James says he regrets leaving U basketball

by Michael Dougherty

FORT WAYNE, Ind. — If he had it to do all over again, Courtney James said he would have done a lot of things differently.
He said he wished the ugly incident when he hit former girlfriend Melanie Olsen with her address book never happened.
He said he wished the domestic assault conviction wouldn’t have cast a shadow over the Gophers basketball program.
He said he wished he wouldn’t have been suspended for the 1997-98 season. And ultimately, he said he wished he would’ve decided to sit out that year and stay for his senior season instead of deciding to join a pro league overseas.
Regardless of all the wishing, that troublesome past still remains in the present for James, but he’s trying to put it behind him.
At 22, James is now playing in the Continental Basketball Association for the Fort Wayne Fury after his short stint in Greece did not pay off. He said if he had made the decision to stay at Minnesota, the Gophers would be in the middle of battling Michigan State for the Big Ten title, instead of bouncing around on the NCAA tournament bubble.
The 6-foot-8, 265-pound James is averaging 8.2 points and 6.7 rebounds for the 20-22 Fury this year, but unfortunately for James, he is not remembered for his 7.8 points and 7.1 rebounds per game he averaged in 62 games as a Gopher.
Instead, most Minnesotans remember James for his conviction for attempting to cause fear in Olsen, stemming from a domestic assault incident. Police and newspaper reports said James slapped Olsen across the face with a telephone book and covered her nose so she had trouble breathing early in the morning April 12, 1997.
The press paid particular attention to the detail of the “phone book” attack, which, upon further review, was public hyperbole. It was ultimately revealed in court that James slapped Olsen with her pocket calculator-sized address book, containing the phone numbers of several NBA players — a book that James resented.
But regardless of the intricacies of the episode, James said he knows he was wrong, and said he paid the price. That price was a $210 fine and three days served of a 90-day workhouse sentence.
The incident came just two weeks after James and the Gophers lost to Kentucky in the first round of the Final Four and it touched off a whirlwind six-month period for James.
The ups and downs with the Gophers
The trip to the Final Four, played in James’ home town of Indianapolis was first. Then came the domestic assault charge. James spent the summer in and out of Hennepin County District Court, while waiting to hear from the University about his future with the Gophers.
Olsen didn’t want to press charges, but agreed to testify against James in cooperation with the Hennepin County attorney’s office. On Aug. 5, he was found guilty on one of two counts of fifth degree domestic assault. The jury acquitted James of attempting to inflict bodily harm, but convicted him for intentionally causing fear.
Later that month, James became a father when another woman he had been dating gave birth to their daughter, also named Courtney. James is still with Courtney’s mother, who lives in the Twin Cities.
In September 1997, Gophers basketball coach Clem Haskins announced James would be suspended from playing in any games for the season but could still practice with the team and return for his senior season, which would have been this year.
However, the day after Haskins’ announcement, James declared he would withdraw from school to play professionally in Greece. It was a decision James said he regrets.
“I had a lot of things going through my head and I made the decision to go to Greece,” James said in an interview at the Fort Wayne Coliseum. “It was hard to pass up the money, but also at the same time I was learning from my mistakes. It was a hard choice, but it was mine. I know I wish I was still in school.”
While James said he liked the idea of the money he could earn overseas, he said he had a hard time collecting consistent pay from his team in Greece.
“They were paying me $250,000, but they never paid me,” James said. “They paid me some of it here and there, but they were always a month behind on my payments.”
The next chapter
He finally left the team in Greece after three months and returned to Indianapolis with no idea of what the future had in store for him. After spending six months “doing nothing,” James’ agent called Fury coach Keith Smart and secured a tryout for his client.
Smart said he knew of James’ trouble, but wanted to give him a second chance.
“I went down to Indianapolis and had a meeting with him,” Smart said, “and we had a nice little talk where I just told him, ‘I don’t care about your past, I just want to know where you are right now and what your goals are. And he told me, ‘I just need a chance to prove to people that I’m a good person. I’m not what the situation dictated.’ And he has proved that by playing well and staying out of trouble.”
Both Smart and James said they were originally concerned about James’ weight. After returning from Greece, James said he had ballooned to more than 310 pounds. But once he returned to training camp and two-a-day practices, it was easy to drop the weight.
Now that he has returned to playing form, James has been playing well. In fact, he has played so well that he was invited to an NBA tryout camp. Two weeks ago in Phoenix, the CBA showcased a group of top players to NBA general managers and scouts.
But just as a possible big break presented itself to James, he ran into some bad luck when he pulled a calf muscle in a game the night before he was suppose to leave. James still made the trip to Phoenix hoping to be able to play through the injury, but had to return early because his calf bothered him too much.
He said he is making about $1,000 a week with the Fury and that he thinks he has a good shot to join former teammates Sam Jacobson, Bobby Jackson, John Thomas and Trevor Winter in the NBA.
“I think I definitely have a shot and I’m going to keep working towards it,” James said. “I think Fort Wayne is a great shot for me.”
Smart said James has quite an upside with his size and athletic ability, but needs to be more aggressive and develop a “tough guy” persona on the court.
Remembering the glory days and making new ones
James said he watches every game he can that the Gophers play, and waxed nostalgic about game days at The Barn, a place James called the best place in the country to play basketball.
“Playing college basketball at Minnesota in front of our home crowd was great,” he said. “Just getting ready and putting your stuff on and walking up those stairs was a great feeling.”
Wearing the maroon and gold not only still makes James feel warm and fuzzy, but Haskins also said he would still like to have James.
“He’s a Final Four starting forward,” Haskins said. “Courtney James would fit on any team. I can tell you we wouldn’t be struggling the way we are right now. He would probably be averaging a double-double every night.”
James said his two years at Minnesota were the best times of his life, and he holds no ill feelings toward anyone at the University.
However, he said he still thinks the one-year suspension was too harsh. He also said that people involved with the basketball program were lobbying for a lesser suspension, but the final decision was out of their hands.
“I guess it was (men’s athletics director Mark) Dienhart — it was somebody up higher than (Haskins),” James said. “I feel Coach wanted me to play — maybe sit out half the season and come back for the Big Ten season — and I was OK with that. But I think a higher man wanted me suspended for the whole year and I didn’t agree with that.
“I don’t feel bad about my time there. When I look back at some of the things I did, I wish I could change them, but all I can do is continue to work towards my goal, which is the NBA.”