New Beginning Awaits James

Joel James wore No. 12 last season for Dwyer High in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. It's a special number reserved for the Panthers' senior captain each year and an honor that James earned in the eyes of his high school coach, Fred Ross.

That number, however, was Phil Ford's and is retired at North Carolina. But it did not take James, a history buff who already knows all of the retired jerseys that hang in the Dean E. Smith Center, long to select a different jersey number for his freshman season in Chapel Hill.

He will wear ‘0' and he was quick to give his reason for choosing that number.

"It's like a constant reminder to me that I haven't done anything yet. Nothing has been given to me here or anything like that," James said. "I feel like I have to work for everything I get, that's why I chose the number zero."

The 6-foot-11, 265-pound center said he has heard talk that some feel he will be a project in Chapel Hill.

"It came to me rather quickly," James said of his choice of jersey. "I heard people talking, things like I don't deserve a scholarship and things like that, so I felt like No. 0 would be the right place to start, the start of my college career. I've got to build up somewhere. This is a beginning, and that's what the No. 0 represents for me."

James might arrive on campus a few days later than the other incoming freshmen this month. He has been invited to the USA Basketball Men's U18 National Team tryouts June 5-12 at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. Should James make the 12-member team, he will accompany it to Brazil for the FIBA Americas U18 Championship June 16-20 before heading to Chapel Hill to enroll for summer classes on June 22.

That will culminate a hectic month for James, who within a four-week stretch will have received his high school diploma, traveled across the country for the National Team tryouts, then possibly to Brazil and back to the States to enroll for his freshman year of college.

"I anticipate it's going to be extremely hectic and really intense," James said, looking ahead to his first days at UNC. "Not so much the basketball, just getting used to college life and people demanding so much out of you in such little time. I just hope I can manage my time well and just do the best I can in everything I do. It's definitely more hectic than high school. I'm looking forward to it, but I'm also anxious and a little nervous. New people and a new environment, new everything. It should be fun. It's a new challenge."

James has taken very little time off since his final high school game in March. He works out six days a week – his mother insists that Sunday be a day of rest for her son – and diligently has maintained a daily regimen that includes a mile or 1.5-mile run, followed by a series of pushups and lunges. Later in the day, he hits the weight room. He said he also has been concentrating on improving his "explosiveness" by doing plyometrics to increase his leg strength and leaping ability. He recently experienced an incident that shows how much the hard work is paying off when during a pickup game at the local gym where he works out, he almost hit his head on the rim while grabbing an alley-oop pass.

"It was the highest I've ever been," James said, chuckling. "My head grazed the backboard as I was going up. I was like, ‘Wow, that's the first time I've ever done that.'"

Actually, everything that has happened to James in the past year has been a surprise for him. He only became interested in organized basketball three years ago after being coaxed to try out for the Dwyer varsity team his sophomore year. He was a member of Dwyer's 2010-11 state championship team, but fell short of his goal to lead the Panthers to a repeat title his senior year.

"Obviously, it wasn't the season I'd hoped it would be," James said, reflecting on his high school career. "Just coming off winning a state title last year, I was hoping to do the same this year, but it didn't work out that way. But it gave me great experiences in how to deal with myself, and it built character in me. It showed me how to work with my teammates and how to take criticism and how to be a leader. I matured."

Now, James is off to try out for the U.S. National team, something he said he never dreamed would happen when he was coaxed to give basketball a shot.

"That thought never even crossed my mind," James said. "In fact, I don't even think I was thinking about basketball three years ago. It's like a dream."

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