Lacey James’ right calf is a testimony to his passion and his triumph.
A tattoo of a basketball in the shape of a heart supplies a daily reminder for the Northern Illinois forward.
“It’s all for the love of the game and what I went through with my heart,” James told the Tribune last week as he sat on a bench at NIU’s Convocation Center after practice.
James doesn’t particularly enjoy talking about the summer before his senior year of high school, when he sat out of his travel basketball league because of a heart condition doctors initially worried could be serious enough to end his playing career.
But the episode has framed his mindset about sports and life, helping him relish his senior season in DeKalb.
Averaging eight points and seven rebounds, the 6-foot-9 James has four double-doubles this season while trying to help the Huskies (12-9, 5-3) battle in the Mid-American Conference. His 50 percent shooting is up from 40 percent as a junior, and his defense has been paramount to NIU’s improvement — which includes a Jan. 22 upset of then-No. 14 Buffalo — from a 13-19 finish last season.
“He’s the first in the gym,” coach Mark Montgomery said. “He stretches, gets his shots up. He lifts four or five times a week. He lifts on game day sometimes. He’s a film guy. His defense is amazing; he shuts down the middle.
“He’s even-keeled and humble, a great teammate. He’s never, ever negative. You just don’t see players like that. He’s just pleasant to be around.”
James said he has played basketball since “coming out of the womb,” describing a photo of himself at 10 months clutching a basketball between his chubby legs. So while at a doctor appointment for bronchitis in 2015, hearing he could have a heart abnormality was distressing.
“One (doctor) said, ‘We’re going to shut you down. You can’t play basketball anymore,’ ” James recalled. “I thought, ‘I can’t do that.’ I kept praying and I knew one day I’d be fine.”
He and his mother, Karie James, spent the next few months traveling to hospitals for tests and second and third opinions until he was cleared at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, where a doctor determined James had a moderate form of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.
The experience shifted his perspective.
“It made me think, ‘What are you without basketball?’ ” he said. “It made me think about education and other things. I found out basketball doesn’t define me. If I don’t have basketball, I’ll be OK. It woke me up to being thankful and not taking things so seriously.”
During his senior season at Wayland Union High School in Michigan, he texted a black-and-white photo to his mom, showing him holding a basketball with his hands forming a heart shape on it, which he colored in orange with his phone. It’s currently his Twitter profile photo.
“He’s really a strong person,” Karie James said. “Our faith really helped get us through it.”
As a single mother and an only child, the duo always leaned on each other. It felt natural for Karie to move to the East Coast when Lacey played at Rider in New Jersey as a freshman and to DeKalb when he transferred to NIU.
This isn’t a case of an overprotective, hovering mom or a needy child. It’s simpler — and purer.
“It’s just me and her,” Lacey said. “I wanted to make sure she was OK, and she wanted to make sure I was OK. She’s my best friend. She is someone I can talk to about anything.”
A former Division II player, the 5-11 Karie took her son to the local high school late at night for extra practice, fetching rebounds for him. She could beat him one-on-one until he reached fifth grade.
Raising Lacey on a single income, Karie internally worried about budgeting for a rapidly growing boy whose feet quickly grew to size 17 and who could eat a refrigerator full of food in what seemed like a blink.
“We always got by,” she said. “Our theme is: ‘Make the best of things.’ There’s always been something special with him. I was blessed from day one.”
Lacey was conscientious of his mother’s sacrifices despite her best efforts to exude strength. She noticed when he would choose the cheaper option at restaurants or decline pricier toys.
“He’s always been a great teammate with me,” she said.