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In Wilbon's World

From the NBA to Tikrit

The soldiers Tim James works and lives with in Iraq until recently had no idea he had played professional basketball. There was no discussion of playing for Pat Riley or with Allen Iverson. Only if they'd gotten hold of the Miami Heat and University of Miami basketball cards he kept in plastic and wore around his neck, hidden under his uniform along with a photo of his five-year-old son, would they have known. When the word finally spread, his fellow soldiers would think about the 120- degree desert days, the 12-hour shifts, the possibility of being in harm's way and say to him, "What in the world are you doing here?"

He is not facing enemy fire in Iraq, but James is serving his country nonetheless, at a camp near Tikrit, about 90 miles from Baghdad. He enlisted in the Army about a year ago at the age of 31, having fulfilled one dream, the one of playing in the NBA, but still looking to fill the second, the dream of serving his country. The people back at home in South Florida, particularly where he grew up in Liberty City, find it difficult to believe.

"But to sign the papers and enlist allowed me to accomplish another dream," James said the other day in a phone conversation from Iraq. "Not a lot of people knew I joined. People back home, when they did find out, were totally shocked. They didn't know defending our freedom was a priority for me."

They didn't know how James admired his uncle, Sam McDonald, who he says spent 22 years in the Marines.

"I'd talk to him when I was young," James said, "and I thought it was great, the opportunities he had. ... Yes, I knew there was a strong possibility I'd come to Iraq. We were fighting two major wars, so it was very possible. It's when I was in Fort Hood that I thought to myself, 'Well, this is pretty much gametime.' I did sign up for this and combat is possible. ... I was a bit nervous, but well trained. I was ready to go."

In an interview with his hometown newspaper, the Miami Herald, James said, "I wanted this experience to be raw. Start a new life. I wanted to understand new minds and a new way of thinking. I've been in basketball since I was 8. I didn't want to have a basketball conversation every day. I wanted this to be a different experience."

It certainly has been that, from making $2.5 million playing for the Heat, Charlotte Hornets and Philadelphia 76ers, followed by playing professionally in Japan, Turkey and Israel.

"I'm in a support role," James told me, "and I haven't experienced any enemy contact. Still, am I a different person? I believe so. This has shown me what hard work really is, what sacrifice is. It's amazing to see the strength and will of a soldier. As pro athletes we make some sacrifices, but we're still in the comfort of our own countries and we're definitely not in harm's way. This is a whole new toughness. I see people with no opportunities that we have, to go to school, to live well. ... I'm happy to try and safeguard what we have."

Different as the lives are, athlete and soldier, James says he does find some transference. "Sports gives you the kind of direction, discipline, leadership, structure and balance you need for this."

One of his superiors, Sergeant First Class Jenkins who has been in the Army 23 years, said, "Tim never used the 'Do-you-know-who-I-am?' card here. He supports what the task force does, 12 hours a day every day on the air field ... with the aircraft. "

In a recent care package Heat media liaison Rob Wilson sent to James, Wilson included a DVD with eight minutes of expressions from current Heat players ... and his onetime coach, Riley.

"A man's greatest fear," Riley told James in the message, "is of extinction. It should be fear of extinction with insignificance. What you are doing matters."


Michael Wilbon

 |  September 8, 2009; 2:39 AM ET  |  Category:  Iraq , Military , NBA Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Posted by: ytwlgs4 | September 22, 2009 3:55 AM
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I'm confused. Is it OK for Wilbon to just lift a story completely from Le Batard? Can someone weigh in here?

Posted by: ca12891289 | September 9, 2009 2:33 AM
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Wilbon, Dan LeBatard did this column first, in the Miami Herald a week ago. Since you guys work together, you'd think that maybe you'd give him some credit/props at the beginning of this article? You basically cut and pasted everything he wrote already.

Posted by: davidconsultant | September 8, 2009 4:52 PM
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LeBatard did this story what 2 weeks ago & TK tweeted the link.

Posted by: jtalwine | September 8, 2009 4:49 PM
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Considering how this was on A FEW DAYS AGO......this is nothing but a cut and paste job from Wilbon.....what a hack.

Posted by: nowhine | September 8, 2009 3:42 PM
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Dear Person Who Reads Wilbon's Comments for Him;
Everytime a commenter on his chat asks a football question out of football season, that person is derided by Wilbon with the comment, "Hey, I'll write/talk about that during football season. There's a lot of other sports going on right now." That comment is usually punctuated with "get that junk out of here." So, why a piece on basketball in September? It's a good piece, but certainly not in the season. By the way, what is Wilbon up to these days?

Posted by: Fisk202 | September 8, 2009 1:57 PM
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Like the new format Mike. Maybe you can teach Feinstien a thing or two about real journalism. Or he can continue on with his angry columns bashing this or that or whoever else on an impulse. (without allowing a comment section after his online column of course)

His columns read like an upset nerd who feels obligated to speak to the masses about his staunch beliefs from his view. Where does this view come from in relation to sports... Which raises the next question...
What exactly is his experience in sports? Answer Zippy.

Keep spreading the hate John, who's next? Better yet, who cares. The hate bucket is full when it comes to football in this town. Find something interesting to report to us on like golf.

Posted by: Roland_miller1 | September 8, 2009 12:41 PM
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The times we live in are too often filled with stories of greed, heartbreak and selfishness. How refreshing it is to hear of someone who is "self less" and giving of himself. He is a true patriot who has answered his nation's call. Godspeed, Mr. James!

