Three months after his final game as a Tar Heel, Joel James stood panicked in the doorway of a small Japanese apartment.
A world away from Chapel Hill, the ground trembled beneath him.
This 5.4 magnitude earthquake in Kumamoto, Japan was James's welcome to his new, unfamiliar home. The 6-foot-10 center for the Kumamoto Volters quickly found familiarity - and solid ground - on the basketball court.
“It’s exactly what Coach Williams teaches,” James said, his big smile emerging, comparing his new league to what he’s known for the past four years. ?“Same defensive principles, same offensive principles. Pushing the ball, playing through the bigs, fast breaks. It’s the same stuff.”
And James is using this familiarity to his advantage. He’s averaging 9.5 points and 7.6 rebounds for the Volters, amid a 13-game winning streak.
The biggest difference from being in the Smith Center? The language.
“All of my teammates can speak maybe five or 10 words in English,” James said. “But luckily my assistant coach, his name is Shuhei, I can’t pronounce his last name but he speaks English. So he’s pretty much my translator.”
Nevertheless, James has started to pick up a few words of his own: “excuse me,” “water” and “bread,” he pronounces.
And he’s still learning about, and trying to fit into, Kumamoto. The food is healthy and doors are small.
He's slowly warming up to the rice-based meals and miniature-sized living. It’s the people around him who might be taking a bit longer to adjust to their new, giant neighbor.
“Every day I walk by and I can feel the stares. It’s not bad, though, it’s an amazement stare,” he said. “They’ve just never seen a tall black guy walking around Kumamoto, Japan.”
Through the early months of his adventure across the Pacific, James has relied on the Carolina Basketball family for guidance.
“Deon Thompson, Sean May, David Noel,” he lists. “Just a couple of the guys who have experienced overseas life and can give me a few pointers.”
The Carolina Blue argyle he once wore has been replaced with red and blue stripes. The alarm he once set for early morning class is set to watch early morning UNC basketball games.
For Joel James, basketball has led him to a whole new world.