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UPDATED: A Man of War, Recalls His Very Own Battle

The tall man chuckles lightly when I mention the first name of this happy gathering – as if he hasn’t heard it or read it enough since landing on Paradise Island.

“This is the Battle for Atlantis,” I tell him. “You’ve been in true battle.”

“Yeah,” agrees Bernard James, nodding and smiling. At 6-foot-10 and 240 pounds, he is gentle and soft-spoken away from the court. Yet he oozes a feisty streak when he suits up for Florida State, leading the squad this season in rebounds and blocked shots.

At first, James sloughs off the irony of this basketball “battle” with easy humor. The former soldier served three tours of duty. One morning in 2007, he was abruptly hurled onto the Iraqi ground when a mortar exploded in his compound, killing six other men. Some of his Seminole teammates, he mentions, even “make jokes” about his military pedigree, as in: Don’t mess with Bernard, because “he knows how to kill people.”

(Photo courtesy of Bernard James)

But James quickly veers back to somber reality: His teammates also hold the 26-year-old veteran in deep regard, both for his service and his worldly ways, he acknowledges.

“I definitely do feel they respect me. They listen to what I have to say – when I do speak.”

The attack on his base, Camp Bucca – a prison for insurgents and suspected terrorists – also left 67 detainees wounded. No Americans were hurt. The shell landed about 75 feet from James. His only emotional scar, he says: “I don’t really like to see gory movies. I really didn’t have a problem with them before.” That and the realization that: “They’ll kill you because you’re an American. That really came home for me.”

Once a high school drop out, James spent six years in the U.S. Air Force. He didn’t learn how to play basketball until age 17 – at a California air base. But he credits the military with giving him both the game and the head to absorb hard-nosed coaching. That, he says, explains his late but rapid rise from hoops novice to one of the ACC’s enforcers.

“In the military, (there’s) the faith they teach you to have in your leadership … When I have coaches, I know what they’re telling me is beneficial. I try to soak it up as fast as I can so I can move onto the next lesson. And it’s been working for me.”

James is scheduled to unleash some of his battle-hardened might against Massachusetts at 4:30 p.m. Eastern.

So how about one more dash of irony: this game pits the bruising veteran against a team named in honor of a colonial American militia. Are you going with the real deal? Or with the Minutemen?

And, hey, don’t even get me started on the Seminole Wars of the 1800s. This is, after all, still about bball.

-Bill Briggs

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