MIAMI (AP) - Tim James apologized for being late. A rough day at work, said the Miami Heat's 1999 first-round draft pick. Vehicles broke down, problems flared up, and he simply fell behind."It happens," James said. "Even here."
Even on the front line of the Iraq war.
A former NBA player who often wondered about his true calling, Tim James is now a U.S. Army soldier, a transformation that even many of the people closest to him never saw coming.
"I got my degree, lived the life I was able, have my freedom and became a professional athlete," James said last week from Iraq. "I'm the example of the American dream."
James is at Camp Speicher, the massive base near Tikrit, 85 miles north of Baghdad, not far from Saddam Hussein's hometown and where insurgents still are a perpetual threat. For Miami Northwestern High, the Miami Hurricanes, three NBA teams and some foreign clubs, he was forward Tim James. For the Army, he's Spc. Tim James of Task Force ODIN - short for Observe, Detect, Identify, Neutralize.
In layman's terms, he's part of the unit tasked with watching and catching the bad guys before they plant bombs.
So long, charter jets, enormous paychecks and Ritz-Carlton hotel stays.
Hello, 130-degree afternoons, 12-hour work days, $2,600 a month and 50-caliber machine guns.
"In life, we all have different desires and needs," said Leonard Hamilton, James' college coach and now the coach at Florida State. "With the passion he has, he had to go fulfill this. I'm in total support of Tim and what he's doing. He's at peace. All we can do is hope he comes back safely."
James spent years thinking about the prospects of a military career. Drafted 25th overall by the Heat, James' NBA career barely registered a basketball blip: He appeared in 43 games for Miami, Charlotte and Philadelphia, never starting and never scoring more than seven points in a game.
So he went to play overseas, making a fine living in Japan, Turkey and Israel. By 2007, his playing days were done. After months of deliberating, he made the difficult decision that would take him away from his family and 5-year-old son, whom James still tries to talk with by phone every night. Even so, Tim James Jr. doesn't understand where his dad is.
"I think of myself as a patriot," James said. "I wanted to give back to a country that gave so much to me."
James is believed to be the first former NBA player to enlist and then serve in Iraq. Arizona Cardinals safety Pat Tillman quit football to become an Army Ranger and was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan in 2004.
James joined the Army on Sept. 12, 2008. The training was brutal, even for a 6-foot-8 basketball player whose athleticism had drawn raves since junior high school. James slept outside in frigid night air, scaled seven-story towers, endured 10-mile marches ("with full battle rattle, as they say," he said), and learned how to take apart and reassemble his weapon.
He never questioned if he was making the right decision.
"I have no doubts," James said. "I have no regrets. Not one bit."
His 12-month deployment to Iraq started in late July. On his second night there, James was awoken from a sound sleep, completely startled.
Machine gun fire. The sound of war.
Understandably, it took a while for him to fall back asleep.
"It's a pretty impressive thing that he's doing, making the transition from where he was then to where he is now," said James' captain, Curtis Byron. "Such a small percentage of U.S. citizens are in the military or are veterans, doing their part to protect the nation's freedom. Putting that life behind you, setting aside any thoughts you had before about the military, that's impressive."
Byron said James didn't tell most members of his unit that he used to be an NBA player. James not only didn't want the attention, he didn't want to be treated differently than anyone else.
"He's very humble," Byron said. "To him, it's not a big deal at all."
Oh, but it's a very big deal to the Heat.
They preach family inside the Heat complex, and even though James played only four games, he's forever part of the Heat family. Rob Wilson, the team's director of sports media relations, helped arrange for two boxes of T-shirts and posters to be sent to Iraq as a morale booster. They should get there this week, unless sandstorms delay the arrival of mail - a common occurrence.
Included in that package is an 8-minute, 31-second DVD, with greetings to James from several members of the organization. Another DVD from the Heat is already in the works, and the team is already planning to honor James at a home game this season.
"I just want to wish you good luck, man," Heat captain Udonis Haslem, who wears No. 40 to honor two of his idols who had that number - his father and James - said on the DVD. "God bless you and keep doing what you're doing."
"Stay focused," said Heat center Jamaal Magloire, a former James teammate. "Never let your guard down and get back to us safe."
"You're not like any other basketball player out there," Heat assistant coach Keith Askins said.
Since 2006, Miami has given a center-court tribute to soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan at every home game, a program Heat president Pat Riley developed and called the HomeStrong initiative.
He said he cannot wait for James to get his due.
"The work we do, while being important to us, is made possible by the efforts of our soldiers in the Middle East," said Riley, who coached James in his lone season with the team.
James can't discuss specifics of his mission, although Byron said the unit should not face "the direct threat" of enemy action.
The stakes are higher than any basketball game, for certain, but James says he can still draw the parallel between fighting on the court and fighting for his country.
"I've been in the heat of the moment on the court in the fourth quarter, tie game, and yes, you would think that's a battle," James said. "There's nothing I hate more than losing. To be here, risking your life, it's definitely another level. It's like a scouting report for a game. All you can do is try to execute your mission. A loss here, that could be a lost life."