The NBA Draft often plays host to the stories of surprising professional athletes, but Thursday’s 2012 version saw the capping of a particularly unlikely narrative. 27-year-old Bernard James was selected by the Cleveland Cavaliers (on behalf of the Dallas Mavericks, who had negotiated the pick in a deal with Cleveland) with the 33rd pick of the draft, having just spent four years with the Florida State Seminoles. James’ age would make him special enough — he’s the oldest player to get picked in the last 20 years.
But the real story behind James is his previous job: he served six years in the Air Force, starting at age 17. His stint included three tours of duty in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Qatar, serving as military law enforcement. Even though he only started playing at 14 or 15, he says, FSU coach Leonard Hamilton spotted him at an Armed Forces tournament in Las Vegas and gave him a scholarship. Of his past life, James told USA Today:
“I think there’s a huge difference between me and other players, right down to my mindset and how I approach things every day. A lot of these kids haven’t seen a whole lot in their lives. For many of them, all they know is basketball. They’ve been playing since they were about eight years old and they don’t realize what it’s like in the real world, having a real job and working for $30,000 or $40,000 a year. I’ve definitely learned not to let a single day go to waste.”
I watched James play for Florida State as a senior last year. Although he’s far from a flashy, game-changing player — you wouldn’t really expect that type of guy going in the second round anyway — James has size, athleticism, and energy that should make him effective in the NBA as a rebounding/defensive specialist and occasional shot-blocker. Because he was a second-rounder, James now needs to earn his contract, so the road isn’t quite over yet.