James Florence is on the verge of entering the top 100 scorers in NCAA Division I men’s basketball history.
But it’s a safe bet he has funnier story than most of the players on that list.
James Florence was expelled.
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On the second day.
“I don’t know what was wrong with me,” he said, shaking his head.
He put a pin on a chair and made a girl sit on it. A teacher pulled him from class, and her reward was Florence bopping her with the cast he wore from breaking his wrist on the monkey bars.
And completing the trifecta, he was taken to the principal, at whose shoes he promptly spit.
“I was a terror,” said Florence, who doesn’t remember much from that day. “I remember getting the worst whooping I ever had.”
Fast forward to today, and it’s clear that the punishment carried weight and was effective in eventually doing what it was supposed to: straighten out the youngster.
Rather than rebel against discipline, Florence refocused.
And the 21-year-old who emerged is his school’s all-time leading scorer and needs only a physics class to graduate.
The focal point for three-plus years at Mercer, Florence has only a handful of games left in a sometimes-tumultuous college career. His regular-season home finale is six days away, and it will no doubt be emotional for Florence, his mother Alfreda, longtime teammate BeJay Corley, as well as Brendan Walker, who has matched Florence year for year. And they haven’t all been fun.
“It’s like a movie,” Walker said. “I say we could make a movie around here.”
The ride at Mercer has been the ride of Florence’s life, except for the actual ride of Florence’s life.
He grew up moving around Atlanta with his mother, sometimes staying with his father despite his parents being divorced.
His father died in July 2006, his older brother went through a spell of self-induced legal troubles, and his mother kept working while tending to a grandchild. Basketball was an escape and eventually a means to an end.
Florence was a baseball and football player as a youngster and actually didn’t start playing any organized basketball until the seventh grade when a friend talked him into joining a team. Florence scored 20 points off the bench in his debut. He was put on an all-star team, but that wasn’t enough a year later, and he hardly played on his next team.
Corley and Florence met as freshmen at Wheeler.
“It wasn’t a pretty shot,” Corley said with a laugh. “It wasn’t pretty at all. That’s when he learned how to get to the basket more.”
Florence eventually fixed his shot, and he and Corley were part of a Wheeler dynasty. Florence spent his high school and AAU career surrounded by talent. He got letters from all over, with Colorado State, N.C. State and Colorado among the interested programs. Interest fluctuated, with Colorado State staying on him. Mercer and then-head coach Mark Slonaker never stopped calling.
It was on a trip to Tulane that convinced Florence to go to Mercer. He and his mother argued. She thought he should go somewhere bigger, where the odds of him fulfilling his dream were better.
But he knew a good player could go almost anywhere and still get NBA attention. Plus, Mercer was close to home, he’d play right away, and he liked the atmosphere and Slonaker.
The scouting report on Florence as a freshman on the school’s Web site described him this way: “Has a scorer’s mind-set, but also unselfish ... Candidate for starting point guard ... Combines the ability to shoot the 3-pointer and get to the basket … Possesses a good mid-range game with a lot of versatility.”
He had a scorer’s mind-set, no question, and the mid-range game didn’t resurface for a few seasons. Outsiders and opponents would argue about the unselfish part. Some saw a gunner who pouted when he didn’t get a call or when a teammate couldn’t make a play. He was a player who basically could shoot Mercer into or out of a game.
A rocky start
“He got into a lot of arguments with some people, coaches” said Walker, who roomed with Florence the summer before their freshmen year when they took some classes. “He was pretty adamant about certain issues when we were playing.”
Florence’s first two seasons were tests.
“We probably lost more games in that first month than we did in all of high school. It was tough,” Corley said.
The Bears began the 2006-07 season 1-4, got to 5-4 and never saw .500 again.
Florence’s reputation took a hit for a postgame scuffle after Mercer lost at home to Jacksonville in overtime, inspired by him bumping a Jacksonville player in the final seconds.
He led Mercer in scoring, but he fouled out four times, and the Bears finished 13-17.
It had to get better, but didn’t.
“My sophomore year was a terrible, terrible year,” he said. “I’d be lying if I didn’t say I heard the grumbling, especially with my mom sitting there. But it wasn’t really that, what people were saying. Just the record, 13-17 and then 11-19. That really ...”
Florence’s sophomore season started off well with a 96-81 win at No. 18 Southern California. Florence was big, making 11-of-23 shots and outplaying touted freshman O.J. Mayo, who did outscore Florence 32-30 but needed five more minutes and five more shots to do it.
But Slonaker remained without a contract extension, which had an impact on the team. Four momentum-killing losses followed, and Florence sat out a game against Georgia Southern game after a disagreement with soon-to-be-dismissed assistant coach Mark Dannhoff.
A late-season 75-49 loss at USC Upstate, new to Division I, was crushing.
“That bus ride back was just unbearable,” said Florence, who felt the weight of Slonaker’s job status. “I felt like he brought me in to, you know, not to say save them, but as a foundation.
“I know I was young, but I still felt like I could have done more.”
Stay or go?
Florence seriously considered transferring — Alabama was the top candidate — and kept hearing that he needed to be on a bigger stage, like the SEC. He consulted Slonaker, who told him to wait it out and see who the new coach would be.
