"I honestly wouldn't be playing basketball if it wasn't for the Air Force. I might be messing around, but I wouldn't be playing competitively," said Bernard James, a former staff sergeant, who served in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait, and Qatar between 2003 and 2008, and is now, at age 27, a first-year center for the Mavs.
During his time in the Air Force, James was a security forces airman working base security in Qatar, customs in Kuwait, and as a prison guard at Camp Bucca, Iraq.
James said he joined the Air Force at a lofty six feet, five inches, and eventually grew five more inches.
His supervisor was TSgt. Erick Dumas, who at the time coached the Air Force intramural basketball team. Despite coming from a family with four older brothers who all played basketball, James originally had no interest in the game. That is, until Dumas convinced him to play.
"He asked me if I played basketball. I said, 'No,' and he said, 'You do now,'" recalled James in an interview with the Daily Report.
Although James enjoyed the camaraderie of the Air Force, he dealt with a lot of stress, which he said basketball helped to relieve.
"When you're on deployment, you do anything to keep yourself focused away" from the hardships of serving away from home, he said. "At every base I was at, I was lucky to find a basketball court."
In 2005, James represented the Air Force in the Armed Forces All Star Game, where Florida State head coach Leonard Hamilton discovered him. The coach kept an eye on James and offered him a scholarship after his last deployment in 2008, which James accepted.
In his junior year at FSU, James established himself as a defensive force en route to Florida State's 2011 run to the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Tournament. Despite his impressive performance, it wasn't until later that summer that James realized he could one day be an NBA player.
While Florida State did not get as far in the 2012 tournament, James was impressive during his senior season, averaging 10.8 points, 8.1 rebounds, and 2.3 blocks per game for the year.
On June 28, 2012, James and his family sat anxiously at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., along with hundreds of other NBA hopefuls to await the results of the NBA draft.
"I had some nerves, I was all jittery,” he recounted. "I was just beginning to make sense of everything that was going on. It didn't feel real yet."
It became real when the Cleveland Cavaliers selected James in the second round as the 33rd overall pick. As James walked to the podium to shake the hand of NBA Deputy Commissioner Adam Silver, the crowd's patriotic chants of "U-S-A! U-S-A!" accompanied him.
"That was completely unexpected," said James. "It really touched me to see all those fans from different teams come together and cheer for one person."
That same night, the Cavs traded James to the Mavs.
A month later, James signed a two-year contract worth a guaranteed $473,604.
He expects to primarily be a bench player this season, but has hopes of one day fulfilling a larger role.
Read the day's top news on the US Air Force, airpower, and national security issues.
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