Commentary

From the frontcourt to the front line

Former Miami Heat forward Tim James leaves basketball behind to join the U.S. Army

Updated: December 24, 2010, 3:37 PM ET
By Kevin Arnovitz | ESPN.com

Tim James Courtesy Brian WilsonTim James: "I'm preparing for all phases of combat. This is a full-scale training operation."

Former NBA forward Tim James spends his days training for combat missions as part of the U.S. Army's 1st Cavalry Division at Fort Hood, Texas. He shoots M16s and practices moving through potentially hostile villages on foot. In essence, James is getting an education on how not to die if and when his unit is shipped to Afghanistan in the near future, which is a likely scenario.

James grew up in the rough neighborhood of Liberty City in the northeast corner of Miami. He was a local basketball star, both in high school and college, a player known for his tenacity. After a three-year NBA career came to a close, he enlisted in the U.S. Army, during wartime. He was assigned to a division in Iraq called ODIN -- an acronym for "Observe, Detect, Identify and Neutralize."

"We pretty much get out there and catch bad guys," James said of his unit's role near Tikrit.

It's fair to classify James as a tough guy, an uncommonly brave individual who has faced risk at many turns in his life. But when he arrived at the University of Miami as a freshman, he was timid in one notable area.

"Coach [Leonard] Hamilton had to teach him how to ask a girl on a date," said Stan Jones, James' assistant coach at the University of Miami (currently an assistant at Florida State) and longtime friend. "Tim had attracted the attention of a young lady but wasn't sure how to handle it. So Coach Hamilton sat him down in his office and said, 'You can't let this drive you nuts. Here's how you approach it.'"

James ultimately found his footing in the art of courtship -- and on the court. In 1998-99, his senior season, he shared Big East player of the year honors with Richard Hamilton.

From there, James was drafted 25th overall in the 1999 NBA draft by his hometown Miami Heat, logged 43 games for three teams over three NBA seasons, and then played in Asia and Europe. Once he sensed his basketball career was winding down, he began to look for the next thing. Being dormant or vacillating between careers wasn't an acceptable option.

"I wanted to experience a new part of my life," James said. "And I wanted to make a sacrifice."

In September 2008, James made a five-year commitment to the United States Army.

Forgetting and Remembering

On Nov. 2 -- nine days before Veterans Day -- Americans went to the polls to cast their ballots in the 2010 midterm elections. According to CNN, only 8 percent of voters declared the U.S. military efforts overseas as the most important issue facing the country. While James and hundreds of thousands like him fight or prepare themselves for combat, what once was a matter of intense and important national debate has receded in our collective consciousness.

[+] EnlargeTim James
Courtesy of the Miami HeatAfter an All-American career at The U, Tim James was drafted by his hometown Heat in the '99 draft.

Readiness is the most vital issue in James' mind as he wakes up every morning for field training in Texas. James says his yearlong deployment in Iraq, while eye-opening and not entirely stress-free, proceeded without any major hitches.

"Going in not knowing what to expect, going into a new career field, I didn't really know what to expect," James said. "The 12 months went relatively smoothly aside from hearing a lot of loud bangs."

In July, James returned stateside to his home base at Fort Hood, where the members of his ODIN unit dispersed. James was assigned to the 1st Cavalry Division, which is the largest division in the U.S. Army. Its mandate is far more sweeping than anything James encountered during his first deployment in Iraq.

"This is like a 360 from the unit I just left," James said. "I'm preparing for all phases of combat. This is a full-scale training operation."

Traditionally, the 1st Cavalry Division often finds itself on the front lines. Although James has no definite orders for deployment, there's a reasonable expectation that he'll find himself in Afghanistan in the coming days, and that's the mission for which he's preparing. The military campaign might now be an afterthought for a country preoccupied with its economic malaise, but the stakes remain for James and those who care about him.

Global and Local

"Everyone in Miami knew who Tim was," Heat forward and South Florida native Udonis Haslem said. "If you grew up around here, Tim was someone you followed."

Another current Heat player, James Jones, also followed James -- both literally and figuratively. As a middle school kid growing up in Miami, Jones would go with friends to watch James at holiday tournaments and big rivalry games.

"He epitomized Miami basketball," Jones said. "He was able to maneuver that landscape and do something that no guy from this community had ever done, which was to come from home, become an All-American, set records at the University of Miami and play for the Miami Heat."

The year after James graduated from the University of Miami and entered the NBA, Jones became a Cane. Even though they never played together at Coral Gables, the two struck a friendship that continued long after James' career was over and Jones entered the league.

"It was like a mentor, big-brother relationship because he'd done everything that I was trying to do before I did it," Jones said.

The way Jones talks about James, you'd never know it was James who had the abbreviated NBA career while Jones established himself as a steady rotation player. Although Jones certainly harbors some of the residual wide-eyed worship the 14-year-old squirt has for the local hero, the admiration is rooted in something deeper. It's not even about James' military service, per se, even though that's something Jones thinks the world of. It's about the temperament and fortitude that led James to do what he's doing, even though he had every reason in the world not to.

"There's an inner will that certain people have. I, myself, couldn't do it," Jones said. "It's not that I'm physically incapable of doing it or a coward. But there's just something inside other people that draws them toward that. Tim has that. Me, I couldn't do it. That's what makes him special."

Intuition and Counter-intuition

For a lot of guys who come from hard neighborhoods, athletics is a way out. Sports offers a pass to a better life, a way to avoid random violence and the nearly unavoidable hazards that surface in a large number of places.

Basketball did that for James. It gave him, his mother and his young son better lives, yet James has willfully put himself back in harm's way. If he ends up in Afghanistan, there's no assurance he'll be safe, no matter how diligent he is in the field. Why work so hard and come so far only to subject yourself to chance?

