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UNC’s Joel James overcomes rough, late start to get to Final Four

When they were younger, Kai James followed her older brother, Joel, everywhere. Through dangerous streets that were made safer by his presence. To the comic book store, where he nurtured his passion for the Transformers.

She followed him to the Northwood Youth Empowerment Center, a haven for kids who grew up in the worst part of West Palm Beach, Fla., in a neighborhood, Kai said, where there were “different gangs that were literally right on our front door.”

That’s where Joel James began to play basketball – in that youth center in that neighborhood. He was 15 then. Now he’s a senior at North Carolina, a lumbering 6-foot-11 reserve forward who on Wednesday night arrived in Houston with the rest of his teammates for the Final Four.

James these days has said he doesn’t like talking about how far he’s come from the old crime-ridden neighborhood, one his sister described recently as “impoverished” and decimated by violence and drugs. Things that a lot of people take for granted, like a bed, they lacked growing up.

“None of us ever really had a bed until we got to college,” said Kai, a junior on the women’s basketball team at Florida State who, along with James, is one of 12 siblings. “That’s the first time we ever got a bed.

“Let’s just say it’s something that a lot of people take for granted until you don’t have one.”

Before he arrived at Northwood Youth Empowerment Center, Joel had never played in an organized basketball game. He learned the rules, learned the game and he began playing during his sophomore year at Dwyer High in West Palm Beach.

Now here he is, six years later, approaching his final days as a member of the UNC basketball team. His time at UNC, at least on the court, might not have gone as he envisioned. James has usually been a reserve who enters games a few minutes at a time, does his part and then leaves.

Recruited with little experience

Playing time has been sometimes scarce. His role limited. And yet James has stuck with it.

“A lot of people, especially in today’s day and age – the transfer rate gets higher and higher every year,” Marcus Paige, the senior guard, said recently. “And he doesn’t play probably as much as he would have liked throughout his career. But he’s stuck with it.

“Coach (Roy Williams) loves him. He loves coach.”

Indeed, Williams and James share something of a unique relationship. It isn’t often, after all, that a college coach anywhere – let alone one at a place like UNC – recruits a player whose basketball experience was as limited as James’.

Had Williams ever recruited another who started playing the game so late?

“Not that jumps right out at me,” Williams said earlier this week. “I mean, this is a kid who had his first organized basketball game was when he was a 10th grader.”

[68 seconds of dadgum Roy]

[Tar Heels head to Houston, Final Four]

James arrived in the same recruiting class as Paige, who was a high school All-American, and Brice Johnson, who played for his father growing up, and J.P. Tokoto, who left school after his junior season to pursue a professional year. All three of them – Paige, Johnson and Tokoto – had grown up playing basketball.

And then there was James. He was especially awkward on the court back then. Footwork didn’t come naturally, and his rawness was apparent. Sometimes his teammates tried to help, but that often just caused James more frustration.

“I asked him,” Williams said, “I said, ‘Do you want me to coach you and tell everybody us to shut the blankety-blank up and leave you alone?’ He said, ‘Yes.’ I asked Dexter (Strickland) I said when did you start playing basketball? He said 6 years old.

“And I asked J.P. and he said about 5 or something like that – I don’t know if I’ll get it exactly right. And I said, ‘Well this guy started when he was a sophomore in high school, leave him alone. Let me coach him.’ 

Avoiding the surrounding environment

James has started 29 games during his four seasons at UNC. Entering the Final Four in Houston, where UNC on Saturday will play against Syracuse in a national semifinal, he has played in 129 games.

He will graduate in a little more than a month with a degree in history. He has served on various student-athlete leadership councils at UNC and through the NCAA.

All after a life, growing up, of avoiding the perils of his environment. Among some of the other neighborhood kids from James’ childhood, “A lot of them are dead,” Kai said.

“A lot of them are in jail, too,” she said.

Kai told a story about one of her brothers who was sitting out on the front steps in front of the family’s house. Out of nowhere a bullet grazed him, she said.

At home, Kai said, she and Joel always received encouragement from their parents to look around the neighborhood and absorb the reality of it. Did they want to remain in that environment? Or did they want something more?

That, in part, is what led Joel to the Northwood Youth Empowerment Center. And what led his sister to follow him there.

“They instilled hard work in us,” Kai said of her parents. “And they made us understand from a young age to make something of yourself, or look at your surroundings and you’ll become your surroundings.”

And look at them now: Kai is a college basketball player on track to graduate at Florida State. Joel is a college basketball player who will graduate soon from UNC. They both wear No. 42.

Kai knows what people are most likely to think when they see Joel – all six feet, 11 inches and 280 pounds of him. Joel has the look of an athlete and a serious one, at that.

But, Kai said, “The Joel that you see is not the Joel that I grew up with.”

How so?

“Joel used to be this weird little kid that loved Transformers and did all sorts weird little things,” she said.

Like?

“He has an unreal obsession with the Transformers,” she said. “He loved to make all the sounds when they’re transforming.”

Their mother, Kai said, used to bring home those rectangular cardboard boxes of Capri Sun. When they became empty Joel would save the boxes and use them to make a suit of armor. Then all of a sudden, his arms covered in Capri Sun boxes, Joel wasn’t Joel anymore.

He was Optimus Prime.

“He would do the weirdest stuff ever,” Kai said with a laugh. “That’s the Joel I think of.”

He’s still that way. James is perhaps the Tar Heels’ most expressive player. There are various GIFs that have captured some of his memorable reactions.

One, from UNC’s victory against Florida Gulf Coast in the first round of the NCAA tournament, shows James holding an imaginary bowl and spoon, pretending to eat. It was James’ way of celebrating a Brice Johnson dunk – the message that Johnson, on that play, had satiated his appetite.

Possessing physical, mental strength

Johnson is UNC’s first consensus All-American since Tyler Hansbrough. Paige, meanwhile, has been the face of the program for the past three seasons.

To outsiders, at least, James is something of the forgotten senior. And yet, Paige said, “he’s been a great asset to our program in all sorts of ways.”

“He’s a leader of (an) NCAA leadership panel and he’s grown so much these four years and he’s one of our boys,” Paige said. “We get a lot of attention for what we’ve done these past four years but he’s right there with us, the whole time.

“That’s big Joel, man.”

James doesn’t see what the big deal is with his story: from a basketball novice at 15 to a scholarship player at UNC, from a crime-ridden neighborhood to where he is now, two victories away from a national championship.

He’s a different guy, one who was screaming in celebration in the shower long after UNC’s victory against Virginia in the ACC championship game had ended. One who used to transform into Optimus Prime through the power of Capri Sun boxes. One who rides a single-speed, custom painted matte black cruiser bike around campus, because he doesn’t have a car.

The maintenance guys at the Smith Center, James said, put the bike together for him.

“It can get up and go,” James said. “It really depends on the person pedaling, honestly. If you’ve got strong enough legs, you can fly on that thing.”

James knows a thing or two about strength – physical and mental. And yet he described his old environment – one of gangs and bullets, one of not even having a bed to sleep in – as only “a little difficult.”

“That’s life, you know what I’m saying?” James said. “You’re dealt the hand you get and you’ve got to do the best you can with it.”

So here he is, in his final days with the Tar Heels. James has done the best he can with his hand.

His sister is still following him around, too. She’ll be in Houston, there to watch her brother in the Final Four.

Final Four

No. 1 UNC vs. No. 10 Syracuse

When: 8:49 p.m. Saturday

TV: TBS

No. 2 Oklahoma vs. No. 2 Villanova

When: 6:09 p.m. Saturday

TV: TBS

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