The phone call came one Saturday afternoon in the fall of 1986 with unexpected, pleasing news and was followed by first-class treatment few his age ever experience. The life of Barnabas James, 14 going on 30, hasn’t been the same since.
It was George Finley, his coach with the Sugar Ray Youth Foundation, calling on behalf of Sports Illustrated.
“Barnabas, you’re the best eighth-grade basketball player . . . in the country,” he said. “A panel of coaches, tournament organizers, scouts, camp directors and recruiting experts said so. Can you fly to New York for a photo session, all expenses paid? Good.”
And that was it. James went East for a couple of days, appeared in SI’s 1986-87 college basketball preview edition, the one with Navy’s David Robinson on the cover and the top players in grades 6 through 12 inside, and went on with his life. But suddenly, he was a role model--the best eighth-grade basketball player in the country.
“Great agility and quickness for a big man,” the caption in the magazine said. “Draws comparisons with a young John Williams.”
A young John Williams? What happened to being a young Barnabas James?
Now, more than a year later, James has added two inches and 10 pounds since his shooting session--photo, not basketball--for the magazine and is a freshman playing on the varsity team at Verbum Dei High School in Los Angeles. Still, and maybe for a long time to come, he is the best eighth-grade basketball player in the country.
“Something like that happens, and suddenly you have more friends,” he said the other day. “You’re more popular. All the light is on you and it’s like, ‘Well, what are you going to do?’ I did what any normal person should do. I went along with it.
“Everything changed. People look at you as a different person. You had more friends. You tended to have more girls go after you. The boys always wanted to be around you, too. You have to set the example and they want to follow you.
“The teachers didn’t change. They got harder. I admit it, my head got a little bigger. But they brought me back down to my level.”
Going to Verbum Dei also helped. Playing on a team that is 8-8 overall and 4-1 in the Camino Real League after beating Daniel Murphy High Wednesday night, James, a 6-foot 6-inch, 175-pound center, usually comes off the bench. He is disappointed about it, but understands. Not long after being on top in junior high leagues, he knows he has to work his way back up.
“I see Barney becoming a great player,” Eagle Coach Gilbert T. Baker said. “For one thing, he is aggressive. He’s strong on the boards and is an excellent shot blocker. . . . I see a monster, someone who can dominate a game.”
Lanky and likeable, James emerged from the hectic post-Sports Illustrated days with the realization that he was different. He didn’t necessarily see himself that way, but it was obvious that others did. It became clear that the acclaim and attention he’d grow to enjoy would also be accompanied by high expectations, and more than once he wished to himself that it all had never happened.
His neighborhood is within the Washington High boundaries, but James decided to go to Verbum Dei, the private all-boys school trying to revive the glory days when Raymond Lewis, David Greenwood, Roy Hamilton, Lewis Brown and Coach George McQuarn, among others, made the Eagles one of the top programs around.
James liked the academics at Verbum Dei--he was No. 1 in the freshman class of 120 with a 3.5 grade-point average at the recent quarter break. Besides, his older brother, Paul, and longtime friend, Sam Ross, were already there. Paul is a sophomore swingman and Ross is a senior forward. Ross plays football, too.
James’ adjustment to the high school game was much easier than expected, he said. He has started some games, but even as the first forward or center off the bench plays 15 or 20 minutes in 32-minute games. His stats are not impressive--5.5 points a game, 4 rebounds, 2 blocked shots--but he has had impressive moments. Still, being the best eighth-grader in the country isn’t worth any points here.
“My brother, his attitude is he doesn’t worry about what you think,” Barnabas said. “He just goes out on the court and tries his best and doesn’t worry about what the crowd wants to see. He has a good attitude.”
It’s an attitude the younger James would like to learn.
“That’s one of the pressures I’ve had, to worry about the crowd,” he said. “That’s one of the habits I have to get out of. I’m doing better. Some of the pressure is off, now that I’m playing.
“They expect you to produce real quick. I’m not using it as an excuse that I’m younger, because I believe I can play with any of these guys, but I think sometimes they expect a lot more from me. A lot more.
“I can dunk, and that’s what people want to see. They want to see you show off.”
Ross, voted the most valuable defensive football player in the Camino Real League, has seen his friend of 10 years change for the better since last spring. It was as if James knew he had some talent in basketball, but making Sports Illustrated and picking up that weighty title--the best eighth-grader in the country-- made him realize just how much.
“That changed his whole perspective,” Ross said. “When you’re young like that, you go to school just to go to school. This way, he understands that he has a future there and that the books are important.”
Baker, in his second year as Verbum Dei’s coach, knew of James from Sports Illustrated and had heard from Ross and a few others that James was interested in playing for the Eagles. The connection grew stronger one day last year when Baker was bragging about his young players. His cousin, a teacher, responded by lauding one student who had some pretty good potential, too.
It was, of course, Barnabas James. He was in her homeroom.
“I’m not stupid,” Baker said. “I made sure she didn’t say anything bad about me.
When the day came for James to begin at Verbum Dei, it was with little fanfare, practically nothing compared to what he had gone through a few months earlier. Any skepticism by future teammates passed quickly.
“They took it real well,” Ross said. “Some were saying, ‘He’s supposed to be this or he’s supposed to be that,’ but there wasn’t too much of, ‘Prove it.’ He showed what he’s got, and he became one of the fellas.”
One of the fellas. The best eighth-grade basketball player in the country probably likes that title just as much.