Saved by the Ball
Joel James sees basketball as much more than a game.
by Dave Spahn / @davespahn
When someone sees Joel James walking down the street, the first that comes to mind probably is, ‘He must be a basketball player!’ The 6-11, 280-pound giant with absolutely massive shoulders graduated from the regular sizes and became forced to shop at the Big and Tall store. His size 17 shoes look like sailboats, and his hands look like tennis rackets. He effortlessly puts all of his skills together and dominates the hardwood. For most, Joel’s dominance does not come as a surprise. Joel, however, never even thought about playing basketball until he was 14 years old.
“I always stayed inside the house,” said Joel. “Our neighborhood that we lived in was pretty bad, and I knew I couldn’t go outside or I’d get shot. I never really had the urge to play sports where I grew up.”
Joel’s mother, Cassandra Brown, uprooted Joel’s family into a new house and school district right across the street from a community center in Palm Beach Gardens, FL. It was at the community center where Joel first started playing basketball with his little sister Kai James. Once he reached high school, however, the coaches flocked to him.
“One day in construction class before tryouts even started, we were out on the track doing work,” Joel stated. “The head basketball coach walked up to me and said, ‘Can you get two rebounds a game, and can you score two points a game?’ I said, Yeah. He said, ‘Great. I want you to play on varsity for me.’ Ever since that day, my life was changed forever.”
Joel grew up in a family of 11 children, scavenging for food and sheltered inside their undersized house. His mother barely brought in enough money to support herself, much less 11 more children of her own and a grandson as well. Meals were few and far between, and new clothes did not come in bunches. Being the caring, sensitive character he is, Joel would find himself giving away his only meal of the day to one of his multiple siblings.
“We’re a family that looks out for each other, so I would always get some for my brothers and sisters,” Joel explained. “I felt like it was my duty to have all my siblings eat first. I hated watching them suffer, so I felt a need to help them before I helped myself.”
“It was really tough not having a lot of food or stuff to go around, though. At the end of the day, I just find a way to deal with it. I became used to not having anything, so when I finally do get stuff here or there, it feels great.”
Not only is the James’ family enormous in number, every member of the family is tall. The shortest boy in the family stands at 5-11. But he’s 11 years old. His shortest sisters are both 5-10, a height very tall compared to the normal girl. His other family members range everywhere from 6-9 to 5-11. For a family that barely eats, the James family has some phenomenal size. To Joel, however, he never realized how purely massive he was compared to other kids.
“I always felt like I was a normal sized person until I started playing basketball,” Joel stated. “I would play with kids and hurt them completely on accident. I was just playing around, but I was bigger and stronger than everyone. I never realized how big I was until I stepped on the basketball court. My whole family is big, so I felt normal.”
Joel’s large stature helped lead him to countless scholarship offers. He currently has a top seven of UCLA, Florida, Florida State, Miami, North Carolina, Georgetown and West Virginia. He claims that UCLA, Florida, North Carolina and Florida State round out his top four, but he still will look at all seven of the schools on his list. When asked, about what he will look for in his future home, Joel spoke the truth.
“I’m not looking for a guaranteed starting spot or anything my freshmen year of college,” admitted Joel. “I want to out-work the starters and get the job that way. I’m just used to outworking people. I’m looking for a great education at a school that produces quality pros.”
Joel made a promise to himself that he will do everything in his power to help his family live a normal life. He sees how most people in his neighborhood take shortcuts to success that lead to prison or death. He wants long-term success for his family, something they have never experienced before. He wants to retire and become a history professor to give back to the kids who he so candidly connects with. His extreme amount of unselfishness could touch even the coldest of hearts. Determined to use basketball as a means to provide for his family, Joel’s dream of playing in the NBA could be his answer.
“I need basketball to help my family in so many ways,” Joel emphatically explained. “We don’t have to be hungry anymore. I can feed my family with basketball and take them out of poverty. It can really help change out lives.
“I just don’t want to see them have to struggle anymore, especially my mother. I want to take my family out of the ghetto and put them in a nice place so they can live a regular, worry-free life.”