James proud to be an American ... hero

Under a fading summer sun, right there on the Brooklyn Bridge, Kwame James dropped to one knee and proposed to his college sweetheart. She said yes that evening in 2004, with the bridge rumbling and the cars and bicyclists and joggers rushing by, enough reason for James to speak fondly of a lasting bond with New York.

But beyond the circumstances of his marriage proposal, and his time as a 6-foot-8 forward with the Brooklyn Kings of the United States Basketball League, James feels a kinship with the city and its people, its cops, its firefighters, its rescue workers -- everyone who spent the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, confronting the first hours of the ultimate hell-on-earth event.

Ten years later, a Canadian-born athlete raised on the Caribbean island of Trinidad still hurts for a city burned and bloodied by terrorists who turned commercial airliners into missiles that toppled the Twin Towers and changed the world.

"For what New Yorkers went through, and for what I went through," James said, "I'll always feel that connection."

Only three months and 11 days after Osama bin Laden orchestrated a mass murder of unspeakable depths, James was a sleeping passenger on a Paris-to-Miami flight, a professional ballplayer just trying to get home for Christmas, when he was awakened by a flight attendant and drafted into the war against terror.

Some 10 rows back on American Airlines Flight 63, an al Qaeda operative named Richard Reid was trying to kill all 197 people on board by lighting the fuse tethered to a bomb in his shoe. A couple of passengers were wrestling with the flailing 6-4, 200-pound terrorist, who was shouting in Arabic, when the biggest man on board arrived to subdue him.

James helped tie up the would-be shoe bomber with seat belts and headphone cords, held Reid by his pony tail and stood guard over him while two F-15 fighter jets escorted the plane from the Atlantic Ocean to Boston's Logan International Airport, where five terrorists had boarded American Airlines Flight 11 on 9/11.

With the smell of burning sulfur filling up the cabin, a fundamentally sound frontcourt player out of the University of Evansville had made the defensive stop of his life.

"He's tied up head to toe and still he's talking to me in this arrogant, chilling way," James once told me of Reid, who would be sentenced to life in prison. "I told him I had a lot of Muslim friends and we all get along. I said, 'Were you really going to blow up this plane?' And he just said, 'You'll see.'"

On the phone the other day, James didn't want to review the details of his terrorist takedown, nor did he care to identify his place of residence as the 10th anniversary of 9/11 approached. But he did want to talk about his visits to the World Trade Center site and, 15 months after he became a U.S. citizen, his feelings about being an American.

James played pro ball in France, Argentina, Korea and Switzerland. His mother, a former United Nations diplomat, wanted him to be a citizen of the world, and James used basketball to achieve that goal.

But he found his soul mate and his home in the U.S. With his extended visitors privileges expired, and with immigration officials offering no work permits for an unemployed hero waiting on a zillion-to-one shot at the NBA, James needed the help of a small circle of journalists, politicians and lawyers to avoid deportation. He had to negotiate a bureaucratic maze of paperwork to finally make it to his citizenship ceremony in Atlanta in April 2010.

"It was a very emotional moment for me," James said. "I heard a speech from President Obama welcoming us to this country, and it was very touching. I already felt American, but this ceremony was validation for me. It was a feeling of being home and of knowing you're in a place that you love.

"I've lived around the world, and I know in certain parts you can work as hard as you want and never make it if you aren't part of a certain class in society. In America, if you put your work in you can achieve your dream."

Married with two children, James can't wait to vote for the first time in a presidential election "to be a part of the process and help this great country become even better."

At 33, his competitive basketball days are behind him. He'd left the Caribbean for the States as a teen after an aunt living in Indiana invited him to attend a basketball camp in the Hoosier heartland, where Bob Knight watched James score enough points to assure him there was a Division I scholarship in his future.

James helped Evansville reach the NCAA tournament (the Aces lost in the first round to Kansas), and later played with the likes of Lenny Cooke and Charles Jones on Brooklyn's USBL team. Now James wants a second shot in a different field, pharmaceutical sales, a profession he adored before being downsized out of it.

While waiting and hoping for a job offer, James is working on a book on his personal journey and exploring opportunities in the music field. With some guidance from Timbaland, James has produced a couple of songs on iTunes, including one titled "Dreamin'" by an "American Idol" contestant, Stevie Flockhart.

But this week, James' mind has been on New York, the 9/11 anniversary and the overpowering emotions he felt on his trips to ground zero.

"It takes you right back to that moment," he said, "and to thinking of all the lives that were cut short that day. When you see people reading the list of names of victims, it's such a profound thing for me. I know my name could've been on a list somewhere. Being at the World Trade Center just gives me an appreciation for being alive, and for trying to live every day to the fullest."

James said he might like to live in New York, if only he could afford the cost of a home there. He said he won't be downtown in body Sunday, but that he'll most certainly be there in heart and mind.

"My thoughts will be on the families all day," he said. "We promised 10 years ago to never forget the victims, and I'm just very proud of my country that it hasn't."

It was a nice thought from a man who was an American hero before he was an American.

Ian O'Connor is the author of "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." Sunday Morning with Ian O'Connor can be heard every Sunday, 9-11 a.m., on ESPN New York 1050.