NEW YORK -- Back in June when the NBA held its draft in Newark, N.J., Bernard James surprisingly became the toast of the town.
Sure, everyone knew that Anthony Davis -- the consensus collegiate Player of the Year from Kentucky -- was going to be drafted No. 1 overall by the New Orleans Hornets. But no one was even remotely prepared to hear what they heard by the time James' name was called with the 33rd overall pick of the draft.
And as if on cue, the fans started chanting in unison: U-S-A!, U-S-A!, U-S-A!
That was the fans' way of honoring James for his six years of duty in the Air Force, protecting this country's freedom during deployments in Iraq, Afghanistan and Qatar. It was a chill-bump moment for James, the wiry 6-foot-10, 240-pound rookie forward for the Dallas Mavericks.
"I loved it, but I was surprised by it," James said. "Because throughout the whole night from the No. 1 pick to the No. 30 pick, some people were booing, some people were cheering, so I kind of expected the same thing.
"But when they called my name everybody just kind of came together and started chanting U-S-A, and it just felt amazing."
As far as the Mavs go, James had his first big game during Wednesday's 109-102 victory over the Toronto Raptors when he collected six points and a team-high nine rebounds in only 18 minutes. The production was right on time because the Mavs were without their top two rebounders -- Shawn Marion and Elton Brand.
"Bernard James had a great game," coach Rick Carlisle said. "He was a real factor when he was in there.
"He had quite a few rebounds -- he had nine in 18 minutes -- and that is a great night."
Carlisle said he hopes James has another great game tonight at 6:30 when the Mavs (4-1) face the New York Knicks (3-0) at Madison Square Garden.
Ironically, the 27-year-old James didn't aspire to become an NBA player in his youth.
"Maybe when I was 10 years old and watching my brothers play, I'd watch the NBA every once in a while," James said. "Maybe I'd fantasize once or twice about it, but it was never a realistic thing like, 'Man, I would love to do that.'
"So it just kind of went from not really being on my radar to, 'All right, that's the goal now.' It never was really like a dream."
The NBA tide turned for James when he was at Florida State and helped put the basketball program on the map by leading the Seminoles to the NCAA Sweet 16 in 2011 and to their first ACC title in 2012.
Before attending college, James was such a bottom-line details person that he eventually became a staff sergeant in December 2006. But James is quick to point out that he doesn't mind taking orders from his superiors.
"The beauty about being a sergeant is you're kind of middle management," James said. "So I was always taking orders, but I had a chance to give orders to.
"I have no problems at all of following in the line and following in my place. I know right now I'm at the bottom of the totem pole, and I'm going to have to work my way up, and I'm just going to work as hard as I can until I move up."
In other words, since he was a latecomer to basketball, James knows his climb to the top of the ladder might take longer than those players who took up basketball at an early age.
"All these guys that have been here, they've been putting in work for years, so they deserve to be able to tell me what do to," James said. "When I earn my place here, when I earn that right, that's when I'll get it and that's when I'll be able to kind of mentor somebody else and tell them what to do."
Until then, nights like the one James had against the Raptors are ones he'll forever cherish. The same as the moment he had on draft night.
Dwain Price, 817-390-7760