- Anna Katherine Clemmons
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When preseason basketball practices began at Florida State this fall, assistant coach Stan Jones received a request he'd never heard before.
Junior transfer Bernard James, getting ready for his first season with the Seminoles, had arrived on the Tallahassee campus after two years in junior college and six years of service in the Air Force. Active duty on five different continents meant James had grown accustomed to following orders.
"He said, 'Coach, I need you to start yelling at me because that's how I learned in the military,'" Jones says. "He wants people to challenge him. In my 30 years of coaching, I've never had a guy ask, 'Coach, can you yell at me more?'"
The unique request is indicative of James' unusual path to Division I college basketball. The 25-year-old Savannah, Ga., native, who garnered a double-double (15 pts, 10 reb.) in his first regular-season game on Nov. 12 against North Florida, didn't play competitive basketball until he was 17 years old.
The first time he picked up a basketball was at age 13 -- and he hated it.
"I was more of a 'climb a tree and read a book' kind of guy, and I was very into astrology," James says. "I was much more a thinker than a doer."
He never watched sports unless his friends already had a game on TV. When, on a whim, he tried out for the basketball team as a high school freshman, he was cut nine days later. "I skipped the first week-and-a-half of practice because that's when they did all the running, so when they picked up a ball, and I tried to come back, the coach wasn't having it," James chuckles. "That was the short-lived start of my hoops season."
Soon after, James dropped out of high school. "Bernard was really laid-back," says his mother, Beverly Cook. "It's not like he got in trouble, he just didn't want to go to school."
His stepfather, Darryl Cook, an Army and Air Force veteran, encouraged James to enlist in the Air Force. He told James that particular specialty would allow him to travel the world and would offer a better quality of life.
So James enlisted, and upon arriving at camp in California, he was immediately asked if he played basketball. "The first day on the job, my supervisor had a game that night," James remembers. "He asked me if I played, and I said, 'No.' Then he said, 'You do now.'"
At 6-foot-4 and growing, the then-17-year-old looked the part on the court but lacked the fundamentals that many players had developed in their teen years. James tried to be a quick study in the basic tenets of rebounding, shot-blocking and scoring and began watching basketball, mainly on tape delay through the Armed Forces Network. He soon earned a spot on the 15-member Air Force squad, comprised of the best players chosen from the over 400,000 men enlisted in the Air Force worldwide.
His Air Force teammate, Staff Sgt. Rob Grey, who is currently stationed at Travis Air Force Base in California, remembers the first time he played with James. "I put a move on him and thought I had him for a routine jump shot," Grey says. "But he busted the ball out to about the third row of the stands. He's a phenomenal athlete, but he was a really raw talent then. He's grown by leaps and bounds."
James says the Air Force competition was vastly different from college basketball stateside. Many team members were older, and several had played collegiately or in high school. The game was slower, individualized, more cerebral -- a "battle of the minds," James says.
When the Air Force squad entered the World Games, they faced many European teams with former Olympians on the roster. During his six-year stint, James earned four gold medals, including in 2008, when he led the USA All-Star team to its first International Military Sports Council championship since 1998. In the title game, he had 12 points, 18 rebounds and six blocks and was named the tournament's MVP .
Finding time for basketball wasn't always easy. He would often miss games after being called away on assignments or conduct solo practices in less-than-ideal conditions. One afternoon in Camp Bucca, Iraq, where his group was stationed to assist the Army in watching over 22,000 detainees, James practiced on the lone basketball court. The concrete court, he says, was slick as ice. Running was out of the question, so he could only stand and shoot. When he tried to pivot quickly, he twisted his kneecap, leading to a recurring injury.
During his 2005 Air Force season, the team played in a tournament in Las Vegas. One of the referees was also an ACC referee and noticed James. He called FSU coach Leonard Hamilton, telling him there was an Air Force player he might want to keep an eye on, according to Jones.
After that call, Hamilton says he reached out to Beverly Cook, who in turn asked her son to contact the head coach. "We started developing a relationship that way, but he was always back and forth on active duty, so it was difficult to keep in touch," Hamilton says. "But during the communication that we did have, it was obvious he wanted to finish his education, go to college and get his degree, and that once he got out of the service, he'd be very interested in FSU." James says other programs had reached out to him, including Clemson, but that he and his mother agreed Florida State would be the best fit.
