Posted Mar 18 2011 4:32PM
MIAMI (AP) -- Center court. All eyes on him. Fans coming to their feet in a raucous ovation, the din drowning out all other sounds in the arena.
Tim James never had that moment when he played for the Miami Heat.
He will this weekend, when the Heat celebrate him for wearing a different uniform - the one of the U.S. Army. The Heat have honored soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan with pregame ceremonies as part of the team's "Home Strong" initiative since 2006, and before they face the Denver Nuggets on Saturday, they will stop to welcome back one of their own.
"I'm excited, I'm nervous and I'm also a bit overwhelmed, because I never expected this amount of excitement," James said in a telephone interview from his base in Killeen, Texas before flying to South Florida. "It just shows the level of class that the Miami Heat organization really is. I really appreciate that they're putting out their appreciation, not just for me but for the entire Armed Forces."
James was Miami's first-round pick in 1999, out of the University of Miami. His NBA career was unspectacular, and with the Heat, he only appeared in four games.
To Heat President Pat Riley, that doesn't matter. If you're ever alongside Riley, you're usually alongside him for life. So even though James is tied for 168th on the franchise scoring list with all of 11 points, the Heat hope he gets the sort of ovation typically reserved for NBA champions.
"What Tim has done in enlisting, making a five-year commitment, signing a five-year contract to be in the service, it just goes above and beyond probably what most people in his category would do," Riley said. "I just take my hat off to him. Very grateful to have coached him and known him and that he's part of this organization."
James played in all of 43 NBA games, the last 39 with Charlotte and Philadelphia. When his NBA days ended, he played in Japan, Turkey and Israel, before calling quits to his pro career in 2007.
Needing something to do, James couldn't shake his longtime fascination with the military. He joined the Army on Sept. 12, 2008. Before long, the 6-foot-8 James - who now carries the rank of Corporal - was serving in Iraq, 85 miles or so away from Baghdad.
"With what's going on in our world today, I think one of the greatest sacrifices that anybody, anybody, in our country today can make is to enlist in the military and help this war on terror," Riley said. "I just think what he's done is so unselfish and so great, that we really hope we can do justice by honoring him on Saturday."
James has been back in the U.S. for about seven months. He spends much of his days now working on and maintaining heavy equipment, although not long ago he was in a heavily wooded area of Texas for two weeks for some intense training.
There's a chance he could be deployed again to either Iraq - where he's already served for a year - or Afghanistan.
"Most of us don't worry about war," James said. "We don't know what it's like to be exposed to it on our streets. You have people and organizations like the Heat who are going to make everybody remember, and bring the focus back, on the fact that we have people who are in a war zone, put in harm's way, some killed, some maimed, some disfigured. There's people sacrificing everything they have."
When he was in Iraq, the Heat sent care packages to his unit regularly. That gesture alone generated plenty of goodwill among the troops.
And James said he was moved by the news last fall that the Heat were holding their training camp at a pair of U.S. Air Force installations in Florida's Panhandle, Hurlburt Field and Eglin Air Force Base.
"I think that was an awesome move by the Heat and Riles, especially being that I'm in the military now, I can see the admiration people in the military really have for professional athletes," James said. "For them to get to see it that up close and personal, I thought that was a real tribute. People at those Air Force bases will always remember that."
Chances are, James will always remember the ovation he receives on Saturday. He's bringing his son on the court with him for the ceremony, and is expected to be standing alongside Heat forward Udonis Haslem as well. Haslem wears No. 40 in part to honor James.
Riley is not expected to attend, because the night conflicts with an already-planned NCAA scouting trip. He'll see James at a Heat charity event Sunday.
"When we spread that flag out and there's one or two soldiers recognized as heroes - because they are - and given that standing ovation, that's all they want," Riley said. "They don't ask for it, but I know they feel good about it. That's where we are right now with 'Home Strong."'
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