ANAHEIM, Calif. – Oklahoma freshman Christian James slowly climbed the ladder. He had his Final Four hat on as he deliberately took each step, scissors in hand. James paused just before he cut his strand from the net, thinking about ‘Baby Jade’ in that moment.
James took the small strand of nylon in his hand, kissed it and looked up into the rafters of the Honda Center as he started to cry. He wiped the tears away with his shirt as Sooners’ assistant coach Lew Hill, who recruited James out of Bellaire High School, took James under his left arm.
In James’ first game since the death of three friends, including his former girlfriend, Jade Robinson, he had 12 points – one shy of his career high. He helped send Oklahoma back to the Final Four for the first time in 14 years.
It was something James had talked about with Robinson, who died in a car accident with two other Bellaire students last Sunday. Even before the season started, they had talked about Oklahoma making the Final Four in James’ hometown of Houston.
“I just wish she could have been here just to experience this with me,” James said. “God doesn’t make any mistakes. This was for her. . . . Everything that happened (Saturday), it feels like she was here.”
During the Sweet 16 win, a 3-pointer rattled out and then fell back into the hoop for James. Then another did the same as Oklahoma rolled past Texas A&M in the Sweet 16. James said it was because Robinson was there. James started receiving text messages and notes on Twitter, congratulating him for his performance and saying that his success was for the group of girls who were killed a little more than a week ago.
There’s a collection of memorial basketball games scheduled to raise money this week. James hopes he can attend. The Bellaire community, an affluent and close-knit group, has responded. Some have helped pay for funeral costs. Others have given significant discounts on funeral services to help the grieving families.
James ran around the court after Oklahoma beat Oregon in the Elite 8, yelling ‘We’re going to the H.’ He is coming back to his home city, and at least a part of the Bellaire community will be looking at him. He hopes to help in the healing process.
“It’s been tragic for the whole school,” James said. “I know it’s totally different without them there. . . . Everybody loved them. It’s tough on them. It’s different not seeing them there. I don’t want say this can change a lot of people or the way they look at it, but this is what they wanted.”
Bellaire High pulls in kids from a few of the surrounding communities to make up its nearly 3,500-student enrollment. James is from Yates, one of those surrounding communities and a poor area. James called it ‘the hood’ and said there are rough neighborhoods. His mom sent him to Bellaire because of the school’s academics.
Bellaire boys’ basketball coach Bruce Glover said there was shock last Monday as news circulated about the accident. James was down and feeling guilt when he spoke with Glover on the phone a week ago. Glover saw a renewed focus in James in the Sweet 16, like he was “really into the moment.”
The community has taken notice of James, and fellow former player Sheldon McClellan, who made the Sweet 16 with Miami. James has given the community a bit of hope and something positive to look toward.
“The fact that he’s doing well, and he shows up. He’s showing up,” Glover said. “. . . He’s a great kid, and he’s coming home. They see him on TV. It’ll be good. It’ll be really good.”
Glover said James will take the spotlight as a challenge. He isn’t worried about the moment or the pressure being too big for James.
“He’ll relish the opportunity that has been presented to him,” Glover said. “He’ll be fine. That’s what he does.”
In his final AAU season, James came off the bench in the first few tournaments, playing a limited role just like he has done early in his career at Oklahoma. By June and the Peach Jam in Atlanta, he was in the starting lineup. At the end of the season just before he broke his leg, James was starring. Like at Oklahoma, he figured out a way to earn minutes by playing his best.
James has supplanted Dinjiyl Walker as the first guard off the bench, and he has found a little bit of comfort knowing that he went through a similar process before in high school.
“It has definitely helped me,” James said. “. . . I just kept praying that I’d find a way to get into the game and do what I do. That has happened here. It’s kind of a process for me. I know what the process is about already.”
James has trusted in his faith during the last week, saying that God doesn’t make mistakes and “everything is in God’s plan.” He set out this past weekend to play for his lost friends, not knowing exactly how he’d perform but dedicating his performance to them. He’ll come home this weekend for the Final Four to a community still mourning.
“This is what they would have wanted,” James said. “We talked about it. . . . It’s just mind-blowing: To do this for her. We are one game away.”