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After season cut short early, NIU's James seeking path to the pros

Lacey James isn't in a starring role in a feature film, but he can be forgiven if he feels like he's stuck in one.

The Northern Illinois men's basketball senior is pursuing a professional basketball career after signing with an agent, having made the decision quicker than he would have liked.

James wanted to be playing in the NCAA Tournament, which was canceled in a precautionary manner to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. The Huskies already were in Cleveland, preparing to take on the Miami RedHawks when their Mid-American Conference tournament quarterfinal matchup at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse was postponed and then canceled. The season, and James' career, came to a halt in the blink of an eye.

“It was like a movie; it didn’t feel real," James said. "It was like one of those things that happened in a movie. After you watch the movie for 2 hours, everything goes back to normal, but that wasn’t the case. It still feels like a movie now. I’m still hurt by it."

James helped lead the defense on a Huskies team that won its first MAC West title (shared with Ball State) since the 2005-06 season. The Huskies hadn't sniffed the Big Dance since the 1995-96 season.

Now it felt like it was all taken away.

"It was really frustrating," James said. "The main thing was we didn’t even get a chance to prove ourselves.”

Like thousands of athletes within a short time span, the reality of the situation came through. The Huskies, who went 18-13 and 11-7 in the MAC and owned the No. 4 seed in the conference tournament, felt they were specially positioned to make a postseason run.

"I’m not going to lie, that was one of the hardest days of my life," James said. "Lot of emotions. Lot of emotions. It was shocking, and it was frustrating, as well, because we all knew in our locker room that we had something special, and it felt like we didn’t even get a chance.”

After the initial shock wore off, James had time to sit and let what had happened simmer.

"You can’t do nothing about it," James said. "It’s bigger than you. Maybe down the line, down the road, as time goes on, we’ll understand why it happened, but we’ve got to keep moving forward … time is still ticking. Life is still going on.”

The 6-foot-9, 240-pound forward is taking a look at what options basketball can present in the future.

Although he has a communications degree from NIU, James first is seeking where the sport can take him. After signing with an agent, he said he'll have plenty of people to consult about what he should do next. But he wants to keep going on the hardwood.

“That’s always been the goal since I was a kid," James said. "I always wanted to play professional basketball. I always wanted to be a pro basketball player. I’m just blessed the opportunity is now.”

The Grand Rapids, Michigan, native grew up not caring so much for the Detroit Pistons when he fell in love with basketball, instead the size, strength and ability of then Cavaliers star LeBron James, later with the Miami Heat and Los Angeles Lakers, made Lacey James always feel drawn to the superstar who shared his initials.

"LeBron James, that’s my guy," James said. "Ever since I was little, maybe elementary school, I did research and I watched TV and ... I just connected to him. I fell in love with the game watching his highlights.”

James said many of the people he's embraced from his time at Rider University in New Jersey, to his Huskies teammates, even to opponents he's faced in the MAC, have become like brothers to him.

“It was a great three years of my life at NIU and a year at Rider University in Jersey," James said. "College basketball, it was a fun time, a lot of ups and downs. I learned a lot from how to be a basketball player to growing up and becoming a man.”

Doing something that hadn't been accomplished in a decade did provide James some solace.

“At the end of the day, we are champions," James said. "We are MAC West champions. When you do something like that ... you’ve got a special bond with that group of people.”

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