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Wednesday, March 21, 2007

HOOP SCOOP

King James: Saitama's Gordon relies on effort to rule boards


TOKOROZAWA, Saitama Pref. -- Catch a glimpse of any Saitama Broncos game and this is something you'll see time after time:

Ed Odeven

An opposing player takes a shot and misses, the ball bounces off the rim or backboard and . . . Gordon James goes after it with all his might.

He out-jumps, out-hustles and out-muscles opposing players -- and an occasionally bewildered teammate -- for the bouncing, rolling or airborne ball on a regular basis.

Each time he secures the basketball in his hands, James is displaying the same go-for-the-gusto mentality that children show when they open presents on Christmas Day.

James is the bj-league's No. 1 rebounder. He has 503 boards in 36 games, an impressive figure of 14.0 per contest. It's more impressive when you consider that each of the bj-league's eight teams have bigger, stronger players.

"I just want the ball," James said after a recent game at Tokorozawa Municipal Gymnasium.

James has had double figures in rebounds in all but five games, including three 20-rebound outings and a 21-board effort.

Though he's a capable scorer -- he's averaging 16.9 points per game -- James' mentality on the court keeps him focused on being an ace rebounder.

News photo
Gordon James of the Saitama Broncos is the bj-league's leading rebounder this season (14.0 per game). SAITAMA BRONCOS PHOTO

"When you rebound the basketball," James says, "there's always a place for you on the floor . . . even if you're not scoring."

Saitama forward David Benoit dished out nothing but praise for James when we conversed about his teammate.

"Rebounding is all hard work and that's what Gordon does," is how Benoit put it.

"It takes a lot of work to get that many rebounds."

And he should know.

Benoit competed with and against rebounding stalwarts Charles Barkley, Dennis Rodman and Karl Malone in the NBA in the 1990s.

James, meanwhile, has welcomed constructive criticism from the longtime pro since the beginning of the season.

"If you see something wrong with my game, tell me," Benoit recalls James telling him. "I will not get upset."

He hasn't.

"He still wants to get better," Benoit adds.

After his team lost 92-78 to the Broncos on March 11, Oita HeatDevils forward Mikey Marshall pointed out that James has become a player the bj-league's other seven teams must find way a contain.

"He's a great player," Marshall says. "If you want to win, you have to focus on stopping great players."

In other words, opposing teams' scouting reports are not written without prominent mention of what James can accomplish.

What makes James a great player?

"He's a great jumper. He's a great scorer," Marshall decided.

But James doesn't knock down spot-up jumper after spot-up jumper from long range or sink off-balance floaters in the lane.

Yes, he has a nice shooting touch, but it's his explosive first step and leaping ability that create scoring chances for him on the break or in traffic.

But remember this: Tip-ins, dunks, putbacks -- all with a forceful manner -- have become his offensive trademark.

James is one of the biggest bright spots this season for the Broncos, who are 13-23 and 13 games behind the league-leading Osaka Evessa.

In his first year in the bj-league, James is earning the praise of fans, his peers and the league's coaches for being a solid all-around player. In doing so, he's replicating what he did at SC Barga in the Portuguese League last season, when, as a rookie, he took home the MVP award and led the circuit in rebounding.

James was born in Guyana, a small nation in South America. His early athletic pursuits included the 200-meter dash, soccer and cricket.

"They used to call me 'Flash Gordon,' " the 28-year-old says, flashing a smile.

James moved to Brooklyn, N.Y., when he was 11. Like most Big Apple boys, he played basketball for fun with friends, but didn't start playing organized ball until his senior year at Automotive High School.

Nevertheless, one year of varsity ball paved the way for James' basketball odyssey.

He attended Orange County Community College (N.Y.) before enrolling at Division II University of Bridgeport (Conn.). In two seasons at Bridgeport, he attracted national attention for his rebounding prowess and led all D-II players in rebounding twice.

His college career ended in 2004, but not before he had made a name for himself.

"A scout saw me playing in my conference All-Star Game and the Portugal deal was basically finalized," James says.

But first he spent another year focusing on academics. James earned a degree in child psychology in 2005, and he eventually wants to be a guidance counselor. ("I had that person for me in high school," he says. "I can definitely see myself as a counselor after basketball.")

That career can wait for now, though.

His pro basketball career is, really, just beginning -- and thriving. James participated in the bj-league's inaugural All-Star Game on Jan. 27 in Okinawa.

What's more, James has become a fan favorite.

One example: Saitama supporters have started bringing a Guyana flag to recent home games, helping James feel at home thousands of kilometers from his birthplace.

Sure, you can explain to players the fundamentals of solid rebounding: boxing out and how to position oneself for the balls, but it's an aspect of the game that's more mental than physical.

"You have got to want it, but you still need the desire to get the ball," James says.

"It's something you really can't teach."

James is equally adept at blocking shots (he's averaging 1.8 per game, which is No. 2 in the league; this includes 19 games of two or more swatted shots) or making steals (57).

In the fourth quarter of the March 11 game, for instance, James helped quell an Oita comeback attempt by rejecting Oita big man Andy Ellis' jumper as the HeatDevils threatened to pull within six in the final two minutes. It never happened. The Broncos closed out the game on a strong note.

"I want to do something (each game) that's going to fire up my teammates," James says.

Off the court, James is relaxed and introspective. He writes poetry ("fiction, but not a diary") and is a bit quirky ("I never run for more than 40 minutes," he says, explaining that the time of a hoops game is long enough for him to run.).

A vegetarian, James keeps fit by going to a Tokorozawa sports club three or four times a week. He doesn't lift weights, though; he sticks to calisthenics.

Every basketball league has guys like Gordon James, guys who demand a lot from themselves each time down the court. And that's a good thing.



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