How Mike James Became An Unlikely Playoff Hero For Brooklyn Nets

Mike James just needed a chance. 

Sean Marks and the injury-plagued Brooklyn Nets were there to give him one. 

James’ camp — which includes management consultant Anthony Walton, agent Happy Walters and longtime friend and mentor “Big Brother Sam” Thompson — had been reaching out to practically every front-office executive in the NBA, trying to find the 30-year-old journeyman guard a job. 

All their persistence paid off when Marks called back with an offer. 

“‘Can he get here tomorrow?’” Marks said, according to Walton. 

“I couldn’t believe it,” Walton said. “I was like, ‘We’ll walk there if we have to.’”  

One multi-day quarantine and two 10-day contracts later, James played his way into a permanent deal with the Nets for the remainder of the season on May 13. And on Saturday night, after James Harden re-injured his right hamstring, Mike James had one of the best games of his life, finishing with 12 points and seven rebounds in 30 minutes as the Nets beat the Milwaukee Bucks, 115-107, in Game 1 of their second-round, Eastern Conference playoff series.  

“It’s just basketball,” James said over the phone on Sunday. “I always try to stay ready, because anything can happen. You never want to see a teammate get hurt, but when you get that opportunity, you need to be ready to seize it.”  

Prior to Saturday, James had played just 10 minutes in the 2020-21 postseason combined. But that’s the thing: “He’s built for these moments,” Walton said. “He doesn’t need time to get hot. It’s a dream come true.” 

It’s a dream that didn’t seem possible. 

But Mike James is — in many ways — a basketball anomaly. 

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Mike James’ hoops career has taken him all over the map.

The Portland native was only recruited by Division III schools out of high school, and started at a junior college. Then it was on to D-I Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas. On Jan. 4, 2011, James established a new program record at Lamar by scoring 52 points, while draining 11 3-pointers. 

“It just kind of happened randomly,” James said with a laugh. “And it was during Christmas break when nobody was at school, so nobody really saw it. I was like, ‘Damn, I wish I had done this sooner.’” 

Despite his scoring prowess, the 6-foot-1 James was labeled as an undersized two-guard. He didn’t receive any workouts, and went undrafted in 2012. Undeterred, James elected to go the overseas route. He played in Croatia, Israel, Italy, Greece and Spain, where he learned the value of fundamentals and fine-tuned his skillset. In 2014, James posted a Seattle Pro Am-record 67 points. He did a Summer League stint for the Phoenix Suns in 2015, before having his breakout Euroleague season with Panathinaikos a year later.  

James played 36 games combined with Phoenix and the New Orleans Pelicans in 2017-18 before going back overseas through Greece, Italy and Russia. A tumultuous stint with CSKA Moscow led to his release via mutual agreement in April. “Everybody has their own truth,” James — who was in the mix for EuroLeague MVP at the time — replied when asked why things didn’t work out. “I don’t have to explain myself to anybody. I’m just thankful to be in Brooklyn.” 

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Each offseason, James spends two weeks at Walton’s home in Houston. They met through mutual relationships in the basketball scene, and developed a friendship. Typically, they’ll work out together on the court in the afternoon, and then hit up different restaurants in the area. 

During James’ most recent trip, he expressed an interest in getting back into the NBA. Walton spoke with Walters and Thompson to develop a strategy. Before picking the Nets, James’ camp had also been in touch with the Denver Nuggets, LA Clippers and Bucks, among others. James was barely in Portland for 24 hours before he had to take a cross-country flight out East.  

By the time James landed, reports surfaced that the New York Knicks could be his landing spot — when in reality, according to Walton, a driver was taking James straight to a hotel where he could begin his quarantine process with Brooklyn. During that time, James could only work out by himself as he went through the proper health and safety protocols. 

Consider that only a few hours before James’ Jan. 23 debut, Steve Nash said of the newcomer in the backcourt: “I still haven’t met him, but he’s a scorer. He was one of the top players in Europe. He’s played in the NBA. I think he gives us some ball-handling as well. I think he’s got to play tonight, frankly.” 

With several key contributors unavailable, James went out and finished with eight points in 21 minutes, as the Nets beat the Boston Celtics. Brooklyn went 9-4 when he played during the regular season. Over that span, James averaged 7.7 points in 18.2 minutes for the Nets. 

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Mike James’ ties to Brooklyn run deep. 

Over the years, while participating in pickup games at the LA Sports Academy — and Pro Am tournaments — James became friends with Kevin Durant and his brother, Tony. 

He’s also close with Nets assistant coach Ime Udoka, a fellow Portland native who played both collegiately and professionally in the city. Udoka, who is expected to be a future head coach in the league someday, played a big part in James coming to Brooklyn, Walton said. And Nets’ director of player personnel JR Holden also played for CSKA Moscow, meaning Marks and Brooklyn had plenty of intel on No. 55’s game.

On the court, James is aggressive and fearless. He’s played in extremely hostile environments overseas. After all, there are no flares being set off in the stands in the US. 

James cherishes the opportunity to face his best friend in the league, Jrue Holiday. “It’s dope, to be honest,” James said. “We’ve played against each other in the summer a lot. It’s a good test — he’s one of the elite defenders in this league.” 

James was living at the Gansevoort Hotel during his two 10-day stints, but has since rented a place in Downtown Manhattan with his deal becoming permanent. Beyond this season, his future is unclear. But he’s pretty used to living out of a suitcase. Plus, he could see several more minutes in this series with Harden’s status up in the air. “I’m just trying to stay locked in,” James said. 

It’s been quite a journey. Not many guys have pulled it off. That’s what puts Mike James — basketball anomaly — in a league of his own. 

“He’s grown up, he’s matured,” Walton said. “He’s not taking anything for granted. He’s relishing the moment. He’s got a great support system — his mom (Lisa Behrndt) comes to a lot of his games. And he’s got a great group of friends who travel with us. For an NBA player to get this chance at his age — you can’t make it up.”

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