Jerome James and the million-dollar question

On Dec. 3, 2003, I was in the visiting locker room at Continental Airlines Arena before the Seattle SuperSonics were going to play the New Jersey Nets.

A few days before, I had heard Sonics center Jerome James on the radio denying a story that I wrote and saying he no longer was going to speak to me because I had misquoted him.

So I approached James to straighten out the situation. He held to his claim that I had misquoted him in a story I had written about him saying he didn't care whether he started or not.

"But Jerome," I told him, "I have the entire interview on my tape recorder right here if you want to listen to it."

"You can dillydally with those things," he told me.

Dillydally ... tinker ... whatever. I got the point. I was stunned – and not just because a 7-foot-1 man weighing close to 300 pounds would use the word "dillydally."

As James continued, it dawned on me that he hadn't even read my story. His comments were too vague, too obtuse. So I called him on it.

"Jerome," I asked, "did you even read the story?"

"No," he admitted, "but my girl told me about it."

But not speaking with Jerome the rest of the season was OK. For a reporter, he didn't deserve the attention.

After all, this was a man whose nickname is Big Snacks.

This is a man who once answered coach Nate McMillan's accusation of a selfish attitude by saying, "I don't even know what he is talking about, I just worry about Jerome."

This is a man who once fell asleep in a film session, then said he didn't really fall asleep, he just "nodded off."

This is a man who was late to practice one day when it snowed, saying he could not get out of his driveway. He drives a Hummer.

He was humorous, to be sure, but more of a sideshow, the bearded lady at the circus.

So fast forward to this season, March 16, 2005, in the visiting locker room at the Palace of Auburn Hills, where the players were, for some reason, angry. An inexplicable blowup in the middle of an NBA season. Ray Allen was sniping about McMillan's play calling. Rashard Lewis was openly wondering about the agendas of some free agents on the team. Reggie Evans was grousing about playing time.

And in the middle of what already was a surreal scene, James approached me and said, "You know what, I totally get why you wrote that story last season. I ain't mad at you. You my man."

Was he dillydallying with me? I wondered.

After all, it is not every day that an NBA player admits he is wrong, much less apologizes for it.

But James, apparently, was sincere, and it seems as if that was part of a personality transformation he has made this season that currently has him as the key figure in the Sonics' first-round playoff series with Sacramento, something as shocking as, say, a drought in Seattle.

James, who has averaged 4.9 points and 3.5 rebounds this season, went for 17 points, 15 rebounds (a career high) and five blocks (tying a career high) in Game 1, an 87-82 Seattle victory.

When Cuttino Mobley publicly doubted his ability to follow up that performance with another, James went for 19 points and nine rebounds in Game 2, only the second time this year that James has had consecutive nights of scoring in double figures.

He ain't Shaq, but he is more than enough against a Kings team that is in utter disarray, with injured players Brad Miller and Bobby Jackson trying to coalesce with newly acquired Kenny Thomas, Brian Skinner and Corliss Williamson, and with limited time to do it.

You would think that James was playing for redemption, paying back the team that he says once told him to find a new line of work, cutting him after the 1998-99 season.

But James says no, this breakout is equal parts opportunity and the new version of himself.

You see, I wasn't the only one who had a problem with James last year. Virtually everybody in the Sonics' locker room did, too, something he said he realized as the season wore on and he had built antagonistic relationships with everyone around him.

The tipping point, he said, came when his mother called him a week after the season.

"I didn't raise you like that, Jerome," James says his mother told him. "Me and your Daddy didn't raise you like that. You are cussing at referees. You are always cussing and fussing at your teammates. We didn't raise you like that. Now I don't know what you picked up in them streets when you was out there, but you need to forget about that because that is not your foundation."

"I mean, that's my Mama," James recalled. "To hear Mama hurt, that has to hit home. You know you can't argue with your Mama. When Mama says something, you better be quiet and listen."

James says he had a come-to-Jesus with himself that night.

"I told my Mama I wasn't being a bad apple," James said. "And then it hit home, 'Maybe you are since everyone is blaming Jerome'. And so I took a look at myself. And in doing that I realized that I had been hiding myself from these guys and then asking them to trust me on the court. You can't do that. You have to open up and show who you really are and allow them to trust you on the court. Because the impression in the locker room about me was that I didn't care about the game of basketball. Which wasn't true. I did care. A lot."

The next day, James said he phoned teammate Ray Allen, a Sonics captain whose locker is right next to his.

"I decided to listen, hear his side of things," James said. "Hear how we went from being good friends upon his arrival [in Seattle] to being natural-born enemies upon the completion of the season. I decided to sit down and hear another's man perspective about how he feels about me. And take it constructively, and not negatively."

Allen says he told James: "You show glimpses of being great, and then all of a sudden you come out and look like you've never worked on your game before or you have no energy. People, they see that. You have to stop blaming everybody else and step up and take responsibility. You are 7-feet tall. When you come out and do the things you are capable of, people are going to celebrate you – forever."

That may be a bit extreme, but they certainly are celebrating James this week in Seattle, a town that may be witnessing its first victory in a postseason series since 1998.

Of course, the question must be asked, why has this not happened before? After all, James did not grab more than eight rebounds in a single game all season, and for two games in a row in the postseason he has exceeded that total. He is all over the floor, with boundless energy and a looming presence that has changed the tenor of this series.

James says he is being given a chance.

"All season long, they didn't shut Ray down, they didn't shut Rashard down," James said. "We knew coming into the postseason that we were going to need a post presence. In the playoffs, if you shut down the run and gun and you shut down the transition, what do you have left? You have half-court basketball. And we needed to establish a post presence so we can continue scoring and free up our jump shooters."

There also is the notion that James is being given the freedom to play by the officials because of the increasingly physical play permitted in the playoffs. In the regular season, James was among the league leaders in fouls per minute, often going to the bench early after picking up unintelligent fouls. In the postseason, he has not yet been in foul trouble, playing 34 minutes in Game 1 and 29 minutes in Game 2.

The underlying question, of course, is whether this all is an act. It is, quite literally, a million dollar question.

Three years ago, the Sonics pulled Vin Baker into an office and told him that his ticket out of town was to perform well in the postseason. They would showcase him on a national stage, but he had to do the rest. He did just enough against the San Antonio Spurs to sucker the Boston Celtics into trading for him.

James was around for that; he knows the importance that playing well when everyone is watching carries. As a free agent, he realizes that he is making a lot of money right now.

The Sonics know this, too. They have seen this act before. There are certain parts of the organization who think that James is playing well right now to get a contract, and that once he gets it he will revert to his previous habits of laziness and tardiness.

But you know there are others who watch this series, what he has done against the Kings, and his potential if he just tries. That portion would love to re-sign him – and, really, he is such a tease, with that big body and those obvious skills, that you can't blame them.

Ray Allen says he thinks James' new attitude is genuine. He has worked hard this season, kept off the weight and for the most part accepted his role.

We at least posed the question to James.

"If I was playing for the money, then it wouldn't be this outcome," James said. "Because it would be a selfishly motivated performance. And you would see me not making the right play. You would see me making the same mistakes I made in the past. Because I was selfishly motivated then.

"But it is something special when you actually believe the stuff you say out of your own mouth. This is me now. This team, any other team, this is what they are going to get. Because when you have gone so long looking through scratched-up glasses, and then you take the glasses off, you are like, 'Oh, OK, now I see.' There is no way in the world you are going to pick up those dirty glasses and put them back on and walk around thinking that you can see. You know you can't see."

Let's just hope he's not dillydallying.

Frank Hughes, who covers the NBA for the Tacoma (Wash.) News-Tribune, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.