by Dave Spahn / @davespahn
When one thinks about the typical day for a 17-year-old boy, things such as watching TV, eating everything in sight, doing homework and sleeping until 1 p.m. come to mind. Bernard James’ life began with him waking up at 1 p.m. every day, but not for the reason that one would think—Bernard was up all night serving our country.
Bernard knew the ways of the military since he was young. His father served in the military during Bernard’s childhood, causing the family to move multiple times. Bernard started off in Savanna, GA where he went to kindergarten and first grade. The family then moved to Germany while he completed second to fifth grade. Their next stop was about an hour outside of Syracuse in upstate New York. Bernard spent his middle school days in New York, hoping this would be their last move for a while. But his father got the call back to Savanna, a spot that started the downturn for Bernard.
“I didn’t feel like there was any of the social pressure to conform or dress a certain way in New York,” Bernard stated. “Once I got back to Savanna, I think I had a little bit harder time adjusting to the way everyone expected you to act.”
After finishing the 10th grade, Bernard decided he no longer had an interest in completing high school. He received high grades in school his whole life up until high school, where he struggled to get through the semester without failing in Savanna. His low marks were not any reflection on his lack of intelligence. Talk to Bernard for five minutes and see his outstanding ability to communicate. Rather, he just became disinterested, upset and scared.
“I didn’t like the teachers or the school I went to,” explained Bernard. “The stuff that upset me the most, though, was more the social and peer pressure to drink, smoke and party. I didn’t want to do any of that stuff. I was a bookworm and loved reading. I couldn’t relate to any of the kids at school. It caused me to start skipping class more and more until it felt pointless to go back.”
Without a whole lot of options, Bernard joined the Air Force at age 17. He went straight to basic training for six weeks in San Antonio. Upon completion, Bernard reported for duty at the Beal Air Force Base near Sacramento and worked the night shift. His shift lasted from 5 p.m. to 5 a.m. every day, working anywhere from four to five days per week. He rotated between multiple different job posts, doing everything from law enforcement to 911 dispatching. During his six-year tenure in the Air Force, Bernard was deployed three times to different countries. He served in Qatar for his first deployment, Kuwait for his second, and Iraq for his third. Bernard explained that the deploys were his toughest obstacle to overcome.
“Deploying was the hardest thing I’ve had to deal with in the military,” Bernard stated. “You have to put your life on hold and can’t see friends or family. You leave everything you have behind to go fight in a war for 10 months at a time. I’ve seen it disrupt families; a lot of guys end up getting divorced because of it.”
His first day at the base proved to be the one that changed his life, though. Up until arriving at Beal, Bernard had never taken an interest in sports. “I never really got into sports while I was growing up,” Bernard claims. “I just kind of went out and played games with my friends like hide and seek. I never even thought about sports to be honest, and I was never really tall until ninth grade.”
One of Bernard’s officers on the base forced him to play in their intramural league his first day at the base. Playing in his first competitive game, Bernard finished the game with multiple blocks and double digit rebounds. He received praise from all of his teammates and even his opponents. He played in every intramural game from there on out and ended up earning a spot on the All-Air Force team. The team, comprised of 25 players from the entire Air Force, would train for two months before the annual armed forces tournament. Bernard competed well enough at the tournament to catch the eye of an ACC referee who was watching his game, and phone calls started being made to college coaches across the country about this 17-year-old kid in the Air Force. After the initial shock wore off that Bernard turned into a bona fide college prospect, his parents made their intentions clear.
“They didn’t really understand the All-Air Force team,” said Bernard. “They thought I was only playing on the intramural team. They didn’t know I started to develop into a basketball player. They were really surprised but proud and persistent that I needed to take advantage of the opportunity.”
Upon completion of his time in the military, Bernard played two seasons at Tallahassee Community College before he stepped foot on Florida State’s campus. He said Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton was the reason he chose Florida State, claiming that coach Hamilton sold him on academics and basketball. “Out of all the coaches that my family spoke to, I felt like coach Hamilton was the only one who cared about me getting a degree and helping out my future,” stated Bernard.
Coach Hamilton credits Bernard’s work ethic and personality for his drastic improvement in basketball. He saw Bernard come in as a raw athletic specimen who “never has a bad effort day regardless of what he’s doing.” He helped mold Bernard into a legitimate post presence in the ACC. Hamilton said that Bernard’s extreme athletic ability gave him an advantage over all other players, but his dedication and passion are what separate him from the pack.
“Bernard is a very humble person who appreciates his opportunity,” Hamilton explained. “He is focused beyond measure and does everything with a purpose.”
“His wisdom is what leads to his success,” said fellow Florida State senior big man Xavier Gibson. “He knows when to do things and when not to do things. He faces pressure with a calm demeanor and diffuses any tricky situation. He’s one of the hardest and one of the smartest workers I’ve ever been around.”
Bernard hopes to lead the Seminoles further than the previous season. Last year’s 72-71 overtime loss over VCU left a sour taste in his mouth. His goal this is to make it past the Sweet 16, something he insists his team must “take one day at a time.” He credits the fact that the military allowed him to get to where he is now. He’s thankful of his opportunities and stresses the military to anyone willing to listen.
“Military teaches discipline, how to work hard, how to be successful, and skills that will apply to any situation,” Bernard preaches. “It helps you set goals and reach them. It has helped a lot with managing my time as a student and a college basketball player. I wouldn’t be where I am now without the military.”