Mike James thinks back to a year ago, to Greece and fans lighting fireworks in the arena, shooting off flares, hurling anything within reach toward the court, where players were saved by a large net. He thinks back to how the crowd was so out of control at times that his team was ushered to the locker room while the arena was cleared out before play could resume.
James thinks back on walking the streets, not just there but in each of the countries where he played professionally the past five years -- Croatia, Israel, Italy, Spain and then, finally, Greece -- and how he and his teammates were mobbed for autographs and pictures.
He didn't speak their language, but, he says, "basketball is its own language." The fans spoke it with fervor, treating their favorite team's players like rock stars, but James never saw himself as one and never wanted to either.
"I like being normal a lot," he says.
Quiet. Reserved. A hooper, nothing more. And so, unwanted celebrity became a price he paid to play the game for a living.
But after an improbable journey that began back home in Portland, Oregon, wound to Eastern Arizona College, then Lamar University in Texas, before venturing across the Atlantic, James has found himself classified as a 27-year-old "rookie," tied for the third-oldest player on his latest roster.
And he has finally found some anonymity, just as he prefers, though it comes on the game's biggest stage. "It's kind of refreshing that I can go out and be myself," says the Phoenix Suns point guard. "And nobody notices me."
In a way, this marks James' third Suns stint. He played for their Summer League team in 2015, pairing with then-rookie Devin Booker, who wondered to himself after their first practice together, "Who is this guy? Why isn't he on the team already?"
Then James rejoined the Suns' Summer League squad this past summer, and when he scored 32 in a game, Suns general manager Ryan McDonough's first thought was, "The -year-old-veteran journeyman guy?" No, his staffers said. There's another Mike James -- also a guard but much, much younger. McDonough had never heard of him, even though James once played just a few hours east of Phoenix at a community college that McDonough never knew existed.
But an impression was made, and in July, James inked a two-way contract with the Suns, at that point behind Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Knight and Tyler Ulis in the team's point guard pecking order. Then by October, not long before Bledsoe demanded out and was traded to the Milwaukee Bucks, James rose to the starting lineup. Through Sunday, he is averaging 11.2 points, 3.9 assists and 3.1 rebounds over 23.4 minutes in 17 games, 10 of them starts.
"He's tough, he's fast," Minnesota coach Tom Thibodeau says. "He does everything, a really good competitor."
James has played so well that McDonough says he'd like to work out another deal with James' camp.
"He's got an amazing story," McDonough adds.
Indeed, James' remarkable rise offers many feel-good elements -- an undrafted player who received no draft combine invite, who no Division-I schools recruited, ultimately reaches the league. But don't mistake it for the proverbial dream-come-true tale, as the fulfillment of a lifelong ambition that he pursued since childhood.
"It's kind of refreshing that I can go out and be myself, and nobody notices me."Suns G Mike James, on playing in the NBA versus overseas
"To be honest, I didn't really think about coming to the NBA," James says. It's not as if he jumped at his first chance to join the league either. In fact, by his estimation, James has considered about 15 situations to join NBA teams in the past four years, but, like a true point guard, he passed each time.
None of them offered what he wanted most: to truly play and make an impact.
This most recent opportunity was different. There was certainty and meaningful minutes to be had, but his age mattered too.
"I just felt like it was time," James says. "I felt like if I wasn't going to do it this year, I probably wasn't never going to do it. So I'm just like, let me take one chance. It would just be for a year, and if it doesn't work out here, I'll be back overseas, and I'll make more money."
Some, but not many, long felt he was NBA-ready. At Lamar, where James set a school record with 52 points in a win over Louisiana College and scored 29 points against an Anthony Davis-led Kentucky, his coach Steve Roccaforte told James he was good enough to make the league, but James wasn't always sure.
"Where I come from," he says, "there's not a lot of NBA players, so it's hard to gauge it when you're playing against somebody."
Jamal Crawford saw James' bona fides at Crawford's Pro-Am in Seattle, where James held his own against professionals. "His talent was always there, it was undeniable," says Crawford, the Timberwolves guard. "It's all about the situation and timing, a little luck and just things happen."
But, according to one European-based NBA scout, James wasn't exactly NBA-ready before arriving overseas.
"He became a leader here," the scout says, adding that James declined a seven-figure offer to stay in Europe and instead bet on himself to sign a two-way deal with the Suns. "And it seems to have worked out."
These days, James eschews long-held NBA rookie duties, such as carrying bags or delivering donuts -- tasks he had others rookies handle for him overseas. He misses how late restaurants stayed open in Europe and appreciates his time abroad more now than when he was there. And he laughs when his junior teammates discuss rowdy NBA arenas. To him, these gyms feel and sound empty compared to what he saw in Greece, where he led his team to a league title last year while earning "Most Spectacular Player" honors.
But James enjoys this new calm and quiet, walking around undisturbed in public. "It's less crazy for me," James says. "I think I'm more popular overseas, to be honest."
When he left the Staples Center court before a recent game against the Los Angeles Lakers, two fans leaned over the railing without much hullabaloo, called him by name and wished him luck. James shook their hands, thanking them, grateful for the relative anonymity but, most of all, for the NBA minutes that he sought all along.
ESPN's Nick Friedell contributed to this report.