October 14, 2021
Former Mystic, now-Mayor Tamara James is a different kind of ‘point guard’
James, the mayor of her hometown of Dania Beach, is a force for change from the inside
When Tamara James told her mother Tammie that she was hosting a party to watch the results of one of the biggest nights of her life, Tammie was apprehensive. A good result was far from certain, but James replied, “Mom, I’m confident because no one has outworked me.”
That might sound like the night that James was drafted into the WNBA—but she had already done that ten years prior. Instead, James’ guests watched her get elected to the Dania Beach City Commission in 2016 and, as the highest vote-getter, become the youngest mayor in the Florida city’s history at age 32.
Now in her second term as mayor, the homegrown star represents a different kind of activist athlete from today’s WNBA players, who have demonstrated and pushed for change on a national scale. James found her political voice after retirement and is fighting within the system to create change at the local level. Both kinds of change-making are sorely needed, but James’ can sometimes fly under the radar.
Born to two basketball-playing parents, James started playing at age three on a Toys-R-Us hoop her parents bought her. She went on to win three state titles as a 5’10 forward at South Broward High School and, after missing most of her junior season with a torn ACL, average 21 points and 11 rebounds as a senior to draw interest from colleges.
“I have a very aggressive style of play,” James said. “I’m very physical. And I love to rebound, like to throw elbows, all of those kinds of things.”
James loved basketball, but she was also motivated to earn an athletic scholarship because, as she put it in 2019, she “saw it as a way out.” She told The Next that her family didn’t have much money, so she had to stand on street corners and ask passersby for money to pay for AAU basketball trips. Basketball was her ticket to a college education, and she got it at nearby Miami.
In James’ four seasons from 2002-06, she became the Hurricanes’ all-time leading scorer across men’s and women’s basketball with 2,406 points. She led her conference in scoring three times—once in the Big East and twice after Miami moved to the ACC. And she led Miami to a 70-49 record and two NCAA Tournament appearances, despite being the only player on her teams who would play professionally.
Current Miami head coach Katie Meier recalled one of James’ signature moments, which came against Georgia Tech in the ACC Tournament in James’ junior year. Meier, then the Charlotte head coach, was watching on television as James caught a full-court pass and made a game-winning shot at the buzzer over two defenders.
“It was Christian Laettner-esque,” Meier told The Next. “Tamara hit it, and … I was like, ‘God, that kid is such a competitor. Holy cow. Wow.’ And then … I don’t know how many weeks later [it was] that Miami called me, and I was like, ‘Wow, funny, I just watched the most dramatic game and the greatest finish.’ And Tamara was so good, so it made me very interested in the job, being honest.”
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Although James’ college statistics suggest that she was a superstar who rarely struggled, they masked plenty of challenges. Before her senior season, she had surgery to correct Haglund’s deformity in both feet, which is a condition in which a bone spur on the heel irritates tissues near the Achilles tendon. “[I] had to learn how to walk all over again,” she said—but she still managed to average 21.5 points per game and make several All-American teams.
James also dealt with the pressure of being the go-to scorer every night and a WNBA prospect. “When she had the ball, there were ten defensive eyes on her at all times,” Meier said. “I mean, she was not just double-teamed; it was like the entire defense was staring at her.”
“It was me having to stay focused and to understand that I have a goal to accomplish,” James added. “So we can get beat by 20, but I would still have to make sure that I scored the right amount of points and I played my best. And I just felt like every time I stepped on the floor, I was interviewing for a [WNBA] team or that’s a part of my resume.”
There was also the coaching change—as well as a position change—ahead of James’ senior season. Knowing she was undersized, James had expected to transition to the guard position as a freshman, but fate intervened. With two Miami post players suspended for James’ collegiate debut, she played forward and had 20 points and 21 rebounds, and she stayed there until Meier arrived.
“She was earning a hell of a reputation around the basket,” Meier said. “It wasn’t a negative. But … I do remember telling her, ‘Listen, on the next level, your skill set’s going to be a perimeter player.’” Meier had James participate in individual workouts at both positions and worked with her on reading defenses and exploiting mismatches, whether by posting up or popping out to the 3-point line.
James, who had already been a prolific 3-point shooter in previous seasons, responded by shooting a career-high 38.7 percent on 137 attempts from behind the arc as a senior. She also had a career-high 93 steals and chipped in 70 assists, even though Meier only encouraged James to pass in order to get herself open. “She’s one of the best scorers ever,” Meier said. “When she had the ball, you didn’t really want her to pass.”
James said that transitioning to the guard position was a challenge both at Miami and in the WNBA, but to Meier, it looked remarkably easy for James. Any time WNBA scouts asked Meier whether James could do something on the court—from playing a certain position to switching on defense—the answer was yes.
“Sometimes those, what they call ‘tweener’-type players, somehow they get evaluated as that’s a negative and I just was selling it as a positive,” Meier said. “… I mean, if she can beast you in the post and drop a three on your head, that’s a great thing.”
The Washington Mystics agreed, drafting James eighth overall in 2006. Basketball legend Nancy Lieberman, writing for ESPN, called it “a great decision.” But James got buried on the Mystics’ bench behind guards like Alana Beard and Nikki Teasley, and head coach Richie Adubato reportedly told her that there was no way he could find minutes for her as a rookie. It took talking with her pastor during the All-Star break to snap her out of the “attitude” she said she had after the conversation with Adubato and refocus her on improving every day.
