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Steve Aschburner

Mike James
Mike James (left, against Jannero Pargo of the Hawks) has played in more than 500 NBA games.
Ray Amati/NBAE via Getty Images

Bulls' guard, 36, uses D-League as springboard back to NBA

Posted Feb 22 2012 7:31AM

CHICAGO -- Mike James could see it in their eyes, the looks those young boys of the NBA Development League would give him when they stepped onto the floor. Hey, old dude.

"That's a young man's league," James said. "Most of the guards, in the first quarter, they would stare me up and down. Like, 'I'm going to tear this old guy up.' And by the end of the game, they all want advice from me, asking me, 'How can I do this? How can I do that?'

"That's the reason a lot of guys don't play in the D-League. You can really get exposed. Those young guys are so hungry, and they're talented, they have skill, so they can expose a lot of the veterans."

That, however, was the reason James, 36, signed with the Erie BayHawks not once but twice this winter: Exposure. He got it, which is why he was able to tell his tale from the comfort of the Chicago Bulls' locker room at United Center. Signed initially in January as an insurance policy when injuries to Derrick Rose and C.J. Watson turned John Lucas III into the Bulls' last line of defense at point guard, James became a contributor in six games across two stints with Chicago.

Brought to Chicago on a non-guaranteed deal on Jan. 11 after spending only four days and three games with Erie (including a splashy 23-point, five-rebound, five-assist performance in the D-League Showcase in Reno), James logged a minute at "garbage time" on the night he flew in. Rose was hobbled with a sprained big toe then, and James got into two more games -- with nine points and 10 assists in 17 minutes against Charlotte Jan. 21 -- before being released so the Bulls could avoid guaranteeing his contract.

But the NBA's defending MVP got sidelined again, this time with back spasms, so James' phone rang once more. This time, the 6-foot-2, 188-pound guard joined Chicago on a 10-day contract and likely earned a second, averaging 17.6 minutes 10.3 points and 4.3 assists off the bench in three games after his return. Even with Rose back Monday vs. Atlanta, James scored seven points, all in the first half, and logged 13 minutes.

"Physically I'm still capable of staying in front of them," James said. "And I can still beat them off the dribble -- I'm not just a spot-up shooter. Mentally, I know the game just a little bit better than [younger opponents]."

Through his first six appearances, the Bulls are 5-1. James' "simple rating" as calculated by the site is a heady +34.1. That means that, given his productivity offensively and defensively, the Bulls would be 34.1 points better than their opponents if James were on the floor for a hypothetical 48 minutes nightly. Small sample size, sure, and there's a reason the Web site uses a minimum (40 percent of a team's minutes) when ranking NBA regulars. But just for grins, that other James -- LeBron -- tops the league with a +19.3 simple rating. Clippers guard Chris Paul is second and tops all point guards at +14.5. The Bulls' All-Stars, Rose and Luol Deng, are at +9.1 and +7.9 respectively.

Who is this guy? And how has he been able to come back at 36, after sitting out the entire 2010-11 season and logging only 46 NBA minutes since Feb. 3, 2010?

One key is that James is playing noticeably different from the way he played at most of his 10 previous NBA stops. Before, he had been more of a gunner -- particularly when he played at Toronto in 2005-06, heading into free agency and landing a four-year, $24 million deal with Minnesota based on his scoring. But with the Bulls, at this advanced age, after his first 528 NBA games were in the books, James became a pass-first point guard.

On a 36-minute basis, he is averaging 19.8 points a game, better even than with the Raptors in his money year. He's also averaging 11.1 assists, almost double what he's done for anyone else. James has conformed to coach Tom Thibodeau's system and the Chicago pecking order, and he's eager to make good so deep into his playing days. Thibodeau was with him in the first of James' two stops in Houston, an assistant coach to Jeff Van Gundy then.

"I've always been a pick-and-roll player," James said. "He made sure he put me in a lot of pick-and-rolls, where I have the freedom of making plays, not just for myself but for others."

It doesn't hurt that James' body fat clocks in at about a minus-7 and he looks the same now as he did when Miami's Pat Riley reeled him in from basketball's netherworld in 2001. James had gone undrafted out of Duquesne in 1998 and earned a living overseas while hoping for an NBA look, playing with St. Polten in Austria (1998-99), Chalons in France (1999-2000) and Slu Nancy in France (2000-01). The Heat had him in camp in 2001, then cut him, James heading to the Rockford (Ill.) Lightning of the Continental Basketball Association.

Two months later, Riley brought him back and he has bounced around ever since. James has been a one-man transactions list in his career, signed as a free agent seven times and traded six times in deals involving 26 others players or Draft picks. But his most recent two, getting back from the D-League, might be the most surprising.

"I wasn't surprised," James countered. "That's the reason I chose to go to the D-League. This is a 'want,' this isn't a need. If I can still play at a high level, why not play at the highest level? ... I wanted to show teams, my age is one thing, my game is another."

James apparently ruffled a few feather when he left the Erie team last week for the second time. The BayHawks termed his departure, a day before he signed the 10-day deal with the Bulls, as being for "personal reasons." In his two stints, the team had gone 3-4 while he averaged 21.1 points -- scoring 23, 26 and 28 on 27-of-52 shooting in his last three games. A teammate, 25-year-old guard Kyle Spain in his second season in Erie, said: "Mike had his own agenda, per se. That's probably why I'm not surprised that he had left."

James, in a Twitter exchange with sportswriter Duane Rankin of the Erie Times-News, responded to Spain's comment: "lol. I didn't go 2 the dleague 2 b MVP."

NBA flavor-of-the-season Jeremy Lin sure didn't plan on staying when he scored 28 points with 12 assists and 11 rebounds for the BayHawks in a Jan. 20 game against Maine. Erie is the New York Knicks' D-League affiliate and they sent Lin down for a pair of games in January. He sat out the second with a sore ankle before returning to New York -- "Linsanity" was waiting -- but the sensation-to-be did leave something nice behind: On Monday, the BayHawks auctioned off Lin's game-worn jersey for $4,050, tops among the 16 bids that came in. The team has his practice jersey on eBay, too, and a shooting shirt, hoping to cash in more before bidding ends on Saturday.

Hey, Bayhawks: Mike James did the same thing, putting his game up for auction and cashing in himself.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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