Around the World: Bernard James Goes From Iraq to Florida State Basketball
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Bernard James figures he'd be up to no good, possibly in jail, or worse, if he had elected to remain in his hometown as a high school dropout nine years ago.
Instead, James found his way -- and discovered competitive basketball -- during his six-year hitch in the U.S. Air Force, having been deployed to such outposts as Iraq and Qatar in the Middle East and Sacramento, Calif. James' journey over the years has only gotten more remarkable, one his junior-college basketball coach simply calls "an amazing story."
Even the 25-year-old James, who has developed into one of the nation's top JuCo post players and has signed to play at Florida State next season, says he's blessed by the turn of events.
"I feel I've had an adventurous life up to this point," James told FanHouse Thursday afternoon following class here at Tallahassee Community College. "I am just enjoying everything, and I am blessed to be where I am at right now. Really, I am focusing on not messing it up."
The 6-foot-10, 240-pounder has helped the Seminoles land the country's No. 12 signing class, according to ESPN.com.
James, who recorded 13 double-doubles in 28 games this season and averaged 14 points and 10.3 rebounds per game, just might be the most intriguing, if not the most inspirational, recruit in the class.
"Bernard's an unbelievable person," TCC coach Eddie Barnes said. "He's our leader. When he speaks, the rest of the team listens."
It may sound easy, but James wasn't into listening in 2002, when he was a disgruntled 16-year-old at Windsor Forest High School in south Savannah, Ga. James found himself skipping school with increased frequency. One day led to two days, two days led to a week, and a week led to he didn't care anymore.
James' choices were somewhat startling, considering his oldest brother was a basketball standout in high school and at Savannah State University. James, in fact, was one of five siblings in an athletic family raised in love, faith and discipline, furnished by their mother, Beverly Cook, and stepfather Darryl Cook, a career military man.
"We were just ... I was kind of in shock," Beverly said. "I think at an early age he had made up his mind that he was just going to go a different route. We didn't understand it. There's just this normal route that everybody goes. We were like, 'What is going on?'"
James, admittedly an underachiever at that point in his life, didn't have an immediate plan. He had been cut from the freshman basketball team a year earlier and his grades had dipped quicker than a salsa dance. James says his family tried to encourage him to remain in school, but his eyes and ears were closed tight.
"They were disappointed but nothing they were telling me was registering," James said.
While many of James' buddies elected to line their pockets with drug money, James worked a few odd jobs before he realized that path wasn't lined in good times. He decided he wanted to escape Savannah and see the world, and he knew from his stepfather's experiences that the military would give him that opportunity. James earned a GED in 2002 and enlisted into the Air Force with his parents' consent.
A few months after his 17th birthday, James' world tour started at basic training boot camp in 100-degree heat in San Antonio. It was the boot-to-booty that James needed.
"I went in as a boy and definitely came out a man," said James, who, as one might guess, is yes-sir, no-sir polite. "It turned my life around. It gave me discipline, it gave me goals and it helped me realize my potential."
Both as a person and a basketball player.
James worked on Air Force security forces, an area that developed his leadership skills and toughness. Although he continued to play neighborhood basketball prior to joining the Air Force, James never figured that military hoops would define his future But, at 6-foot-5 (and growing), he joined the intramural program after his supervisor "volunteered him" while at Beale Air Force Base in northern California.
James suddenly discovered the competitiveness and drive he lacked in high school. And he discovered he was pretty good around the basket, too.
"I really didn't have the skills but I had the general knowledge," James explained.
"Once I joined the military and started playing -- it was the dominant sport because no matter what base you were assigned to, it had intramural basketball -- it clicked. I was playing and was kind of starting to dominate. I also just happened to grow five inches, too."
James rose (no pun intended) to the rank of staff sergeant and was deployed to a few of the world's hot spots. As recently as August 2007, James was stationed at Camp Bucca in southern Iraq, a member of the Air Force Military Police to help the Army keep watch on 22,000 detainees.
James also became a U.S. Armed Forces All-Star playing international basketball competition. And it was during a 2005 tournament in Las Vegas when college coaches such as FSU's Leonard Hamilton first spotted James and began to pay attention.
In 2008, James led the USA to its first International Military Sports Council championship since 1998 with an 84-74 victory over Lithuania. James, named the tourney's MVP, had 12 points, 18 rebounds and six blocks in the title game.
It was also around that time when James realized that his initial desire for a career in the military was being replaced by the goal to play college basketball. James completed his service and signed at TCC in 2008, becoming a two-time All-Panhandle Conference selection and helping lead the Eagles to the state tournament this past season.
Naturally, James' leadership skills helped set a standard for teammates.
"I don't know if it was because he was older or his experience in the military, but everyone knew exactly what he expected by the way he presented himself both on and off the court," said TCC teammate Juevol Myles, who has signed with Kansas State.
"Because he was such a big part of our team, everyone wanted to meet his expectations."
James finished second on TCC's all-time list for field-goal percentage (.624), rebounds (512) and blocks (131). He also ended his two-year JUCO career with 24 double-doubles. His game, built on strength, now includes finesse and touch inside the paint and near the hoop.
While Barnes has called James "one of the best [centers] I have coached" in his 35 years in the profession, it's agreed he still has plenty of untapped potential.
James was just as productive off the court, where he earned academic honors and was named National Junior College Athletic Association "Leader for Life" last October. Each week, the NJCAA's Leaders for Life Program recognizes men and women student-athletes for athletic achievement as well as academic achievement and community service.
Needless to say, Beverly Cook couldn't be happier with her son's development and success. Son has actually inspired mom to return to college, where she is determined to earn a degree in Christian Studies through online courses at Liberty University.
"The route of regular high school, that just wasn't his route," Cook said.
"I've come to know and learn and understand that God has his own plans for each of us. We can make plans but that doesn't necessarily mean, especially for our children, that it's going to go that way. He made up his mind to join the military and that's what he wanted.
"With everything that's happened, I've been just like, is this my kid? [laughing] I am very grateful. God is awesome."
James wants to continue to be awesome, too. He signed with nearby FSU during the early signing period, fulfilling a goal and adding another chapter to an astonishing story. It should come as no surprise that James also feels an obligation to help direct his younger teammates.
"It's frustrating to see somebody about to make a mistake or do something stupid and you try to prevent it from happening," James said.
"I could almost imagine that's how your parents feel when you are growing up and they are trying to stop you from doing something silly and you go ahead and do it anyway. I try to guide [teammates] in a general direction, on and off the court. But kids are going to do what they want to do
"I am a perfect example of that."