Posted by: bosox_rule | September 8, 2009 12:27 PM
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Posted by: LTC-11A | September 8, 2009 12:18 PM
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It is a sad that people in our country (America) just don't get it. We all think that if we ignore things it will go away. We want our soldiers not to fight to defend out beliefs, our way of life and most important the lives of our fellow country men. We think other people in the world will respect us better... but if that was the case the wouldn't have been a 9/11. However, I applaud this young man for doing what he believes. There is no shame in serving your country. Thank you Mr. James. I wish there were more people like you.

Posted by: donj230 | September 8, 2009 11:25 AM
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great story,i remember james when he thoughts and prayers are with this wonderful young man.although he says he's not in direct contact but in a supportive role he's still in a country in which fighting is never knows when a suicide bomber may penetrate ones security.

Posted by: ronaldtennillegeorgia1 | September 8, 2009 11:17 AM
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It's refreshing to see that not all professional athletes are overpaid crybabies. Thanks for having a pair and protecting our freedoms T.J.

Posted by: smckaho420 | September 8, 2009 11:01 AM
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So he's putting his life on the line for a war this country was lied into.

Now he can go and kill some innocent civilians, and brainwashed suicide bombers for the idiot who started the war on false pretenses.

Good luck. Try not to get yourself killed.
What a waste......

Posted by: MUPPET | September 8, 2009 11:01 AM
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Tim James is a man who stood up and is counted. Forget (for a minute) the morality of the war because anyone who chooses the military is someone to be admired.

It is not Wall Street where every second of one's working existence is a lie. It is the U.S. Army: low pay, long hours, miserable conditions...but in the end of the day what would you rather have on your tombstone. U.S. Army or Goldman Sachs?

Posted by: Boils | September 8, 2009 10:25 AM
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I applaud TJ's intent, but since when does anyone think that what we're doing in Iraq is "keeping the country safe" or "protecting our freedoms"?

I am incensed that the government is squandering the lives of our young people (and of Iraqi and Afghan civilians) on these fools' errands.

Posted by: DupontJay | September 8, 2009 10:19 AM
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Way to go, Wilbon, good story.
flyersout, I hope you've served, otherwise it's you who's the idiot.
Thanks again, Wilbon.

Posted by: trawler | September 8, 2009 10:09 AM
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Nice article, similar one appeared over a week ago in another paper. Excerpts below.

Tim James: Former NBA player now with Army in Iraq
3:36 p.m. Sunday, August 30, 2009
MIAMI — Tim James apologized for being late. A rough day at work, said the Miami Heat's 1999 first-round draft pick. Vehicles broke down, problems flared up, and he simply fell behind.
"It happens," James said. "Even here."
Even on the front line of the Iraq war.
A former NBA player who often wondered about his true calling, Tim James is now a U.S. Army soldier, a transformation that even many of the people closest to him never saw coming.
"I got my degree, lived the life I was able, have my freedom and became a professional athlete," James said last week from Iraq. "I'm the example of the American dream."
James is at Camp Speicher, the massive base near Tikrit, 85 miles north of Baghdad, not far from Saddam Hussein's hometown and where insurgents still are a perpetual threat. For Miami Northwestern High, the Miami Hurricanes, three NBA teams and some foreign clubs, he was forward Tim James. For the Army, he's Spc. Tim James of Task Force ODIN — short for Observe, Detect, Identify, Neutralize.
In layman's terms, he's part of the unit tasked with watching and catching the bad guys before they plant bombs.
So long, charter jets, enormous paychecks and Ritz-Carlton hotel stays.
Hello, 130-degree afternoons, 12-hour work days, $2,600 a month and 50-caliber machine guns.

Posted by: NatsBravesfan | September 8, 2009 10:07 AM
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Tim James is a real life hero. When he returns back from his tour, he should speak in schools and tell them of his experiences, his love for the country and the indomitable courage he has displayed. He should be proudly interviewed on TV so that children of this generation will know real - life American heroes.

Posted by: shovandas | September 8, 2009 9:58 AM
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Good for Mr. James, who even protects the liberty of flyersout.

Thanks, Mr. James, for the inspiration and service to our country. You and all of the service men and women in Iraq and Afghanistan are in our prayers.

And thanks to Mr. Wilbon for bringing us this story.

Posted by: jpfannen | September 8, 2009 9:30 AM
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Now Ain't That America!?! For athletes like Tim James and Pat Tillman to put it on the line and give up the celebrity lifestyle to "Soldier" makes me feel as a military member, more humble than I already am. More average Americans should not only look at what Tim James has done, but understand the committment we all have to preserving our freedoms.

Posted by: smith_avan | September 8, 2009 9:30 AM
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What a guy. I pray for all the troops, and Tim James is a real inspiration. Even for an athlete, I am sure the physical demands are great, but the change in mindset and perspective is even greater, and paradoxically can be more difficult the older you get. Foreign country, military discipline, and physical danger. I salute you Mr. James, and all the troops.

Posted by: JimJohnson2 | September 8, 2009 9:29 AM
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I'm impressed. There aren't many people who want to work for the Governmet nor to serve their country. I wish Mr. James a safe tour.

Posted by: Walt8 | September 8, 2009 8:49 AM
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Thanks for this story. TJ is to be respected and admired.

Posted by: rspound21 | September 8, 2009 8:27 AM
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Wow, a true inspiration, and a paragon of selfless service.

Posted by: thecomedian | September 8, 2009 8:27 AM
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Great to see an Athlete achieve a second dream as great as this one. FLYERSOUT should realize that the majority of our society should achieve as lofty a dream our society would be better off with more people like this. Their are bigger causes than self. Being part of the world's picture and contributing to it a very worthy cause.

Posted by: brownst38 | September 8, 2009 8:16 AM
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This dude is a jockey strapped
IDIOT !!!!!!!!

Posted by: flyersout | September 8, 2009 7:41 AM
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Posted by: onewildflower | September 8, 2009 7:01 AM
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