A player's tale: the strange path of Jerome James

The darkness slides cool over a Florida evening, it is close to midnight, almost time to go home. But the last semitrailer is half-filled with crates of milk that must be unloaded, and Jerome James will not leave until the trailer is empty.

To unload the truck, he must tie a rope around a stack of crates 7 feet tall, almost as high as he stands. Then he tugs the tower of crates across the steel floor of the trailer, onto a short metal ramp and then across the concrete loading dock of the Sunny Florida Dairy plant. He pulls the load onto a conveyor belt, unties the rope and then trudges back to the trailer to repeat the process over and over.

At 17 years old, this has made him strong with muscles bursting from beneath his shirt. Nobody thinks he's a teenager. Probably, nobody knows this is a school night for James. And when he leaves the Sunny Florida Dairy around 1 a.m., he will drive home, to the house next to the graveyard, the one he shares with his parents and his nine brothers and sisters, where he will study for two hours until he falls asleep at his desk.

At 7 a.m., he will wake up, pile four of his brothers and sisters into the old Cadillac Fleetwood in the driveway and drive an hour to the Pentecostal Christian school they attend in Winter Haven. At 4 p.m., he will drop them off at home and head back to the dairy.

He sees nothing wrong with this. It is only the way of the South, he thinks, when you have a big family and not a lot of money. His father, Jessie, is a longshoreman at the Tampa docks, loading and unloading ships. People tell Jerome that, at 7 feet 1, he should play basketball. But who has time for basketball? Not with nine brothers and sisters, all needing new clothes and food and milk. Basketball? He can't think about basketball.

In fact, he's so efficient at unloading the trucks at the Sunny Florida Dairy, doing alone in 30 minutes what used to take two men 1-½ hours, that the manager fired the two men and gave the job to Jerome.

"If this kid can do it that fast, then you guys must be lazy," the manager said.

On the weekends, Jerome gets up early and heads to the Feed Depot, where he will spend his mornings piling sacks of grain into a semitrailer. When he is done, he jumps in the cab of the Mack Truck and drives the semi four hours to Fort Myers, where he unloads the trailer before turning around and heading back to Tampa.

Sonics vs. Spurs

First-round series tied 1-1.

Game 1: San Antonio 110, Seattle 89
Game 2: Seattle 98, San Antonio 90
Game 3: Saturday at Seattle, 2:30 p.m., Ch. 5
Game 4: May 1 at Seattle, 6 p.m., TBA
Game 5: May 3 at San Antonio, TBA, TBA, if nec.

So, no, there is no time for basketball. An idle life does not make a good, honest, God-fearing life. Every once in a while, he and his brothers go to a local community center and play basketball. But that's just for fun, an escape, really. And anyway, the local kids won't let Jerome play under the basket. He's too tall; throw him the ball, and he'll score every time.

Front and center for Sonics

Now 26, he's the accidental basketball player, a center for the Sonics playing 20 minutes a game in the playoffs against San Antonio's Tim Duncan. He is surrounded by players for whom the NBA is an all-consuming dream, their life's ambition.

But in his case, the game just came and found him one day. Came when he wasn't looking, yanking him out of the trailers at the dairy and pulling him off to college, the Harlem Globetrotters and the mortar-pocked hills of Montenegro before dropping him in Seattle.

Sitting in a room just off the Sonics' practice court, the sturdy arms and legs jutting from the couch like giant unfolded cranes, it is easy to see why. Jerome James has hands as big as laptops and feet encased in size-22 shoes. He is the closest thing this team has to a defensive presence under the rim.

"I don't get involved in the glitz and the glamour of the NBA," says James, who makes the league minimum of $465,850. "I think that has a lot to do with how you are brought up. Once fame was given to me, I rejected it because it's temporary; once basketball is over, everything is gone."

The Jerome James file

Nov. 17, 1975: Born in Tampa, Fla., one of 10 children of Jessie and Rutha James.

High school: Graduated from Pentecostal Christian Academy in Winter Haven, Fla. Did not play basketball. Worked at a dairy unloading crates of milk and at a feed depot, loading and unloading grain.

