Sooners Showed Unbroken Faith in James
In the summer prior to his senior year of high school, Christian James' basketball life seemed perfect.
He was in the midst of a perfect outing as a member of the Houston Hoops in the final game of the AAU season. James hadn't missed a shot from the field (10 for 10) or from the free-throw line. In his eyes, a potentially spectacular season awaited in his final year at Houston's Bellaire High School, during which James would choose from more than a dozen Division I scholarship offers.
Then came a painful imperfection. After making a steal, James took flight on a breakaway dunk when his left leg inexplicably shattered, as did his dream season as a high school senior.
"It was a good day and it was a bad day at the same time," James recalled. "Got a steal. I tried to go up with two (legs) and my (left) leg just popped. I didn't know what happened. I tried to walk on it, but it was just too painful. I went over to my bench and tried to bend my knee a little. My teammates were saying, 'Stop doing that' because every time I would bend it, you would see my bone pop in and out a little bit. It was in my skin, but you could see my bone moving. They just laid me down and took me to the hospital."
James was told he would miss 6-8 months with that broken tibia, yet National Signing Day was only three months away. Which college, if any, would retain an interest in a hobbled James?
"I was scared because I didn't know what would happen next," James admitted. "I had never had surgery or anything like that. I just kept praying."
James' list of college candidates included LSU, Maryland, Wake Forest, Creighton, Texas Tech, TCU, Oklahoma State, Oregon, Houston and Oklahoma. Turns out several programs stayed attached to James, a versatile wingman who returned in time to play the final two games of his senior season. James said it was a close call among his three finalists of Oregon, Houston and the Sooners.
"OU stuck with me the whole way," said James, who signed while in the midst of rehab. "Even when I committed, some other schools kept calling me, but I feel I was commited. Me and the (OU) coaches had a special bond. ... It meant a lot, seeing they really cared about me. I knew they would look after me down here and try to help me develop my game and become a better person."
When Sooners coach Lon Kruger and assistant Lew Hill first laid eyes on James, they actually were scouting other players. This visit was during James' sophomore season.
"We had time in between (games) and all my friends were saying, 'Bellaire's got a bunch of young kids. Go watch them,' and they gave me a list of names," Hill explained. "When we went there, Christian probably had his best day. We were watching everybody on the list and he (James) had a really good day. And from then on, we started recruiting him. He played hard. He did a little bit of everything. That's what he does. He made great basketball plays. His cerebral plays are what stood out."
As a junior, James averaged 20.0 points, 8.0 rebounds and was tabbed as a four-star recruit by ESPN.com. Then came the broken leg.
Why stick with an injured James?
"Because we love what he brought to the table from Day One," Hill said. "We knew he would make a full recovery. All he had to do was work hard. We just stayed with him because he fit what we do. He's a great young man. He's a hard worker and a very unselfish player. He's one of our type players.
"We told him before, 'We have confidence in you. We're going to stick with you. Coach Kruger is a man of his word. I'm a man of my word. As long as you're working and you want us, we're going to love you. We're going to make sure you're OK, make sure you have fun and enjoy college.' We never shied away from him."
On the day James signed with the Sooners, Kruger said, "Christian is a strong wing, very blue-collar player with high energy and a team-first attitude. Whatever he can do to win is what he's all about."
Sitting in the stands when James got injured was longtime friend Khadeem Lattin, then an incoming freshman center at Oklahoma who has known James since the third grade. Lattin also helped lure James to the Sooners.
"He was a big reason I chose OU," James said of Lattin. "He's like my older brother. He's like family."
James said four placement screws were inserted into his left leg and will remain there "unless it starts to hurt." As is often the case with injuries of such magnitude, his rehabilitation was lengthy and lonely.
"There wasn't a point where I didn't think I would come back, but there was a point I was really down because I wanted to be out there playing with my (high school) team," James said. "I had just had a great summer and my confidence was so high. I was on the top of my game at that time."
Bellaire coach Bruce Glover said James "is a great kid. He is a better kid and student than he is a basketball player, and that's what attracted me to him. The basketball piece is just a gift."
James agrees he's still not 100-percent back from the injury, but he undoubtedly is making strides as a true freshman with the Sooners. For the third straight year, OU has gone with one starting lineup the entire season. Buddy Hield, Isaiah Cousins, Ryan Spangler and Jordan Woodard have made 86 straight starts together and Lattin joined this year's starting five.
Born and raised in Houston, James said he first noticed the Sooners when consensus national player of the year and future NBA All-Star Blake Griffin dominated college basketball (2007-09). James took a closer look three years ago when he began studying Hield, another player of the year candidate from OU.
"I did some research on him, from his freshman year to now, seeing how hard he works, and I knew that could be me because I'm a hard worker just like him," the 6-foot-4, 218-pound James said of the 6-foot-4, 214-pound Hield. "Seeing where he was to where he is now, he's a great person, a great player. I look up to him."
Although the Sooners (16-2 overall; 5-2 in Big 12 play) climbed to the No. 1 national ranking in both polls last week, one of their areas of focus was consistent bench contributions. That play has improved lately, with James becoming a contributor.
With OU trailing by five midway through the second half of a key home game against West Virginia last Saturday in Lloyd Noble Center, James came in and helped spark a 14-5 run that eventually led to a 70-68 victory. In seven minutes against the Mountaineers, James collected three defensive rebounds, a block, a steal, and assists and went 2 for 2 from the free-throw line. Though James didn't even attempt a shot from the field, he was vital to the victory.
Afterward, Kruger described James' effort as "huge for our squad ... We need that to continue to grow.”
"Me and the (OU) coaches had a special bond. ... It meant a lot, seeing they really cared about me. I knew they would look after me down here and try to help me develop my game and become a better person."
Two days later at Iowa State, James had three points in four minutes. His 144 minutes (9.0 per game) is third most among reserve players.
"I feel like I'm an all-around player," James said. "I love to get my teammates involved, get them going first before maybe getting going scoring-wise. I have to move the scoring into my game."
Hill said James routinely excels in practice. The next step is to transfer those results to game day.
"We need him to play like he does in practice," Hill said. "He plays with so much confidence in practice, but when he gets in a game right now -- at this point -- he's playing not to make mistakes, so he's not as aggressive as he is in practice. We need him to play like he plays in practice. If you make a mistake, you make a mistake. We've told him since Day One, 'You're going to make mistakes, (so) make aggressive mistakes.' We need him to just go play freely, attack, make plays, drive and kick, rebound. We need him to do those things with confidence. That helps our team. We've got to start resting these guys (starters) some more."
Hill also doesn't believe James has completely recovered from the injury.
"I still don't think he's back," Hill said. "I don't think he's confident in the leg. he was more explosive before the break. I think it's just a mind thing now. when you go through a bad break like he did, that's to be expected. He's growing in how hard he plays, how tough he is."
As if often the case, extensive rehab often improves other aspect's of a player's game. In this syance, James said it's shooting.
"Every day I tried to stay in the gym as long as them (Hield, Cousins, Woodard, et al), even longer," James said. "I really think I've improved in my shooting."
Hill has gone as far to say he sees All-Big 12 potential in James someday.
"He can move around, play different positions," Hill said. "He can post up. His shooting is getting better everyday. He's working on his ballhandling. The ceiling is very high for him."
Despite James being sidelined during the most influential months of his young basketball life, the Sooners stood beside him and James responded in kind.
Does James think he made the right decision sticking with the Sooners?
"Yes sir," James said without hesitation. "And I think they made the right decision, too."