Even at 25, Florida State junior Bernard James looks and plays like a lot of college forwards: At 6'10", 240 pounds, he's long, athletic and quietly productive, averaging 7.3 points, 6.0 rebounds and is tied for the team lead with 2.8 blocks off the bench for the 6--2 Seminoles. But unlike most of his D-I brethren James never played high school or AAU ball and never harbored childhood goals of reaching the NBA. In fact, as a high schooler he had no goals at all. "Slacker is a good word for what I was," he says.
James was cut from the freshman basketball team at Windsor Forest High in Savannah when he skipped the first week of tryouts. He blew off school, too, falling so far behind that he twice had to repeat the ninth grade. At 16 he dropped out, obtained his GED and, not long after his 17th birthday, joined the Air Force. On his first day at Beale AFB in Northern California, his supervisor noted his lanky 6'5" frame and essentially ordered him to report to a base basketball game that night. "I scored a few baskets, got a bunch of blocked shots and rebounds, and we won," recalls James of his first organized game. "It felt good to succeed at something."
Over the next six years James grew five inches and, between deployments to Qatar, Kuwait and Iraq, blossomed into a star for various Air Force and Armed Forces teams. In 2005 he was playing in a tournament at Nellis AFB in Las Vegas when an ACC ref working the games told him he had the skills to play big-time college hoops. Soon after, his parents were contacted by a handful of ACC coaches, including Florida State's Leonard Hamilton. "He told me if I worked harder than everybody, I would earn the things I wanted," says James. "From being in the military I know that's how life works."
On breaks from his job as a guard at the prison at Camp Bucca, Iraq—which once housed 22,000 suspected terrorists—during his last deployment, in 2007, James would retreat to the camp's sand-swept outdoor court and try to perfect his shot. "A strong wind blew about 90 percent of the time during the day," he says. "I'd have to shoot toward the sidelines for the ball to go anywhere near the goal."
After his military stint ended in 2008, James enrolled at Tallahassee Community College, where he averaged 13.6 points and 9.8 rebounds and carried a 3.0 GPA. An economics major, he would like to match his TCC numbers eventually. "Bernard's a hard worker, so you know he'll get better," says Hamilton.
James's military-influenced example—"He's never late to anything," says junior forward Chris Singleton—could be as critical as his production while the 'Noles try to avoid a repeat of last year's second-half swoon (after a 13--2 start, they finished 22--10) and improve on their third-place ACC finish. "Whether it's a game or a battle, you have to stick together," says James. "Otherwise you're going to get beat."
Now on SI.com
For Luke Winn's Power Rankings and the latest news, go to SI.com/cbb
VETERAN PRESENCE James, who served one tour in Iraq, was noticed by an ACC ref working a tournament at Nellis Air Force Base.
[See caption above]