense too.

“I’m just a workhorse really. I’m a high energy and high motor guy,” said Gordon. “I definitely think it will transfer over because of my willingness to work hard and go that extra mile to get that rebound. Rebounding is what I do and I find it fun. A lot of people don’t take that into consideration. I really take rebounding personally.”

Soon Gordon’s hard work rebounding, both on and off the court, will come full circle when he here’s his name called during the NBA Draft.

“Any team that’s willing to take a chance on me is going to get a good investment on their part and get somebody that works hard,” said Gordon. 

Draft Interview: Scott Machado Of Iona

Despite putting up career-high numbers across the board, Scott Machado felt overlooked and underrated while at Iona and wants NBA executives to know he has an NBA game and can play well against top competition.

RealGM Interview: Orlando Johnson Of UCSB

Orlando Johnson has the physical makeup of an NBA player at 65, 220 lbs, with a 70 wingspan and the ability to score in a variety of ways by shooting from beyond the arc, posting up smaller guards, and by penetrating the lane.

Gerald Green's Second NBA Chance

Gerald Green is still just 26, but he has gone from hyped teenager to draft bust in the D-League and Europe. But he's back in the NBA as a story of redemption and why it isn't too late for some players.

The Last Days Of Mike D'Antoni

Mike D'Antoni was brought to the Knicks because was viewed as the type of coach superstars would want to play for, but it was the franchise's biggest superstar that led to his downfall.
 

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