(Bob Donaldson/Post-Gazette file photo)
I had a story in today's Post-Gazette on former Duquesne star Mike James, who turned 40 today and is still playing professionally, making him the oldest person to be doing so in the United States (between the NBA and D League).
It's easy to dismiss James as someone who is holding on to what he once had at a much lower level, where he's clearly one of the best players any time he takes the court. That, of course, is painting with an extremely broad brush, one that overlooks just how remarkable it is that someone is playing professional basketball at age 40, way past the physical primes of most. And it's not like we're talking about someone like Kevin Garnett (age 39) or Vince Carter (38) whose longevity in the league could, perhaps, be explained by the appeal of what they were once able to do. James is someone who didn't enter the league until age 26, bounced around from team to team and, aside from the 2005-06 season with Toronto, never averaged more than 11.8 points per game in a season in the NBA.
As a writer, it was a fascinating story to piece together, but unfortunately, these pieces only contain a fraction of the information/commentary that was gathered. Below, I've shared some other informational nuggets and insights from my conversation with Mike.
One of the crazier things about James' story, at least to me, was that he was able to hang around the NBA for 13 years despite not starting his career there out of college. An American player breaking into the league after playing for several years abroad is pretty rare and turning that first chance into a prolonged career is even rarer.
So what kind of fight is it to get into the NBA after going undrafted?
“To not get drafted and be overseas playing basketball, it’s one of those things that’s out of sight, out of mind," James said. "To be able to break back into the game in the States is something you don’t see a lot of ballplayers have success doing. Why? Because if you’re not established with a name, it’s going to be hard for them to decide to sign you with a contract over someone that has a name.
"The game is not just about your heart and your skill level. It has a lot of other aspects that have to go along with it. Do you have a backing? Do you have a following? I didn’t have these things.”
For someone who has an NBA title ring and who once averaged 20 points per game on a team that also featured scoring options like Chris Bosh and Morris Peterson, playing in the D League is undoubtedly a not-so-glamorous way to make a living.
When I asked James about it, here's what he said, in two separate quotes:
“It shows you that you still love the game. It shows that you’re still willing to go out there and keep having fun and keep playing the game you have a genuine passion for.”
“The D-League is not one of those things where you’re playing for nothing other than the fact that you’re trying to get a call back to the NBA or you just genuinely still have a passion to play.”
The retirement question is a natural one given James' age, but he said that he's still "in the process of deciding right now" whether he wants to do so.
He doesn't feel any kind of a rush to quit playing if he still feels like he can, but when he is done, he has worked to give himself options. Through the NBA, he has participated in coaching camps and clinics the past three seasons and plans to get into coaching after he reties. His current team -- the Texas Legends -- even brought up the possibility of him returning next season as a player-coach.
He's not particular about whether he coaches at the pro or college level, but something about coaching college players holds an appeal to James, namely that he gets a chance to mold them at a more pliable stage, before they enter the real world. His time in the D League has allowed him to get experience as a leader with a much younger surrounding cast.
"It’s about teaching and showing these guys how to be a professional – not only acting like a professional, but training like a professional," James said. "I think the majority of them want to be pros, but they don’t know what it takes. My leadership and my understanding of the game has really been able to help these guys work at a higher level, but also develop, not just physically as a better ballplayer, but mentally."
A quick point of clarification: I mentioned in the story that James was one of several players who guarded Kobe Bryant when he went off for 81 points against the Raptors in 2006.
James is only 6-foot-2, compared to the 6-foot-6 Bryant, and he didn't spend much of the game guarding him, so I didn't want anyone to get confused and think that he spent the whole game trailing him. From watching highlights of the game, James provided some help defense, but it seemed like a bulk of guarding Kobe fell to Peterson and, to a lesser extent, Jalen Rose.
Even beyond coaching, James has other post-basketball ventures. He and his wife started a business called Third Quarter Coaching which, as he put it, helps athletes prepare themselves "not only for the third quarter of their career, but of their life" (something James presumably knows a lot about).
James, who lives in Houston, said he also has some royalties in oil and gas.
Whenever you call a coach -- particularly an assistant -- who worked with a player almost 20 years ago, you're never sure what you'll get as a reporter, but Darelle Porter said he still keeps in fairly frequent contact with James.
When I asked Porter what he remembers the most about James, he said:
“He was quick, man. He was as quick as they come. Once he learned how to use his quickness on defense, he became one of the best players in the Atlantic 10.”
Since the local news hook for the story was that James played for Duquesne, I naturally asked him about his alma mater and his connection to it.
On whether he keeps track of Duquesne much:
“I haven’t. That’s an issue I’m disappointed in myself in. I was dealing with the teams every year and even when a new coach would come in, that didn’t influence me more or less to want to be around the guys. I think now I really want to start getting myself back involved with the team and organization and just really be more of a help in trying to help these guys get over that hump.”
On what it is going to take for the school's basketball program to get over the hump:
“At the end of the day, especially in college sports, it comes down to recruiting. When you don’t have the understanding of where the good basketball players are or you don’t have a voice in those areas where the new, up-and-coming great high school athletes are and if you don’t have anyone to be able to keep you connected to them, it’s hard to compete against these big-time schools, even in the Atlantic 10. It’s hard to compete against the top teams in the Atlantic 10. That’s the biggest issue.”
A major reason that James hasn't retired yet is that, for the level he's playing at, he's doing quite well. He averaged 17.2 points per game last year, played in a majority of his team's games and shot better than 40 percent from 3-point range.
He's going to play until he feels like he can't anymore and he has yet to reach that breaking point.
“Playing with these young guys this year, everyone I played against was trying their darndest to show me why I shouldn’t be playing anymore when the game first started," James said. "And every single player in the D League that I played against, I annihilated. I’ve never been double-teamed more than I career than I was last season.
"The one thing they all couldn’t understand was my energy level. They all used to wonder how I have so much energy, like ‘What are you doing?’ That’s a credit to myself and a credit to the work I put into my body in the offseason to prepare myself for the longevity of a season.”
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