ATLANTA -- Kwame James had to wait nearly 10 years to be
sworn in as a U.S. citizen, a long time compared with the time he
spent helping subdue would-be shoe bomber Richard Reid on a
James, now 32, wore a gray pinstriped suit and blue tie at Thursday's ceremony in Atlanta, which ended years of immigration limbo
that began after he helped thwart the terror attack aboard a
Paris-to-Miami flight in December 2001.
The 6-foot-8 basketball player -- who had played two years in high school in the U.S. and
four years at Division I Evansville -- was napping when a flight
attendant roused him. Ten rows back, Reid was scuffling with
passengers and the crew after he tried to ignite explosives hidden
in his shoes.
James helped tie up Reid with belts and headset
wires, and took turns holding Reid by his ponytail with another
passenger until the plane could land in Boston.
Nearly 10 years later, James would rather talk about how happy
he is to be a new citizen and his passion for music.
"I became a citizen of one of the best countries in the world
and I am very happy," he said. "All the things that people come here
for, that's what I'm here for, the opportunity. You can come from
nothing and become something here, just through hard work."
James, who was born in Canada and raised in Trinidad, was playing
professional basketball in France at the time of the incident. He had been traveling to the
U.S. to meet his then-girlfriend and take her to his family's home
in Trinidad for the holidays.
He returned to France after the trip
but asked his basketball coach for some time off when the reality
of the flight's close call set in.
"I didn't understand the magnitude of what happened at first,"
He entered the U.S. as a tourist but later realized he couldn't
overstay his visa if he wanted to become a citizen later. He agreed
to testify against Reid, but the government seemed to turn its back
on him after Reid pleaded guilty before trial in October 2002, said
his immigration lawyer, Michael Wildes.
Wildes was shocked that someone who had acted heroically might
lose permission to stay in the U.S., and he volunteered during a
nationally televised to take the case for free.
Wildes brought James' case to the attention of then-New York
Sen. Hillary Clinton and Rep. Joe Crowley. He also helped James
apply for a visa that allowed him to play basketball.
James ended up making the cut for the minor league Brooklyn Kings. The
assistant coach and co-owner of the team, Dan Liebman, said the two
"became like brothers" and even let James crash at his apartment.
"He's an incredible class act through and through," Liebman
said. "People should model their children after him."
James married his girlfriend, Jill, and became a legal permanent
resident. After several more years, he applied for citizenship and
was finally sworn in Thursday.
After giving up basketball, James got a job as a sales
representative for Pfizer but later was laid off. Having shown he
could get a job on his own, James felt comfortable accepting help
offered by Liebman and agreed a year ago to move to
Atlanta to help expand his friend's IT staffing firm in the
Given his love for hip-hop and urban music, James was happy to
move with his wife and two young children and be near the city's
vibrant music scene.
For now, though, he's just looking forward to something he's
never done in the United States: "I can't wait to vote in the next