In the fall of 2008, after completing his six years, James enrolled at Tallahassee Community College, which boasted one of the top junior college basketball programs in the nation and where he'd remain in close proximity to FSU.
During preseason conditioning, James reinjured the knee he'd aggravated in Iraq. He was diagnosed with a fractured patella and missed the entire preseason. By the time he joined his TCC teammates, "the players were so much more athletic, which was hard for me," James says. "I was used to coasting by, so that was a huge change."
Still, as TCC coach Eddie Barnes pointed out, James didn't get frustrated. He constantly asked for direction and again found himself learning through trial by fire. "He was a sponge," Barnes says. "There were no questions about his athleticism, it just came down to the fact that he'd have to create a good feel for the game." Barnes and his staff worked with James on softening his jump shot and learning how to post up as well as position himself on defense.
In two seasons with the Eagles, James averaged 13.6 points and 9.8 rebounds. He recorded 24 double-doubles and left TCC second on the school's all-time list for field goal percentage (.624), rebounds (512) and blocks (131).
Former TCC teammate Hugh Robertson, now playing at South Florida, says James' role exemplified the lessons he'd learned in the military. "He definitely was a leader, like a big brother for us all," Robertson said.
"He's just a great individual," Barnes adds. "His character and the discipline he got from the military has helped him grow to be a model citizen."
Now at FSU, the 6-foot-10, 240-pound junior joins a recruiting class ranked No. 16 in the nation by ESPN.com. The Seminoles have reformatted their offense this season, focusing on a quicker, more up-tempo style. They're 5-1 and are averaging 78.2 points per game.
James' teammates say that while he may still be learning offensive and defensive schemes, he is already a positive influence.
"Our team has a lot of upperclassmen, but he brings a whole new level of maturity," junior Luke Loucks says. "When he walks into a room, you can feel his presence."
James' mom tells the story of earlier this year, when one of James' teammates was reprimanded for his actions off the court. James took the player aside, quietly counseling him and reminding him to control his anger so that it wouldn't become a hindrance. "He wants to help in any way that he can as far as the team goes, and also personally," Cook says.
Seminoles junior forward Chris Singleton,reigning ACC Defensive Player of the Year (and whom James cites as his paradigm for defensive play), says James has helped him "learn to be a more mature player."
In the first half of FSU's 97-73 win over UNC Greensboro on Nov. 14, James entered the game at the 16-minute mark of the first half. He looked timid, waiting too long to jump for rebounds and hesitating before attempting a shot. Toward the end of the half, James set up Singleton for a monster block before garnering one of his own. During the second half, James appeared more comfortable, finishing the game with five points, four blocks and seven rebounds in 19 minutes of play.
"I came out kind of flat and wasn't as aggressive as I needed to be," James said afterward. "I let the refs bother me -- I saw the things they were calling, and I was thinking too much about trying not to get fouls called instead of going after it. In the second half, I went out and played and tried not to think about things so much."
"There's a learning curve, so we're just teaching him, being patient and allowing him to develop at the rate that he can absorb," Hamilton says of James.
There's also an element of ACC-inspired awe. "Getting in front of a big crowd in big arenas is still kind of a wow factor for him," Jones says. "But I think in the next month or so, you'll start to see what kind of great player he is."
Grey predicts his good friend will be in the NBA next year. While James isn't making forecasts, he says he'll "definitely" earn his economics degree, even if the NBA becomes an option.
On Veterans Day, James and teammate A.J. Yawn, who's currently a lieutenant in the Army (but has yet to serve active duty), visited Tallahassee's wall memorial for veterans. The two went to dinner beforehand, talking about their shared experiences and how the lessons they've learned in the military have carried over to being a part of the Seminoles squad.
"I just love basketball now; it's hypercompetitive, and that's what I love," James says. "I love going head-to-head and seeing who comes out the better man."
A love that started by following orders. When asked what he thinks now of his supervisor's command to play basketball that first evening, James smiles: "The best thing that ever happened to me."
No wonder he's asking for more.
Anna Katherine Clemmons writes for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com