'What kind of soldier is James?'
...There is much more. I remember watching him play against the Rockets. He is an example of true patriotism. We should all appreciate his service.
``A tall one,'' says his captain, Curt Byron.
Byron is a rugged military man who has flown UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters 50 feet over Iraq. He is responsible for the training, safety, mission accomplishment, health and morale of more than 120 men in Task Force ODIN (Observe, Detect, Identify, Neutralize). Company motto: ODIN's fury. Byron met his wife at West Point, and she is a company commander for a military intelligence unit in Korea.
Point is, Byron has seen and heard some war stories, but he has never before heard and seen one like this:
A former NBA player in the Army who nobody knew was a former NBA player?
James hasn't shared his past with fellow soldiers. Quiet, remember? Humble, too. He wanted to be just another teammate. So none of James' fellow soldiers knew he used to play pro basketball, though they all said he should have after he scorched those younger soldiers in a pickup game one day during training. He didn't tell them after that, either.
``I wanted this experience to be raw,'' James says now. ``Start a new life. I wanted to understand new minds and new ways of thinking. I've been in basketball since I was 8. I didn't want to have a basketball conversation every day.''
I wanted this to be a different experience.''
He carries only two basketball reminders with him. A UM basketball card and a Heat basketball card. He keeps them in plastic around his neck, tucked behind a photo of his 5-year-old son, hidden under his uniform. He takes them out, in his words, ``to drift off on the bad days.''
James had to get military clearance to talk for this story. That's how his commanding officer finally found out SPC Tim James used to be an NBA millionaire. Byron is not easily impressed, but he finds the fact that James didn't tell anyone he was an NBA player even more amazing than the fact that he was an NBA player.
``I'm kind of in awe,'' the captain says.
James isn't running through the sand avoiding unrelenting machine-gun fire. This isn't Pat Tillman, though it is about the closest thing sports has seen since the late Tillman left the football Arizona Cardinals. James isn't someone who craves a fire fight. He just wants to help. He is on an air base in an area his captain describes as ``dusty, barren and isolated.''
His remaining 11 months in Iraq should go by without him ever having to go beyond the airfield's wires. James hasn't heard enemy fire in his month there.
He works 12-hour shifts every day, with one day off every two weeks. He has trained to throw grenades and lay down mines, but what he's doing these days is helping fuel planes and helicopters. It is, in the words of his captain, ``one of the least appreciated jobs and one of the most important. One of the hardest-working units we have -- easily.''
Word on the base is now spreading that James was an NBA player, so during the hottest and dirtiest days, fellow soldiers will ask: What the hell are you doing here? You chose this?
You ever doubt your decision, Tim?
``Absolutely not,'' he says. ``To be able to support and defend freedom gives me great joy. A lot of people have died for something many Americans take for granted. I wake up every day knowing I'm doing something important with my life. This is so fulfilling. Keeping our country safe gives me great purpose.''
But what if that means having to kill someone?