HE CARRIED THE SECRET WITH HIM ALL THROUGH LAST YEAR, WELL INTO THE postseason. Bernard James's teammates and coaches tried to mask the big man's big weakness as best they could. Yes, James shot 65.7% from the floor (a mark that would have led the conference if his 5.2 attempts per game had not fallen short of the 5.9 minimum). Yes, he scored in double figures in five of Florida State's final six games, including 14 points in the stunning upset of Notre Dame in the third round of the NCAA tournament. So what was James hiding? The most surprising thing about his offensive production, all in his first year of Division I basketball, was that James was doing it essentially with one hand. The southpaw, who had never played organized basketball until after he left high school, hadn't developed a shot with his weak hand. "I could sometimes muster up a shot with my right hand in practice if the situation was right," says the 26-year-old James. "But I definitely wasn't comfortable. And I definitely wasn't confident."
All that's changed. Knowing that the Seminoles will be relying on him to boost his 8.6 points per game from last season, the 6' 10", 240-pound James aimed for hoops ambidexterity this off-season. "Sometimes, during the game, I did hear, 'Cut his left off! Cut his left off!' " James recalls. "But I'd still get off a lefthand jump hook. So I thought, All right, I'll keep going. But [opponents] might wise up this year."
The cure for one-handedness? A summerlong diet of fundamentals, repetition and punishment. James had an FSU student manager beat him up with pads "as hard as he could" while the forward posted up in the paint. He shot approximately 140 righthanded jump hooks every day. Toward the end of the summer James focused on countermoves and reading defenders. "There aren't a lot of people who can guard him on his left alone," junior swingman Michael Snaer says. "He's that athletic and that long. Adding that other hand, he's going to be a big-time presence on the offensive and defensive end."
The former Air Force staff sergeant was discovered by Seminoles coach Leonard Hamilton in 2005 at a U.S. Armed Forces all-star tournament in Las Vegas. A self-described "slacker," James dropped out of Windsor Forest High in Savannah at age 16 and never even played organized basketball until joining the military. (James tried out for but was cut from Windsor Forest's freshman team.) At first Hamilton had to convince James that he had enough talent to earn a Division I scholarship. "I didn't really think that was an option for me," James says.
But basketball was his ticket. After he was discharged from the Air Force in July 2008, James enrolled at Tallahassee Community College, was named the school's basketball student-athlete of the year and realized, upon transferring to FSU, that he could swat shots with the best. James ranked second in the ACC in blocks (82) last season and rejected 13.5% of his opponents' two-pointers, good for sixth in the nation according to kenpom.com. But, James says, "I don't think I'm very skilled." Asked how close he is to reaching his athletic potential, he estimates that he's in only the 60% to 70% range. "But my coaches will tell you that I soak things up like a sponge," James adds. "Every day I'm excited. I'm locked in, adding to my game."
He has two shooting hands to show for it.