By: Ken LaVicka
CHAPEL HILL – On a Sunday afternoon in early November, following an early season win over Florida Atlantic at the Dean E. Smith Center, North Carolina's newest basketball attraction ambles his way into the player's lounge to face the media.
Freshman center Joel James gives a goofy hello to several of the reporters lining up to talk to him, pulls out a seat at a nearby table, sits down, and awkwardly awaits questions from the swelling media throng surrounding him.
This is the new, high-profile life of the Dwyer High School product. At 6'10”, 260 lbs., James stands out. He's the tallest player in the Tar Heels youth movement, and is certainly the most intriguing. Fellow freshman teammate Marcus Paige is a more highly-touted prospect, but James has the irresistibe story.
Naturally, the first question posed to James following a strong 11 point, eight rebound performance against the Owls is about whether he feels he's improving from game-to-game. He'll get a lot of that this year.
James is the unproven giant, a kid with a limitless ceiling and just as many question marks. His body screams NBA, his basketball inexperience looms like a dark cloud.
James' tale is widely known at this point. He didn't play organized basketball until he was talked into it in his sophomore year at Dwyer. He immediately drew the attention of Division I basketball coaches across the country, but with his weight up over 300 lbs., he had to put a lot of work into changing his body. His passion and dedication for the game has been questioned, his actual basketball skills have been skewered, yet here he is at Carolina, a basketball mecca, shouldering a sizable burden of expectation.
“Basketball is a game of constantly improving. I know myself, I know I'm constantly improving,” James tells a member of the Tar Heel media, a response James knows will appease the powder blue masses.
But James also tosses in moments of clarity, a refreshing honesty from a young man who is openly insecure as he tries to adapt to his new surroundings.
When questioned about being whistled for an obvious offensive foul in the first half against FAU, James immediately owns up to it.
“That was stupid. As the season goes along, I want to get better.”
With the questions flowing, James is silly, uncomfortable, engaging, and distant, all at one time.
North Carolina's trip to the Maui Invitational is nearing. Someone asks James if he's excited about the trip to Hawaii.
“I don't know,” James replies flatly, but with a smirk. “I've never been. I don't know whether to be excited or not.”
Jones responds to a query about being coached by Roy Williams.
“Obviously when coach yells at you, it's a pretty scary thing. He's a small man but he can be very intimidating.”
The answer draws laughs, some genuine, some because, well, many will laugh at anything that comes out of the mouth of a pedestal-placed UNC basketball player.
Jones sits expression-less, waiting for the next reporter to speak up.
It's almost as if the extravagance of his situation, the sheer weight of being a “name” at North Carolina, makes James uncomfortable. He's out of his element.
Another question. Is he overwhelmed?
“Sometimes it's like 'man, I just want to be a regular kid', but this is what I signed up for. I signed a letter of intent for this, so I'm here.”
I finally get the opportunity to introduce myself to James. The moment I tell him I'm from West Palm Beach, he perks up, shakes my hand, and immediately turns his entire body to face me, the rest of the media contingent left to look at his back or at his side. I've never met James, but it's almost as if he's relieved to be in the presence of someone who can provide him with any connection to his previous life as a care-free teenager. A life before the lights, the non-stop interviews, the urgent, must-win approach to being a part of the hoops experience in Chapel Hill.
Our interaction is brief. He was happy to see FAU head coach Mike Jarvis and the Owls coaching staff, whom he credits with helping prepare him for the journey to Carolina.
“FAU, that's my hometown university. It was pretty cool seeing Coach [Jarvis] again. Before I came up here, I went down [to Boca Raton] all the time and played those guys all the time. He worked with me and gave me a lot of experience, just trying to get me mentally ready for the game before I got here.”
I point out he's wearing a hoodie. He didn't do much of that growing up in West Palm.
“It's cold up here. I don't know how I'm going to make it” quips James.
I look up to see if he's smiling after that comment. He's not.
James says he tries to talk to Fred Ross, his high school coach, as much as he can. He credits Ross with making him into what he has become, so he owes it to Ross to try to reach out as often as possible. That brings a smile to his face.
Finally, I ask if he enjoys the college experience. He pauses, waits, gives an “ummm”. After debating it in his mind, he hesitantly digs in.
“Yes,” says James, drawing out the word, as if he's not 100% sure he means it. “It's tough physically. You have practice on Monday, weights on Monday, practice on Tuesday, and you have class obviously, and studying. It's a lot, but you get through it. It's pretty rewarding when you get a win.”
With that, our conversation ends. James shakes my hand, gets up, and walks slowly back to the North Carolina locker room. I'm not sure where he's going after that, but I know he has to get right back to work tomorrow. After all, he's living the life of a major Division 1 student-athlete. I head back into the arena and pack up my things.
James future at North Carolina is extremely bright. He's a monumental prospect with the want and desire to learn and excel. He won't fail. That said, as I walk out of the “Dean Dome” and prepare for a flight back to South Florida, I can't help but think that a large part of James wishes he was about to do the exact same thing.