The Mavericks opted for a unique prospect with the 33rd pick in the 2012 NBA draft: a 27-year-old high school dropout, late basketball convert and Air Force staff sergeant.
One could hardly stray more from the beaten path to the NBA than Bernard James did. But the 6-foot-10, 240-pound forward-center has become a solid defensive contributor as a rookie in no small part because of the twists and turns of his life.
Chief among them: James' decision, at age 17, to join the armed forces. Not only did that choice help shape him as a person, but it also introduced him to the world of competitive basketball. James is a product of his time in the Air Force in the truest sense, as his personal and professional development can both be traced to six years spent in service of his country, including deployments to Iraq, Kuwait and Qatar. The Air Force gave James a home, a job and an almost inconceivable shot to compete in the best basketball league in the world.
James, now 28, is averaging 3.7 points and 3.6 rebounds in 12.3 minutes for the Mavericks, who have used him as a starter in five of the last seven games while center Chris Kaman recovers from a concussion. The former Florida State standout has five games with at least three blocks.
SI.com caught up with James recently to learn more about his journey and experiences, and his transition to the NBA.
With coaches, she was trying to pick out personalities. She was reading how they were talking with her, how they were dealing with her. That's what she was letting me know, because I really didn't care too much how good the team was. My main focus was getting a degree.
We ended up going with Florida State because Coach [Leonard] Hamilton is just a really great guy. He talked to my mom and basically told her that as long as I'm willing to work hard, he guarantees I'll leave with a degree. That's basically what I wanted to hear. I had been working hard for six years in the Air Force already, so if you tell me that if I work had I'm going to get what I'm going for, then that's all good -- I can do that.
[But in coming to the NBA] you've got to forget everything that you used to know and learn all this new stuff and get it to the point where it's natural where you just react to it and you do the right thing within the system. It is a little tough, but with repetition and focusing on it every day, you'll eventually get into it.
And on our help side [defense], we call it a "base go." The low man on the weak side, he has to come over when a guy's driving from the wing to the baseline -- the [weak-side defender] has the "base go." At Florida State, it was like you'd wait until the last second to go. Here, you go early. So sometimes I'm late because I'm still thinking Florida State, like: "Wait, wait, wait, ah s---, I'm late."