TALLAHASSEE — When Florida State junior forward Bernard James would get off work, he'd head to the only court around, an outdoor one, to hone his basketball skills.
The concrete floor was as slick as an ice rink, so you couldn't make hard cuts in sneakers.
And then you had to deal with the wind.
"Half the time, you had sand blowing in your face at 15, 20 mph," James said. "So that kind of made shooting the ball hard. But it would usually die down a little bit around dusk. Regardless of how hard it was to play there, you still had people playing there trying to show off for their friends."
Such was life at Camp Bucca in Iraq.
Then a staff sergeant in the U.S. Air Force, James was stationed at the camp for some of his six-year stint in the military. It's an experience he cherishes — wind and sand and harrowing situations that come with living, working and playing in a war zone — for how it transformed him and for how it opened the door of opportunity.
"It made me grow up a lot," said James, 25, a budding standout in his first year with the Seminoles, who host archrival and No. 16 Florida tonight. "I started taking things more seriously and started listening to people who were more experienced than me instead of being the know-it-all kid from Savannah (Ga.)."
James never played high school basketball.
But that had more to do with attitude than talent.
"I tried out my ninth grade year," he said. "There was a two-week tryout and I skipped the first half just because I didn't want to run. The day I tried to come back, the coach pretty much sent me away. From there, I didn't really touch a ball again until I got into the military."
He dropped out of high school at 16, choosing to earn a GED instead, and he enlisted at 17 to follow the career choice of his stepfather, who served 20 years in the military.
After basic training in San Antonio, Texas, he went to Beale Air Force Base in northern California and his first day there, a supervisor spotted him — which wasn't difficult since he was around 6 feet 5 at the time — and asked if he played basketball.
"I said, 'No.' He said, 'You do now,' " James said with a broad smile. "He told me they had an intramural basketball game that night and that was the first time I played competitive (organized) basketball."
James grew as both a player and a person; he's now 6-10 and, at 240, hardly the lean, lanky teenager he once was. In 2005, he played at a U.S. military tournament in Las Vegas and impressed a referee who worked in the ACC and who contacted a few coaches from the league to tell them about James.
One was FSU coach Leonard Hamilton.
"We've always got our antennae out," he said.
Not that Hamilton or his ACC brethren from Clemson and Wake Forest could spend any time with James after that tournament. James was headed to Qatar for temporary duty.
James contacted those ACC coaches upon his return to the States.
"Coach Hamilton just stood out to me," he said. "He didn't promise he'd make me the best player in the world. He didn't promise me game time if I came here. He told me I'd have to work for everything I got, and I knew that was the truth because that's how real life works; no one gives you anything."
Before he could play collegiately, he had to complete his service, and that included time in Iraq in the fall of 2007. He was a member of the Air Force military police that helped keep the peace at Camp Bucca and the thousands of detainees there.
Riots weren't uncommon.
Bombings weren't uncommon.
"It was scary sometimes," he said. "About three months before I left, a mortar hit about 50 feet from where I was working. It killed six detainees, injured another 60 more, but no U.S. or coalition forces were hurt, which was a blessing. That day was pretty crazy."
James plays with a determination as if fighting to make it through basic training again, but with a discernible joie de vivre. Along with his athleticism, it has been a potent combination.
Once out of the military, he enrolled at Tallahassee Community College and dominated. During his two seasons (52 games), he had 24 double doubles, finished second in program history in rebounds (512), blocks (131) and field-goal percentage (.624), earned his AA degree and, during his sophomore year, was named a "Leader for Life" by the National Junior College Athletic Association.
At FSU, he's averaging 8.4 points with a team-best .720 shooting percentage and 5.8 rebounds (second on the team), and he leads the team with 16 blocks.
"He's a rebounding machine," sophomore guard Michael Snaer said. "Offensively, he's a threat. Defensively, he's a threat. You don't hear him complaining about much."
Of course, Snaer is one of the Seminoles who will jokingly refer to James as grandpa.
But "Sir" seems more appropriate.
"There's no doubt that he's a quality youngster," Hamilton said.
"He's a guy who sets an example for what you want all your young people to be like."