James battled adversity from the moment he arrived at Duke, it was the injury corner he was in then, but he still came out ahead. During his freshman season, ruptured tendons in his thumb forced him to sit during the first 14 games. He was then forced to take a medical red shirt as a sophomore with a high ankle sprain in his left ankle. Bouncing back in his third year, Nate spend a lot of time on the bench on a team that was filled with future NBA stars including Shane Battier, Elton Brand and Corey Maggette.
After the mass exodus after the 1999 season, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski had a depleted roster after three early NBA departures, and one transfer. Not to mention three graduated seniors. Left behind was Chris Carrawell, Nate James, Shane Battier and a few incoming freshman. The team started the season 0-2 but rattled off 17 straight wins to move to the #1 ranking in the country behind the very blue collar leadership of James, Carrawell and Battier.
Described by Coach Mike Krzyzewski as so muscular "It looked like he just walked out of a boiler room" Nate's story at Duke is as unique as it is special. James was never mentioned in All American voting, in fact, during Duke's memorable run in the 2001 NCAA Tournament, James was not even in the starting line-up. Krzyzewski opted for a quicker line-up to start with and inserted Chris Duhon as a starter. Remaining focused, James remained upbeat and worked hard. In the closing moments of the semi-final game of the ACC tournament his senior year against Maryland, it was Nate's tip in with seconds remaining that locked up the win. While Jason Williams was the star of the gone in 60 seconds win for Duke at Cole Field House earlier that year, it was James who stepped to the line and calmly swished two free throws to tie the game and force overtime. When Duke needed a defensive stop, Krzyzewski frequently matched up James on the opponents leading scorer. It is very safe to say that without James, Cameron Indoor Stadium would only have 2 National Championship banners, not bad for a guy who was in the corner most of his career.
James was a two year starter and two year captain at Duke that endured and overcame tremendous hardship with injuries, playing time and being overshadowed by superstars. While the obstacles kept landing James in the corner on the team, he never stopped coming through for his team. To date, Nate ranks #40 on the list of all time leading scorers at Duke with 1116 career points.
How committed was James? According to Mike Krzyzewski's book Five Point Play right before the 2001 ACC Tournament, Coach K had informed Nate he was going to be removed from the starting line-up in favor of Duhon. To boot, Coach K set out to kick Nate out of practice that day to get him fired up. Why was he going to kick Nate out? Well, the Hall of Fame Coach was not sure to start practice, but he had conspired to do so to motivate him before Nate had even entered the gym. Nate was not kicked out of practice that day, "He never gave me the chance to kick him out. I thought for sure I could find some reason to do so, but in the midst of a slump and being informed he was being benched, Nate James had one of the best practices of his life."
James recalls the experience as a character builder when asked to reflect on the slump he overcame late in his senior year.
"A lot of times when your career is winding down you want to finish on a high note. I was struggling a little bit as all players do at times. I really tried to focus on the big picture of being remembered as the player that I was and also as a National Champion. At Duke everyone has individual accomplishments, but the 2001 Duke team was National Champions and I wanted to be a part of that and end my career on a high note. A lot of people who play NCAA basketball do not have a chance to do that. It was picture perfect to have a comeback like that and get the monkey off my back at season's end."
Such a feat might be tough for the average player, especially in this day and age of huge egos in athletes, but Nate overcame more than just being benched at Duke to get where he is today; A proud Duke graduate and National Champion as a senior Co-Captain.
"It was a dream come true" reflected James, who keeps things as simple as his name, but remains firmly focused and motivated at all times. "I came to Duke to win, and we accomplished that."
Upon graduation, James had a brief stint in the NBA with the Sacramento Kings before signing with the Fayetteville Patriots in the NBDL. However, James suffered a back injury right before the season and was forced to spend over a year and a half rehabbing his injury. Much of his rehab occurred at Duke.
With his back strong and healthy, James went to the Philippines to play professional basketball where he matched up against Duke players Chris Carrawell and Ricky Price. Currently playing professionally in France, James is excited about his health and working hard on his game as he gears up to head back to France after a holiday stay in Durham.
A movie lover who enjoys relaxing in his spare time, James feels fortunate that most everyone who surrounded him in France spoke English.
"Eventually I may wind up in a country where I have to learn a new language, but for now, I am in a country where I do not have to" stated James.
When asked about his former teammate and friend Jason Williams, Nate is quick to point out that "Jason is still the same old Jason Williams, his spirits are up, he is still grinning and he has the type of courage and heart to overcome this and get back on the court and do what he does best."
James stays in touch with all of his former teammates and players and enjoys returning to Duke to stay in touch with former players and coaches. James even was a guest speaker at Coach K's Basketball Camp this past summer.
When asked where he sees himself when his playing days end, James knows he will want to be on the sidelines directing a team of his own.
"I love the game of basketball and I have always admired the coaches who have helped me become both a better player and a better young man. I think coaching is definitely something I would like to get into. I would like to take everything that I have learned and pass that on to the next generation."
So while many of his teammates are now in the NBA with multi-million dollar contracts, James remains a solid player and a professional overseas. Comparatively speaking, I suppose that means Nate is still in the corner. That is okay, we know he is always at his best from there!