Although James played more minutes and even started nine games in 2007, she was waived in May 2008 after two seasons in which she averaged just 4.3 points in 10.7 minutes per game. She didn’t play again in the WNBA but had a long career in Spain, Turkey and Israel, winning three championships while also raising her son, Dion, who was born in 2011. She played mostly at guard until she got to Israel, where players tended to be smaller and she thrived as a still-undersized post player.
James retired in 2015, seeking more stability for Dion and, ironically, disliking the politics of overseas basketball. A liberal arts major who originally wanted to be an actress when she enrolled at Miami, she didn’t have a plan for her second act.
One day, James went to a city commission meeting in her hometown, which was something she had grown up doing because her mother has worked for the city for nearly two decades. “One of the commissioners upset me,” James said. “And in that moment, I just told them, ‘I’m going to run for your seat and I’m going to show you how to treat people.’
“[I] had no idea what I was doing … I went home and I said, ‘Mom, what did I do?’ She said, ‘You just announced a campaign.’”
A tremendously successful campaign, as it turned out. James said she “used everything basketball taught me,” including grit and team building, to outwork the incumbents and win over voters. In a celebratory Facebook post after receiving the most votes in Dania Beach history in November 2016, James said that she had personally met over 75 percent of the city’s residents while campaigning. She knocked on doors daily and even shot baskets with kids whenever she saw them playing, all to build relationships and engage with the community.
“I did everything, politically, that didn’t show up on [a] ‘what to do to win an election’ stat sheet,” James quipped.
She added, “I didn’t say things I didn’t know. I didn’t make up things. I didn’t try to make myself look like I was a superstar. I just said, ‘I just want to serve people. I want to answer the phone when you call. … Whatever you need, I want to be able to do that.’ And I think that the people just wanted a fresh voice.”
Almost immediately, James’ leadership was tested when six people were shot in four nights in her first full month as mayor. But she led the city through that crisis and every other challenge that came her way, and she won re-election in 2020.
One of James’ proudest accomplishments as mayor is garnering support to rebuild the local community center, a project that she started advocating for in 2016 and hopes to break ground on in 2022. She also created a program for first-time home buyers, established the city’s Youth Advisory Council, protested racism and police brutality outside Dania Beach City Hall in 2020 and signed on to a letter to Congress this summer supporting a path to citizenship for immigrants.
“What I love, and I mean love, is when I see a video or I see her on TV or I read a statement that she might have made publicly, and I get this little chuckle like, ‘Yup, that’s TJ,’” Meier said. “Because she calls people out, and it’s not in a judgmental way, not in a berating way at all. She just, if you’re capable of more, she will show her expectation of you … She is not afraid to confront and require greatness from people, and I see it in everything she does.”
Since her retirement, James has dabbled in local basketball, coaching a high school team and winning MVP of an adult pickup league in 2019. But the sport’s influence on her has been constant. “The lessons that basketball has taught me play a role in my life every single day,” she said.
That showed when she first got elected and used basketball analogies to describe her vision, from calling herself “the point guard” of Dania Beach to saying that she is “looking forward to winning championships” for the city. And now, through the ups and downs of being a public official, her basketball experiences still help her respond in challenging moments.
“It definitely was not an easy journey even to get to the WNBA, and then my experience in the WNBA was filled with all types of adversity,” she said. “So … sports definitely groomed and characterized and built me to be a strong-minded individual where I feel like I can get through anything.”
James’ term on the city commission is up in 2024, and although she is unsure what her future holds, she might not knock on many doors. “The two weeks before the election, early election, that has been such a nasty process,” she said. “… I don’t think I want to continue with politics because not only do you run, your child runs … your family runs, your parents run, and they didn’t sign up for it.” She and her family have been verbally attacked, and she has also had to fight pervasive “dumb jock” stereotypes to prove she is capable of leading the city.
However, just because her methods might look different doesn’t mean she will stop being a role model and advocate in Dania Beach. After having to ask for money on street corners as a child, she resolved to give back, and in 2006 she established an eponymous foundation that offers youth athletic opportunities, mentoring and tutoring programs, and community events.
Just as with politics, she said, “I didn’t know what I was doing with [the foundation], either. I just knew that I wanted to help people. So … I figured it out as I went.” By her estimation, turnout has grown from “maybe ten people” at her first event to thousands at her annual back-to-school event known as Tamara James Day.
“Tamara has the natural ability to make things happen,” Abby Ward, her high school coach, told the South Florida Sun Sentinel in 2016.
James has made a lot happen in her lifetime, and though it all started with basketball, she ultimately used the sport to give back and effect change. Professional athletes often talk about using their voices while they have large platforms as active players, but James shows that an athlete’s influence doesn’t have to end after the retirement press conference—in fact, it may be just beginning.
Written by Jenn Hatfield
Jenn Hatfield has been a contributor to The Next since December 2018 and is currently the site's managing editor, Washington Mystics beat reporter and Ivy League beat reporter. Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats, FanSided, Power Plays and Princeton Alumni Weekly.