College: Given a scholarship at Florida A&M in Tallahassee after being noticed in a pickup game. Played three seasons, averaging 16 points, 9.2 rebounds, 4.5 blocks. Applied for the 1998 NBA draft after his junior season.

Other accomplishments

• Selected in second round by the Sacramento Kings the year of the NBA lockout.

• Played with the Harlem Globetrotters until the NBA season started.

• Played 16 games for the Kings in 1999 before suffering a severe knee injury.

• Missed the 1999-2000 season because of knee injury.

• Cut by the Kings before the 2000-01 season, after reporting to training camp weighing 330 pounds.

• Played for teams in Italy, Yugoslavia and France.

• Sept. 5, 2001: Signed by the Sonics as a free agent.

He says this because he might just be the luckiest player in the league.

Because were it not for Shaquille O'Neal and Chris Webber and a journeyman basketball coach who happened to answer his phone at just the right time, none of this would have happened.

And James would probably be back in Tampa unloading trucks at the Sunny Florida Dairy.

"I don't know," he finally says. "It's the only life I know, so I guess it doesn't seem that unusual."

It was Ron Brown, the coach at Florida A&M, who found him. Actually, found is a relative term because it was an old classmate of James' mother, a Florida A&M alum, who happened to stumble across James in one of those rare pickup games at the community center and called Brown.

On a whim, Brown came down, saw a 7-foot-1 kid with a torso honed by all those nights of lugging milk crates. Then he saw the kid dribbling a ball behind his back, and the coach could not believe his eyes.

The next night, he was in the house next to the graveyard with a scholarship in hand, telling James to sign on the dotted line. Only there was a problem.

"We weren't that excited about it," James says. "My dad didn't want me to play basketball. I wanted to go to college, I wasn't thinking about basketball. (Brown) gave me a letter of intent. The only thing I was happy about was that I got to go to college."

Eventually, the family relented and James, after sitting out his first season of college as a transition year, went on to be one of the country's leaders in blocked shots his first year of playing. Still, he looked at basketball as an opportunity for an education. He never dreamed it could lead to more.

Touched by Shaq magic

That all changed one day in his second season when Florida A&M went to Orlando to play Bethune-Cookman College. On the way to the game, the team stopped by an Orlando Magic practice. O'Neal, then on the Magic squad, came onto the court, took one look at a man who could be his twin and O'Neal broke into a wide grin. He took James back to the locker room and led him out to the parking lot, where he let James sit in the driver's seat of one of O'Neal's custom-made Mercedes (one color for each day of the week) and then gave him two pairs of his own size-22 shoes.

Afterward, O'Neal stood next to James, matching him eye to eye and looking to see if their foreheads stood exactly the same height off the ground.

"I'll be seeing you up here in the league someday," O'Neal said.

Suddenly, everything was different.

"Until Shaq said it, I didn't believe it," James says. "A lot of people were telling me I could play professional basketball; I just didn't think it was true. But when Shaq says it, it has some merit to it. ... After that, I knew I wanted to be a basketball player."

It didn't matter to James that O'Neal's feet were actually much wider than his and the shoes wobbled when he tried to run. He put on two extra pairs of socks and stuffed an insole inside the bottom of each shoe, tied them up really tight and went on to nearly lead the country in blocked shots while wearing O'Neal's zebra-striped shoes.

Something changed in James in the months that followed. If before this was fun, a cheap way to get a good education, he now saw himself as an athlete, someone who could make money for playing a game. He practiced harder and paid more attention to the NBA people who were suddenly showing up at his games, even if he was still a bit naïve. One day he stormed into Brown's office. "What does this mean?" he demanded, waving a piece of paper. "It says here I've got soft hands. I'm not soft!"

Brown laughed.

"Um, Jerome, that's a good thing."


The Webber connection

At the end of his junior year, his fourth year in school, James entered the NBA draft. He was one class short of a criminal-justice degree that he hoped would be a precursor to law school.

