The Killing Joke
Join Date: Dec 2007
Location: Burkina Faso, Disputed Zone
Former NBA Player fighting in 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.'' "