The NBA continues its long history of supporting America’s service members and their families with special activities planned around Veterans Day.
In a partnership with “NBA Cares Hoops for Troops” and the Department of Defense, NBA teams will host events to recognize active and retired service members. NBA and WNBA players and legends will visit military medical centers, and NBA players will wear special adidas on-court apparel to commemorate the holiday.
This season the NBA has its own veteran to celebrate, Dallas Mavericks rookie Bernard James. Before the 6-foot-10 center made a name for himself as a standout defensive player at Florida State, James served as staff sergeant in the Air Force. Over six years (2003-08), he completed three tours of duty in Iraq, Qatar and Afghanistan.
At Florida State, James was one of the most decorated players in school history, receiving the Most Courageous Award by the United States Basketball Writers of America and the Bob Bradley Spirit and Courage award by the AAC.
On June 28, at the NBA Draft at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., NBA deputy commissioner Adam Silver announced that the Dallas Mavericks selected James with the 33rd pick. James rose to his feet and the fans in attendance began a rousing chant of “USA! USA!” as James made his way to the stage.
As James shook Silver’s hand and donned a Mavericks cap, he became unique in the league: a 27-year-old rookie and proud war veteran.
Here’s James in his own words:
Q: The “USA!” chant was one of those spontaneous, spine-tingling moments. Did it take you by surprise?
A: Yeah, it did, it did. Everybody else, from No. 1 to No. 32, half the crowd would boo and half the crowd would cheer. So everybody coming together like that was a really good feeling. It kind of gave me a reminder that there’s still a lot of patriotism out there.
Q: Your stepfather served in the Army and growing up you lived both overseas and in the United States. You left high school in Savannah, Ga., at age 16 after the 10th grade. You joined the Air Force at age 17. What was your motivation to join the service?
A: One, I love to travel, so in the military you travel all the time. I really wanted to get out and kind of do my own thing, see the world, experience things, grow up. I grew up in a military family so I knew all about the regimen and discipline aspect of that type of lifestyle, so I knew that would help me and get me back on the right track.
Q: You joined the Air Force in 2002, not long after 9/11 and not long before the start of the Iraq war. You must have had a good idea that you would likely serve in a combat zone. How did you mentally prepare for that?
A: My dad gave me the rundown on everything. He fought in Desert Storm, so he gave me the rundown on war time and peace time. The fact that we were in war time, that was actually a plus for me because I knew I would actually be doing something and not just sitting around at some base in the middle of nowhere waiting for something to happen, I’d be out there doing something that the country needed. That was part of it and it didn’t really scare me because the military prepares you very well for everything you’re going to face. As long as you pay attention to the training and really, really focus and learn your job, odds are you’re going to be OK.
Q: You completed three tours of duty in Iraq, Qatar and Afghanistan. Is there one defining moment during your six years of service in the Middle East?
A: When I was in Iraq, at Camp Bucca, a base in Southern Iraq near the Kuwaiti border, I was involved in a mortar attack. That was probably the most dangerous situation I was in. I worked in a detainment facility. We had 22,000 detainees suspected of different acts of terrorism, and one day in September ‘07, a mortar hit my compound. I was probably 75, 50 feet away and it just like blew me back a few feet, knocked me on my butt. I couldn’t really hear very well for a couple days. Six detainees were killed, another 67 were injured. No Americans were hurt, but that day was like complete chaos, and just for like the next five or six hours, just trying to get everything back under control and account for everybody, it was crazy.
Q: After completing your military commitment, you returned to the U.S. and enrolled at Tallahassee Community College before putting together two defensively dominant seasons at Florida State. How did you handle your adjustment back to civilian life?
A: It’s really tough. Even when you’re still in the military and when you come back to the States it’s tough just because over there it really makes you appreciate everything that you have here. I don’t know, you get back and people are complaining that their drink isn’t cold enough or it’s hot outside and it’s like 95 degrees. In Iraq it gets like 140. And just some of the things you deal with in day-to-day life just don’t really seem to matter, they don’t seem important to you when looking at the big picture, after going through a lot of the things you go through over there. It’s a big adjustment to try to get back to everyday life and interact with people on a normal basis. It’s something you struggle with for a while. I think I still deal with it now from time to time. I’ll be talking about something with my friends and they’ll just be complaining about something and I just start to think like, ‘Wow, really?’ But it’s a process. Some people I feel like can handle it a little better and manage it a little better and for other people they just can’t make that adjustment back to regular life.
Q: During World War II, a number of professional athletes interrupted their careers to serve in the military. Obviously the most notable modern athlete was Pat Tillman, who was killed in Afghanistan. Did your teammates at Florida State and do your new teammates with the Mavericks demonstrate interest in your military career?
A: Yeah, both places, here and Florida State. At Florida State, there’s a lot younger guys, so they ask me a lot more questions, just about what we did over there and a lot of them would even ask me what’s this war about. They would ask me questions what I did. Have I ever killed anybody, I get asked that a lot for some reason.
Q: With the longevity of the War on Terror, news from the combat zone often seems to get pushed to the back burner. On Veteran’s Day, what would you like tell ordinary American citizens about the soldiers carrying on the fight in Afghanistan?
A: I would just want to tell them to imagine the men and women that are still in service over there now, imagine them as your family members. What if that was your daughter or your son over there? That’s the type of support they need is like the support you would give a family member, even from complete strangers. You know, sending a care package or even a thank you letter. That’s something that helps a lot when you’re over there. You go through some really stressful situations so just to know that somebody that you don’t even know, or somebody that you do know is telling you thank you, that they’re thinking about you, is a really good feeling. A lot of times over there, you’re so cut off that sometimes it feels like you don’t exist anymore, like you as a person, not as a soldier. It feels like you don’t even exist anymore, so just to kind of get that reassurance, I guess, or that reminder that there are still people that are thinking about you, that love you and care about you. It’s a really good feeling.
Q: Do you hear from friends in the military and even people you don’t know in the military rooting you on as you begin your NBA career?
A: Yeah, all the time, man. I still have a bunch of friends that actually have my phone number, guys that I knew when I was in the military, they text me all the time and call me. But I get a lot of other people, people I’ve never met, either military family members or in the military themselves just telling me that they’re really proud of me and way to represent the military. I’m on like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, stuff like that all the time.