When Florida State forward Bernard James makes his first ACC road trip this season, don't expect him to show much fear - or awe.
"He's not someone who is going to be intimidated when he plays in Cameron Indoor Stadium or the Dean Dome," said Eddie Barnes, his former coach at Tallahassee Community College, " because he's faced tougher things, in tougher places, than that."
Nine years ago, James was a 16-year-old high school dropout, working odd jobs while trying to find some direction in his life. Three years ago, he was stationed at Camp Bucca in Southern Iraq, dodging mortar shells as a member of the Air Force military police assigned to help the Army keep watch on 22,000 prisoners.
Now, at age 25 (he turns 26 in February) he'll no doubt be one of the oldest juniors ever to play in the ACC when practice begins this fall.
"It is kind of a Cinderella story," Barnes said in a phone interview last week. "... And it might be hard for people to cheer against him, once they hear it."
James was not available to be interviewed for this story, as FSU prohibits basketball newcomers (of any age) from talking to the media before the season starts. But expect the physical power forward to be asked quite a few questions, and quite often, once he takes the court.
After all, the 6-foot-10, 240-pounder hadn't even played organized basketball until after he dropped out of Windsor Forest High in Savannah, Ga., as a sophomore, earned his GED and enlisted, with the permission of his parents, as a 17-year old.
"The way he tells it, one of his commanders asked him if he played basketball - and then told him, 'Yes, you do,' " Barnes said. "... I don't think B.J. was high on the idea at first, but it was probably the best thing that happened to him ... because at that point, he didn't have any goals or direction."
The military and basketball changed all that, however.
James served six years with the Air Force military police, spending three tours in outposts such as Iraq and Qatar, and finished duty as a staff sergeant. On the court he was a natural athlete, plus he grew five inches. He eventually made the U.S. Armed Forces all-star team and attracted the notice of several programs across the country - including Seminoles coach Leonard Hamilton, who Barnes said helped steer the player to TCC.
The first time Barnes saw James practice, he didn't have the best mechanics, "but I'd see him go for a rebound, and B.J.'s hands were up above everyone else getting the ball. ... He was long and bouncy, swatting everything away, and I'm saying, 'Wow.' "
Slowly but surely, TCC's coaches taught him about angles, defensive positioning - and how to score besides dunking.
"And he was just like a sponge, taking everything in," Barnes said.
Eventually, James improved both his confidence and his shooting range. He finished his juco career with 24 double-doubles and ranked second on TCC's all-time list for field-goal percentage (.624), rebounds (512) and blocks (131).
At FSU, he'll join a team that lost forwards Solomon Alabi and Ryan Reid to the NBA but is expected to push its way into the top third of the ACC standings. And although he's older than his teammates, his former coach said James has more room, and time, to grow.
"What people are going to see is a very athletic guy who is going influence play from the defensive end, influence [opponents'] shots," James said.
And who won't be scared to do so.
Don't expect the ACC basketball schedules to be released until early September. That's a couple of weeks later than usual.
New Wake Forest coach Jeff Bzdelik is renting a house in Winston-Salem until his home in Colorado sells. "One elderly lady came up to me and said, 'Maybe it's a good thing you're renting - let's see how you do here, first,' " Bzdelik said, chuckling at the memory.
Fans of Duke guard Nolan Smith now have another place to follow the high-scoring senior, besides Twitter. Last month he launched his own blog, ndotsmitty.com. Smith wrote in his first post that he wants to use to "become more connected with all of you."
Other posts include a diary of what he's been doing over the summer (working on his shooting range, playing for the USA Select Team), and a video of him showing off his "hidden talent" - singing. (Note the "LOL" in the title.)
Information from the Tallahassee Democrat was used in this column.
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