[+] EnlargeTim James
Brian Wilson Tim James, now a member of the U.S. Army's 1st Cavalry Division, spent a full year in Iraq.

"The circumstances are dramatically different," James said. "If you're going to lose your life, you want to lose your life for a purpose. Sacrificing for your country supersedes the notion of dying for nothing in the inner city streets. What I'm doing has tremendous meaning."

James aggressively rejects the prerogatives that come with being a former pro athlete. When he arrived at basic training in 2008, he didn't tell a soul he had played NBA basketball.

"The military is a different culture," James said. "This was about me moving out from one facet of my life to another. I went through the same drills, the same training, and was held to the same standards as the next guy in line."

It wasn't until he took to the court for a game of pickup with a few sergeants in Iraq that this identity came out.

"I think some of them were shocked," James said. "A lot of them just thought I was some tall guy walking around. And then I go out to play. There's some macho bravado, and guys like to prove a little something."

Drawing metaphors between sports and combat is virtually unavoidable. Point guards attack. Perimeter threats are dead-eyed shooters. Big men battle under the boards. But as someone who's watching his friend from afar, James Jones can't fathom that parallel. He fully understands why so few athletes, despite their physical prowess, would ever consider military service. And it's not just about the money, comfort and freedom they'd have to sacrifice.

"You can poll guys around the NBA or professional athletes in general, and most of them would tell you that what we do is just a game," Jones said. "What [military personnel] do is real life. As much as we beat our chests, we're still stepping inside a box that has rules and referees. It's a very controlled environment. Whereas where Tim is, it's total chaos."

Confidence and Fear

By all accounts, James is a humble man who, while riveted by life's challenges, prefers to summon his competitive spirit without a lot of noise. When he first arrived at the University of Miami, he was more track star than basketball savant and needed a lot of refinement.

"Initially, we started challenging him with footwork and technique, and it almost overwhelmed him," Stan Jones said. "But his character allowed him to become one of the most quiet -- but fierce -- competitors I've ever coached at any level. He was never a guy jumping up and down in the locker room, but if you started talking about matchups and how talented the other guy was, you'd see that focus in his eyes."

James Jones got a taste of that the first time he stepped on the court for a pickup game. This was the summer James was drafted by the Heat and Jones was matriculating at The U. The game was a slice of who's who of Miami basketball, including pros like Glen Rice. James and Jones were matched up.

"I proceeded to come in and make a couple of jump shots," Jones said. "But after the first two or three 3s, I couldn't even get a shot up from that moment on. He flipped the switch. He never said a word, just did what he needed to do."

Dobbs My mom told me that [Tim Jr.] asked, 'Is Daddy over there with the tanks and the shooting?' She said he had a couple of tears come through his eyes. He knew I was in a hostile environment. I just have to reassure him that Daddy's going to come back home.

-- Tim James

James set up a unique set of challenges for himself when he enlisted. Among the personal costs for James, who is single, was leaving the primary caretaking responsibilities for his son, who is now 6, to James' mother in South Carolina. Initially, the hardest part of leaving Tim Jr. was basic separation anxiety. But as Tim Jr. gets older, his father has to grapple with a new variable.

"Right after my deployment to Iraq, he began to understand that Daddy's in danger," James said. "I remember going to his school before I deployed. I was in uniform. And I could tell he was beginning to put two and two together. After I went over, my mom told me that he asked, 'Is Daddy over there with the tanks and the shooting?' She said he had a couple of tears come through his eyes. He knew I was in a hostile environment. I just have to reassure him that Daddy's going to come back home."

James realizes there's a trace of well-intended dishonesty in this kind of parental comfort. It's a reassurance rooted more in faith than in certitude because James wasn't 100 percent sure he'd come home from Iraq. And if he ends up in combat in Afghanistan, those odds become even less favorable. The process of instilling hope in his son isn't getting any easier for either one of them.

"It's hard on both of us but probably more so for me," James said. "He might not understand everything, but for me, I understand the ramifications."

One of the ramifications James has been thinking a little about lately is the possibility that front-line combat might change him indelibly. Confronting carnage, knowing that you might have to contribute to it as a killer or watching those you pledge tactical support to die can do radical things to human beings.

"You like to think that it won't change you, but you know that war can have an effect, whether it's physically or mentally," James said. "I think it is a worry of mine. You never know what you're going to see, what you're going to have to do and how it will affect you."

Fast and Slow

Until then, James continues to embrace his training at Fort Hood, and he's thoroughly enjoying it. Even with all the life complications, distance from loved ones and potential danger, he sees the military as a unique place where an individual can serve and obtain a special kind of education. The growth that's associated with that process and the people imparting those lessons nourish him through his commitment.

"There's so much to learn from people who've had four or five deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq," James said. "There are so many people who have come from so many backgrounds. It's seemed like these two years have just flown by so fast, honestly. But I'm just taking everything in slowly."

That combination of fast and slow works for James. It allows him time to absorb but also challenges him to pick up what he needs to learn quickly. He's been heartened by the maturation of his leadership skills, to say nothing of his expert rank at the shooting range. Lately, the prospect of serving as a career officer seems increasingly attractive. He's confident that, if he's deployed, his sacrifice will translate into success. But he's also aware that all the preparation and devotion in the world don't guarantee anything.

"I really do believe that every soldier is a professional," James said. "We receive the best training in the world. But on the human side, everyone has a little bit of fear going in. I don't think that affects the mission. We're going in confident that we're going to complete it. But the human element of fear? Yes. You are a little afraid that you may not make it back. You might not see your family ever again, and they won't see you again. I think that's in the back of the mind of everyone who wears a uniform."

Kevin Arnovitz is an NBA contributor for ESPN.com.