June 23, 2011
The Nova Notebook, by director of media relations Mike Sheridan, spends some time with James Bell on the verge of his departure for the U19 World Championship later this month with USA Basketball.
When James Bell - known to close friends and family by his middle name, "Tahj" - boarded a flight at Philadelphia International Airport for Colorado Springs last week, it was hard not to be reminded of one of the more frustrating weeks of his young life.
In June of 2010, Bell had boarded another flight to the Rocky Mountain state a few short weeks after arriving to begin his first summer at Villanova. This product of Orlando, Fla.'s Montverde Academy was fresh from a senior season in which he earned Parade magazine and USA Today All-American honors and was en route to audition with some of the best young players in the nation for a spot on the USA Basketball U18 team.
And so he did.
From the outset, Bell knew something was not quite right. With practice sessions in both the morning and late afternoon, it didn't take long for the ache in his legs that he had first felt as a high school junior to return. The difference now was that the pain was more pronounced and didn't seem to diminish with rest.
He pressed on and did the best he could.
"It definitely frustrated me," says Bell now, one year removed from the experience. "I tried my hardest but I felt like I couldn't do things they way I wanted."
For an athlete whose basketball foundation had been boosted by his considerable athleticism, this was a significant setback. Those who had watched video snippets of Bell on the internet knew all too well about his jumping ability. But by the time those trials neared the end it was apparent something was amiss. Before long, Bell was back on a plane to Philadelphia staring at uncertainty as he mulled a visit to Villanova team orthopedic Dr. Rob Good.
Once he returned to the Main Line, the 6-5 swingman was diagnosed with stress fractures in the tibia of both legs. The rest of that summer was spent off the court and in rehab as the doctors looked to see if the fractures would heal on their own. When they didn't, surgery became the best option and on Sept. 8, Bell underwent a procedure performed by Good. He would go on to see action in 25 games as a Wildcat freshman but spent most of the season playing catch up on all that time missed leading up to the 2010-11 campaign.
So it was more than a little rewarding on the morning of June 23 when USA Basketball announced Bell was one of 12 athletes who will be wearing the red, white and blue for the U19 squad in 2011. The Americans hope to claim a gold medal at the World Championship, which begins later this month and concludes in Latvia in early July.
"It's an honor to be able to represent my country," stated Bell after Thursday's morning practice session concluded in Colorado Springs, Col. "I feel fortunate to have this opportunity again and I just wanted to come here and play as hard as I could. This year I was able play my best and being healthy is the best blessing you could have.
"You can say that having been through this last year helped me. It gave me an idea of what to expect and it never hurts to have that. It also gave me motivation - I knew that I wasn't able to play at full strength last year and was really looking forward to competing this time around."
Even with the added knowledge from his previous visit here, these Trials were a challenge. The twice daily practices tested the athletes and the coaching staff - led by former Villanova assistant and current George Mason head coach Paul Hewitt - looked closely at each of the 19 candidates with an eye toward what this team will face when it arrives overseas.
"It's kind of a crazy experience," said Bell. "The first thing you have to deal with out here is the altitude. It takes some time to get used to it. There's so much to take in - different players, coaches and the (international) game. But we have great coaches and you can feel the camaraderie here grow every day that we spend here. We're doing a lot of things together and getting to know one another."
Much of this past week was spent settling on which players would be on the team. Now the task facing the coaching staff is to mold a team capable of competing on foreign soil against opponents who have spent many more hours working as a unit.
"We haven't talked about roles or anything like that," noted Bell. "I'm just trying to follow the advice coach (Jay) Wright gave me before I came out here. He told me to concentrate on playing hard. That is something I can control. I'm just focused on learning from our coaches here and doing all I can to help us win the gold medal."
In looking forward to the next few weeks, Bell has discovered this much: it is expected that physical play at both ends of the court will characterize this tournament.
"We've talked a little bit about what it will be like and the one word you keep hearing is how physical things are," stated Bell. "I think coming from the BIG EAST will help me with that. Jeremy Lamb is here from Connecticut and we may be a little bit more used to that (style) because of the conference we play in."
With that, Bell was off to find some lunch and rest up for the final afternoon practice session at USA Basketball headquarters in Colorado Springs. On Friday morning, the team boards a flight back east before connecting to Germany. It figures to be a long journey but Bell is of no mind to grumble.
"It means the world to me to represent the USA," he said.
Perhaps even more so now, 12 months after heading back to Philadelphia uncertain what the persistent pain in his legs might portend.