The last time Tim James stood on an NBA court in South Florida, he was a Philadelphia 76ers reserve looking to gain traction in the league.
He returned to AmericanAirlines Arena on Saturday night as a U.S. Army Corporal and a source of inspiration and admiration for many.
The Heat honored James before Saturday’s game as part of its long-standing Home Strong initiative.
“I can’t thank the Heat enough,” James told reporters about 90 minutes before the ceremony, as he sat on a podium alongside 7-year-old son, Tim Jr.
“I can’t express in words how I feel about this ceremony and to represent all the men and women in the United States Armed Forces. This is for everyone that has been killed or maimed or spent plenty of time away from their families.”
James, selected 25th overall by the Heat in the 1999 draft, played in just four games for Miami as a rookie and was traded the following offseason to Charlotte. He appeared in just 39 more NBA games, for Charlotte and Philadelphia, then played in Japan, Turkey and Israel before retiring in 2007.
He enlisted in the Army in September 2008 because “I always had a fascination with the military. Some people in my house would get mad at me because I would sit and watch the Military Channel for hours on end. And I had a fascination with current events.”
James, 34, was deployed to Iraq on July 27, 2009, became a corporal that October and served for 12 months there before returning to the United States in July 2010.
What scared him most in Iraq? “Having a bunch of mortar rounds fly out of nowhere, bombs going off around you, just to know someone is out there taking shots at you aimlessly and not knowing where those projectiles are going to land was pretty much the scariest part,” James said. “We had an incident on base where friendly fire went off that killed a couple of our own soldiers.”
James has spent recent months at Fort Hood in Texas, helping prepare servicemen “for what’s going to happen in Iraq or Afghanistan. We do a lot of convoy live-fire training. We do a lot of training in wooded areas where no one is around.”
James said when he joined the military, “people looked at me like, ‘You’re lying. You weren’t an NBA player.’ But then they’re like, ‘Wow. He’s telling the truth.’ ”
James, who attended Miami Northwestern and the University of Miami, drove to the UM campus Saturday morning and spoke with coach Frank Haith.
“I haven’t been back in a long time,” he said. “Amazing facilities they have now. It’s a long way from the Hecht [Athletic Center].”
James drove 90 minutes to San Antonio when the Heat played there earlier this month to thank Udonis Haslem and James Jones “for sending care-packages over and signing box loads of T-shirts for the guys in our unit.”
He said he didn’t know until recently that Haslem wears James’ former number (40) to honor him. “We competed against each other at the AAU level and it shocked me,” he said. “It really means a lot. It touched me, to have that impact on U.D.”