- Frank Hughes
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I hate to admit it, but I kind of missed the big lug.
Perhaps it was because I had not seen -- or, more appropriately, heard -- Jerome James in about six months that I guess I had forgotten just how amusing and endearing that deep baritone voice can be, even while knowing that two-thirds of what comes out of that smile is pure fertilizer.
But it was good to see and hear 7-foot-1 James, who will play against the Seattle SuperSonics tonight for the first time since leaving them for the Isiah Thomas-bestowed riches ($30 million) of the New York Knicks.
It was good to know he hasn't changed, hasn't been jaded by the features of the five boroughs, hasn't allowed his mama's advice to keep that trap clamped to make him stay quiet or docile for long.
James is, was and always will be a talker; he should have been a preacher. He'd just need a bigger church and a wider pulpit. When Thomas informed the players Monday that Quentin Richardson had left the team for personal reasons, it was James who stood hovering over the huddle and led everybody in prayer, after which several folks heading for the team bus expressed admiration for his oratorical skills.
But before we get ahead of ourselves, let's throw this doozy at you to complete the dichotomy.
Earlier this season, on this very Web site, it was opined that the five-year contract James inked was the worst free-agent signing of the summer, given his history.
Said James in response: "It's early. Before it is all over, they will be chanting my name and lifting me up on their shoulders and carrying me around the building."
James didn't really clarify who "they" were, whether it was the editors at ESPN.com who published the opinion, his teammates or the Madison Square Garden fans who would like nothing better than to get their hands on James. Come to think of it, he didn't really specify which building, either; maybe he was thinking about one of the ESPN commercials in which athletes go into the network's headquarters and hang out.
Either way, it was a bold statement for a man who has 15 fouls, six turnovers and 11 points in his first 38 minutes of play in a Knickerbockers uni and has career averages of 4.9 points and 3.5 rebounds. Not sure I can remember the last player sporting those numbers who was carried around the building on "their" shoulders. Maybe Rudy Ruettiger, but that was for hard work and dedication, and um, well, yeah ...
I don't really have a drunk uncle, at least not one who comes to Thanksgiving dinner, but if I did, I imagine he'd be like James, making outrageous statements that amuse but can't be taken too literally or seriously.
In any case, this is the story about a man named James, who was tearing up the Sacramento Kings in the playoffs the last time we saw him, waving around a garbage bag from a partially fictional story and making one wonder why a physical specimen of his height and girth has not been more effective over the course of what can be described only as an unfulfilled, and unfulfilling, career.
Sonics All-Star Ray Allen, who took it upon himself to mentor James last season in an effort to get the most possible production from him, has an interesting theory on the often frustrating approach of a man who is playing basketball only because he was spotted walking across the Florida A&M campus one day and a coach thought to himself, "Hmm, why isn't that tall guy on my team?"
"We all played youth basketball, we played in AAU programs, we always had somebody hovering over our backs to make sure we did the right thing basketballwise," Allen said. "Jerome was just thrown out there because of his height and told, 'Just stand out there and put your hands up when somebody shoots.'
"Then he started to realize he was good at it. But I don't know if he ever had to run or dribble or work hard to understand what basketball was about. Now people say he doesn't work hard or he doesn't want it. But Jerome was never one who had to thrive on basketball growing up. He doesn't live, sleep and breathe basketball like I did when I was growing up.
"Now people want to criticize him for it. But he grew up with a different train of thought."
In a way, James did this to himself, raised expectations beyond what they ever had been, because he had such a scintillating playoff series against the Kings, which hoodwinked Thomas into setting James up for life, at 30 years old and with creaky knees and weight issues.
In that series, which Seattle dominated, James, playing against his former team, averaged 17.2 points, 9.4 rebounds and 2.2 blocks -- after a regular season in which he averaged five points and three rebounds.
"I don't think Jerome did anything that was outside his abilities," Allen said. "He was playing like he is 7-feet, being athletic. That is what he is supposed to do. I don't know what's going on in New York as far as the team chemistry, or even his motivation to get out there and play. Jerome, he has tendencies to go out and be lazy."
To be fair, James has pulled his hamstring three times since the start of training camp and never has been able to get healthy or into shape. Whether he suffered those injuries because he came into camp fat and happy, only he knows. On top of that, the Knicks traded for Eddy Curry, relegating James to a backup role.
But the question always will remain: If you had that series against the Kings, which earned you wild and perhaps undeserved riches, why can't you produce like that on a consistent basis?
"If the opportunity and situation calls for it, yes, I have always been capable of providing it," James said. "If that is asked of me in New York, then I am more than capable of providing it. If not, whatever role I can fit into to win games like we did here in Seattle, then that is my honest, utmost intention."
Whether you believe that or not, it certainly sounds good.
Frank Hughes, who covers the NBA for The (Tacoma, Wash.) News Tribune, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
2hMichael C. Wright