During a conversation I had with Leonard Hamilton at the end of January, the Florida State coach spent a few minutes telling me about how he was trying to “change the culture” of his team, and I must admit there were times when I felt like I was sitting through a business seminar at the Radisson. When I asked Hamilton what specifically was wrong with the old culture, the coach renowned for his defense, swatted my question into the third row. Like his players, Hamilton only allows you the shots he wants you to take.
Seven weeks later, with Florida State among the Sweet 16 for the first time in 18 years, I think back on that conversation with a fresh perspective. Hamilton and I spent most of our time that day discussing his rookie forward Bernard James and now I think the coach may have been trying to convey something interesting after all. He didn’t actually say it, but I suspect Hamilton was beginning to view James as his culture changer.
In case you have somehow missed the recent media blitz that might have made you think he’d changed his name to LeBron, Bernard James is a 26-year-old junior transfer at Florida State who never played high school basketball. He was a self-described “slacker” at Windsor Forest High in Savannah, GA, who flunked out and joined the Air Force, rising to the rank of staff sergeant while spending six years deployed in hot spots like Qatar, Kuwait and Iraq. The word leadership gets haphazardly tossed around a lot in sports, but when James arrived on campus in Tallahassee last summer, he had already proven his mettle in a much more important uniform and in a far more critical arena.
James didn’t try to impose his will on his teammates from Day One. It’s tough to get that kind of respect at Florida State when a few months earlier you were playing at a Tallahassee Community College in the Panhandle Conference against Northwest Florida State.
But then one day during a West Coast road trip in December, a bunch of the Seminoles were hanging out in a hotel room, when one of James’s teammates (who shall remain nameless to protect his dignity) started whining that his pillow wasn’t sufficiently fluffy.
“It irritated me that he was complaining and I just kind of gave him a piece of my mind about being grateful about the things that we have in America,” James recalls. “I told him that I’ve been in a lot of situations where a pillow is the least of my worries and he should be happy that he hasn’t been in those situations.”
His startled teammates’ reaction amounted to something along the lines of, Sir! Yes, Sir!
As the season progressed, James never volunteered his war stories, but every once in a while he’d tell a curious teammate about that day in August 2007 when his base in Iraq fell under attack from insurgents. A mortar landed 50 feet from James, blew him off his feet and caused him to suffer a severe concussion. He’d tell his audience that he was a just few feet away from no longer being a basketball player and a few less from no longer being.
At the beginning of the season, James’s teammates called him “Grandpa.” Now they call him “Admiral,” and they refer to each other as a band of brothers.
On the eve of this NCAA Tournament, Florida State’s 2011 season still had all the earmarks of a typical Seminoles campaign. There was the head-scratching loss at Auburn, followed nine days later by the spectacular upset of top-ranked Duke. There was the heartbreaking loss at home to North Carolina on Senior Night, and the devastating buzzer-not-beater against Virginia Tech in the ACC Tournament quarterfinal that relegated Florida State to a double-digit seed in the Big Dance. The uncertain status of the foot injury to the team’s best player, Chris Singleton, even gave the Seminoles a built-in excuse if they crashed out in the first round of the NCAA Tournament as they had the previous two seasons.
Sure enough. with Singleton back playing but ineffective in Florida State’s opening round game against Texas A&M, the Seminoles fell behind 31-23 and Hamilton questioned his team’s character in the halftime locker room. But the Seminoles responded with a 13-0 run early in the second half, sparked by eight straight points from James, and Florida State won a game in the NCAA tournament for the first time in 13 years.
Then two nights later, there was James leading again, this time by simply refusing to quit. One the eve of the game against Notre Dame, James was so sick he was bedridden. He needed three IVs on Sunday just to get through the game and said he felt like he needed to vomit throughout. Yet James still led his team in scoring as the Seminoles suffocated the No. 2-seeded Fighting Irish, the highest seed Florida State has ever beaten in the NCAA tournament, and reached the Sweet 16. In the jubilant postgame locker room, one Seminole screamed, “We shocked the world!” but judging by the faces around the room, it looked more like they’d shocked themselves.
Florida State has not advanced this far in the NCAA tournament since 1993, the era of Sam Cassell, Bob Sura and Charlie Ward. Hamilton was in his third season at Miami back then and has been to the NBA and back since. Seminoles freshman forward Okaro White was seven months old.
It’s amazing what two NCAA wins can do. For years Hamilton has been perceived as a masterful recruiter who isn’t quite sure how to maximize all of his talent. With NBA names like Solomon Alabi, Toney Douglas, Al Thornton and Von Wafer, Florida State should have expected more than cameo appearances in the NCAA tournament. But for this week anyway, the Seminoles have achieved the goal of every ACC hoops have-not. They are being mentioned in same sentence with Duke and North Carolina. During the TV interview after the victory over Notre Dame, the buttoned down Hamilton even let James and his teammates rub his bald head in celebration.
During our conversation back in January, I recall Hamilton saying of James, “He’s really a joy to coach. I wish I had 15 guys with his attitude.”
Seven weeks later, maybe he does.
Tim Crothers is the author of The Man Watching: A Biography of Anson Dorrance, the Unlikely Architect of the Greatest College Sports Dynasty Ever, and he is the co-author of Hard Work: A Life On and Off the Court the autobiography of Roy Williams.