by Bill DiFilippo / @bflip33
Few players have had a more unique path to the League than Dallas center Bernard James. As Grantland’s Jonathan Abrams wrote in his profile of James last year, the 6-10 big man was a high school dropout who enlisted in the military, served three tours of duty in the Air Force, took up basketball (he’s only been playing for 10 years), went to Tallahassee Community College for two years before transferring to Florida State and was eventually drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers, only to be traded to the Dallas Mavericks in a deal for Tyler Zeller.
Get all of that? Good. In his one season in Dallas, James played in 46 games and started 11, averaging 2.8 points and 2.8 rebounds per game. SLAM caught up with James to see how his first year in the League went, how his time in the Air Force helped him for what followed and what he expects from the team next season.
SLAM: How was your first year in the League?
Bernard James: It was good, man. You know, when you first get in, it’s kind of a little bit of a shock. So you see, you start to learn that it’s not really so much about what you do physically, it’s a lot more about what you can train your mind to do and how you can train your mind to think. It doesn’t matter how unathletic you are, the smartest players will get ahead in this league.
SLAM: You’re still relatively new to the game. What did one season in the NBA teach you?
BJ: It taught me exactly what I’m capable of and hard work, how far it can take me and how high I can excel.
SLAM: You’ve done three tours of duty in the Air Force. How did they help prepare you for your rookie year?
BJ: I’m watching the other rookies and I know other rookies throughout the League and just talking to these guys and hearing the things they’re going through and…the stress, it wasn’t really there for me. When I was screwing something up, or doing things right, you know, I just went about it as business as usual. If I screwed up, I made adjustments, whereas other guys, other rookies, were all stressed out and this was their first time having to deal with that professional world where people actually hold you accountable for your actions and expect things out of you. Especially not being the star player anymore, things definitely change a lot. So just being in the military, being in that structure, helped me as far as that standpoint whereas a lot of other rookies kind of get stressed out and kinda break at one point during the season and have to kind of reel themselves back in.
SLAM: Basically it was able to keep you level the entire time.
BJ: Yeah, pretty much.
SLAM: How did being a 27-year-old rookie either help or hurt you as you transitioned from Florida State to the NBA?
BJ: I really don’t think it hurt me very much just because I haven’t been playing basketball very long, so my body doesn’t have a lot of wear and tear that other guys have. I think it helped me. I really think it helped me a lot more than it actually hurt me just because I’ve gotten that life experience. I’ve seen how it is working a 9-to-5, a typical job, so I understand the opportunity in front of me and how rare this is, whereas the other guys, some other talented guys, they get to the NBA and get bounced out in a year or two because they don’t really appreciate it and don’t really put their heart into it.
SLAM: You didn’t get a lot of time as a rookie, but you did show flashed of potential, like your 12 points and 9 rebounds against Miami. What do you need to work on to get more run next year and in future years?
BJ: Well, what I have been working on—and these are things I’ve needed to improve and if I were better at in my rookie season, I would have gotten more time—my shooting, first of all, and I’ve been working on my body as well. I need to put on about 20 pounds. I’m about halfway there now, so I’ve got about 10 more left. And really just honing my footwork a little more. Those are really my main things: my strength and my jump-shooting.
SLAM: Of course, in Dallas, it’s a franchise that expects titles, with an owner in Mark Cuban and a superstar in Dirk. What do you expect from your team next season?
BJ: I fully expect a Playoff run. This year, we didn’t get it together until like the last 10-to-15 games. Had we played the entire season like we played our last 10 games, we’d have been a six seed or something like that. But it took us way too long to get that chemistry and learn to play together and to come out with that fire and that intensity that we need every game, so I think we’re gonna learn from that. We got veteran players and we’re gonna start the season off right this year and we’re not gonna have those low points like we did last year. I think we got like 10 below .500 at one point and we’re definitely not gonna do that this coming year.