Tim James: Journey from NBA to Iraq

The phone rings at 1 a.m. It is Tim James. The connection is tinny and echoing.

How are you, Tim?

``It was 125 degrees yesterday,'' he says. ``I've never felt anything like that. It was like working inside an oven. It was 121 in the shade.''

James is in Iraq, in a suffocating desert 105 miles north of Baghdad, but he isn't making one of those celebrity visits to cheer up the troops.

No, he is the troops.

The former University of Miami basketball star and former Miami Heat first-round pick enlisted in the Army a year ago, at the age of 31, and now he finds himself in the dusty, dirty center of a war.

Betty James wanted to scream. She knew she had raised a tough man in Liberty City, but did he have to go and be this tough? He had other career options. Teaching. Coaching. Couldn't he choose a new career path in his 30s that didn't involve insurgents and explosions?

Her son had money. He made almost $2.5 million playing for the Heat, Hornets and 76ers. The Heat's per diem of $113 means an NBA player gets more in meal money a season than the $2,000 a soldier of James' specialist rank will earn in a month. More than triple, actually.

And James earned plenty playing professionally in Japan, Turkey and Israel, too. But as he traveled all over the globe playing his beloved game, seeing a world he never thought he'd see growing up poor in Miami, he didn't learn to merely value or appreciate America's freedoms. He decided he wanted to fight to protect them, too.

``I never saw this coming,'' his mother says.

He was always so quiet. Stoic. Everyone says so. At Northwestern High School, at UM, as a member of the Heat. So when her little boy told her ``Mom, this is what I want,'' Betty James never told him she didn't approve, even as her friends told her that her son was out of his mind. She asked him ``Are you sure?'' but never let him know she didn't want what he wanted. Support loudly, pray quietly -- that was her way.

So when he hugged her to leave for training, she smiled and held him for an extra beat. And then the mother of Tim James went back inside her house, slumped behind her closed front door and began to cry.

What kind of soldier is James?

``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?
There's a long pause on the other end of the phone line.
``Good question,'' he says.
Another long pause.
``As a soldier, I do as trained,'' he says.
Another long pause.
``As a person, I don't know the mental impact of that. I've heard some pretty disturbing stories here.''
The toughest part? It hasn't been the engulfing sand storms that come in as high as buildings and last for days. It hasn't been running in formation for five to 10 miles in the desert heat while wearing 75 pounds of equipment -- full battle rattle, as they say, rifle and body armor and Kevlar five times stronger than steel. The push-ups and sit-ups until the body gives up? Nope. The part of training when he spent 10 days in a freezing tent, doing all his hygiene in the woods and heating meals the food critic in him jokes tasted ``good enough to keep you alive''? That wasn't the toughest part, either.

``I was physically and mentally ready for all that because of basketball,'' he says. ``Sports give you the kind of direction, discipline, leadership, structure and balance you need for this.''
So he can endure the endless repetition of breaking down and putting back together his ever-present M-16 and the redundancy of clearing a simulated Iraqi village. He knows how to practice, after all. No, the toughest part has been how much he misses his family, his son especially. The phone calls are particularly heartbreaking. Are you on the airplane, Daddy? When you coming back, Daddy? I love you, Daddy.

The most fear he has felt? It hasn't been during his occasional war nightmares. It wasn't landing that first day in a dark Iraq and marching in formation straight into the unknown. The most fear swept over him while he was still in America -- the day he got the call he was being deployed. And it wasn't fear for himself, either.
It took three full days for this brave man to summon the strength to finally tell his mother.
Heat media liaison Rob Wilson, who has worked with James since they were together at UM more than a decade ago, recently sent a bulging care package to Iraq. T-shirts. DVDs. Championship stuff. Hundreds of trinkets. The soldiers enjoyed the posters of the Heat dancers most.

There was a more personal DVD in Wilson's care package, too. It is more than eight minutes long. A camera was turned on in Miami, and various members of the Heat organization who have known James for years tried to articulate to him how they felt about what he was doing. Players. Coaches. Support staff. It can be clumsy, asking men who grew up in this testosterone-soaked world to ad-lib their feelings to a cold camera. One by one, young and old, black and white, they tried.

Heat assistant Keith Askins: ``You are a bigger and braver man than I am.''

James Jones: ``This is a big deal to us, your basketball family.''

Jamaal Magloire: ``Get back to us safe.''

Udonis Haslem: ``You are an inspiration.''

Like a lot of Miami kids, Haslem grew up idolizing James. He wears No. 40 in part because James did while being the pioneering first to make the climb from one of our inner cities all the way to the Heat. Haslem, the Heat's enforcer, is tough by most of the measurements we use in sports, all elbows and knees and scars and scowls and want. But now he looks at James and says, ``I'm not tough. He's the Manny Ramirez of tough. The rest of us are Little League pitchers. We're not even allowed on the mound.''

Heat President Pat Riley spoke last and longest on the DVD.

``A man's greatest fear is of extinction,'' he said to James. ``It should be fear of extinction with insignificance. What you are doing matters.''

Riley has been celebrating returning military men at every Heat home game. The HOME Strong program, it is called. The Heat has been talking to government officials about getting James back to Miami to honor him before and during one game next season. They don't want a camera between them next time. They want to hug him and say in person the only two words that every one in that DVD made sure to use:

Thank you.