Florence spent a lot of time alone, thinking, and he talked to his mom. That, combined with what he saw from new head coach Bob Hoffman, led to a decision.
“I just felt at home here,” Florence said. “I didn’t want to leave everything the way it was. I felt like I had unfinished business because I committed here four years ago. I’m going to honor my commitment. I didn’t make a two-year commitment.”
That feeling wasn’t so clear to observers.
Danny Emerson, who has combined with Florence to make up one of college basketball’s most successful duos the past two years, had a fairly popular perception of Florence upon his arrival to Mercer.
Emerson, the third Emerson to play at Mercer, transferred from Western Kentucky, ostensibly to play for the same head coach as brothers Scott and Will. He watched Florence from afar, wasn’t enthralled, and they clashed.
Hoffman forced them to talk it out.
“After hearing (Florence) talk, I basically realized he wanted to win as bad as I did,” said Emerson, who is also preparing for his upcoming senior day. “He wasn’t just trying to get his.”
They became friends, teammates and allies.
Then Florence was forced to change his personality a little bit more. Hoffman came in trying to sell a program and inspire interest, and that meant speaking engagements for somebody who was something of a loner, who didn’t understand how him talking to anybody had anything to do with them coming to games.
But Florence opened up.
“I used to just walk with my headphones on, head down, not talking to anybody,” said Florence, who is 16 points from becoming the top scorer in state Division I history (Rich Yunkus, Georgia Tech, 2,232 points). “Just trying to get through the day and get back to the gym, just spending time with myself.
“Now, I know a lot of people, I go to a lot of events. I’m happy with where I’m at.”
Florence’s on-court demeanor has changed. He is more exuberant after making a pass that leads to somebody else scoring.
Florence went through a mini-slump earlier this month but is still averaging nearly 20 points per game, but even when his averaged dipped something was different.
“I’m up there leading the league in assists,” he said. “That’s something nobody expected me to do. I still think I’m having a pretty successful year.”
Mercer is having a little less success than many expected, with Florence, Emerson and shooter E.J. Kusnyer back. Incorporating new players in the rotation and adjusting to a variety of defenses thrown at Florence and Emerson have led to inconsistency.
One night, Mercer can hand Stetson a bigger loss than Louisville, Miami or Florida could manage. Less than a week later, the Bears can lose to Kennesaw State for a season sweep by the Owls, who are eligible for the A-Sun tournament for the first time.
Florence knows his team will have experienced everything possible once the conference tournament starts on his home floor on March 3.
He has, too.
Florence is as well-tested for A-Sun basketball as anybody. He has high school teammates at Providence, Brown and Richmond, as well as the NBA.
And pickup games back home are serious, featuring old teammates and Atlantans (transplanted and native) like Eric Devendorf (Syracuse), Jarrett Jack (Georgia Tech) and Billy Humphries (Georgia, New Orleans) among others.
So the 6-foot-1 Florence fits in, because he’s nothing if not competitive and driven. Thus, at times, his diplomacy suffered. But those first two years are very much in the rearview mirror.
“Freshman year and sophomore year were totally different,” Walker said. “The last two years, he’s been great. None of those things would happen in a million years now.”
Those who know Florence know him as the player who didn’t really listen to offers from bigger schools after he committed to Mercer, didn’t transfer to a bigger school after Slonaker was dismissed and is ecstatic with a five-point night if his team wins.
Corley finds it ironic that the public perception of Florence is that of a shoot-first player interested his own numbers.
In fact, Florence has 18 positive assist-turnover games this season, after 15 a year ago and 14 through his first two seasons. He is 56th nationally in assists and 106th in steals, as well as 45th in scoring.
“I don’t think his game reflects his personality at all,” Corley said. “He’s not that type person.”
All grown up
The Florence who showed up at Mercer is different than the one who will leave. But more than what he is and has become on the court, he is Alfreda’s son and Aiden and Adison’s uncle, and that is top priority.
Everything he does is based on their future. He shoots because sometimes he thinks that’s the best way to win, and winning gets attention, and attention can lead to personal attention, which can lead to a professional career.
And that leads to money, and if Florence starts playing for pay, little of the paycheck will stay in his pocket.
“I just want to take care of my mom,” he said. “She’s been working a lot. I just want her to be able to relax finally and let me do all the work.
“She’s supported me for 20-some-odd years. Time for me to pay her back.”
At only 21, Florence is quite the doting uncle. Early on at Mercer, he regularly had Adison strapped to his chest in a front pack after games, and they and Alfreda would go eat.
“That was a big step for me, too,” said Florence, adding that his brother has turned things around and is taking care of his family. “I saw her when she was born, and they brought her home. There’s just no feeling like that. I fell in love with her as soon as I saw her.”
She was joined in the family a year ago by Aiden and thus joined the list of people Florence plans to take care of.
“Just to get (Adison) ready for school and everything, and Aiden, he’s going to need stuff,” Florence said. “Everything not pertaining to me. I’ll be fine. Hopefully, I can get a few good years of good money just to get them squared away.
“As long as I have a place to stay and I know they’re all good, that’s all I want.”