Still, the big money called, and the Sacramento Kings made him a second-round pick. This was something of a surprise, for James had heard of neither Sacramento nor the Kings.

Not that it really mattered, the league was locked out that year, and because he hadn't signed a contract and wasn't in the players union, he had no money.

That summer, another twist of fate: The Harlem Globetrotters watched him play and asked if he wanted to travel with them until the lockout ended.

James jumped at the chance, hooking on just in time for a European tour. Not enough time to teach him many tricks, though his teammates liked to take his huge shoes and lay them out on the court and have little children come down from the stands and try to stand inside them.

He did this until the Kings called in January.

His first friend in the NBA was Webber. They were an odd pair: the brooding superstar known as much for his trysts with Tyra Banks as for his rebounding, and the green rookie from the Sunny Florida Dairy who had never heard of Sacramento. But they became the best of friends.

It was Webber who invited James to his house for television and video games. It was Webber who protected James when the other Kings players tried to harass their new teammate. And when after the season James tore up his knee so badly that doctors told him he might never play again, it was Webber who flew in from Detroit to drive him home from the hospital.

"This is not the end," Webber told him. "You've got to believe you will make it back. Promise me that."

Early in fall 2000, James' knee healed, but with 330 pounds of inactivity dangling off of him, he was released by the Kings. The first person he told was Webber, and together they went into the training room — the All-Star and the unknown, unemployed center — and they fell on their knees and cried and prayed.

In the ensuing weeks, James became increasingly depressed. He waited for the phone to ring with offers from other teams, but none came.

He moped and ate and sat around playing video games while Webber kept yelling at him, telling him to find something, anything, to get his life started again. Eventually, the money ran out.

Taking the Balkan cure

One day, while sitting in Webber's living room, the Kings star excused himself, took the keys to James' truck and drove away for an hour. Later that night, when James climbed into his truck, he found Webber had filled an empty gas tank and stuffed $15,000 cash into the center console of his dash. James was overwhelmed.

"I knew then I couldn't let him down," he says.

James went out, fired his agent and hired one recommended by Kings center Vlade Divac and soon had a contract with a team owned by Divac in Montenegro, one of the most troubled and war-ravaged regions of the former Yugoslavia.

He played his way into shape in the town of Podgorica, and it was a strange experience, because a black man had never played there before. They didn't know what to make of him. His presence stirred an emotion that was a mix between curiosity and hate. One night, somebody egged his car. But he also lost weight and, as a result, played some of the best basketball in his life.

Sonics player-personnel director David Pendergaft saw James play and started calling back glowing reports. Wary, but in desperate need of good centers, Seattle agreed to take a chance, giving him a one-year deal with an option for next year. The option is his, which is a great thing because after averaging five points and four rebounds and starting 39 games, he will have choices. He can make a lot of money.

"I want to stay here, though," he says. "I like the coach."

Happy ending? Perhaps

This story is not completely happy. Nate McMillan does not smile.

The Sonics coach nursed James into the starting center position this year by dangling opportunity in front of his tallest player, letting him chase hungrily after the lure. But lately McMillan has been seeing things he doesn't like.

Maybe James doesn't lift weights as diligently as he used to, maybe he doesn't stay so long after practices.

To McMillan, this is the most unforgivable sin. The first sign of a player letting up at the first hint of success is the first sign of a player who will lose his desire when the big money arrives.

"The great players always work harder," McMillan says.

There is clearly a message being delivered here.

"You really don't know what's inside a person," McMillan says. "It's like a marriage; if a guy loses a big-paying job, will that lady stay with him? You don't know. Or if a guy wins a lottery, $80 million, will he stay with this lady? That's what we're dealing with here."

The Sonics can't afford to make a $5 million mistake. And so when this season and these playoffs are over, management will sit down and decide the next chapter of the Jerome James story. Either it will continue on a blissful roll or it will have another jagged and sudden detour. That direction is up to him.

He's not just the accidental basketball player from the loading dock of the Sunny Florida Dairy anymore.