By Tom Austin
Portrait by Scott McIntyre
On a postcard-perfect day made for outdoor basketball, Tamara James, a former WNBA player and the current mayor of Dania Beach, is back on her childhood basketball court at C.W. Thomas Park giving an offhand basketball tutorial to the press. “If I want to get the ball away from you,” she says, “I can move up fast and slap it away from underneath… like this. I always put my opponent where I want them to be; I’m not going to let them dictate the game.”
The 33-year-old Dania Beach native grew up a few blocks from the park, on NW 12th Avenue, where her parents, Ellis and Tammie, still live (the street is now co-named Tamara James Avenue). She has long since learned to ignore the ever-present gaggle of teenage boys and young men who hang out on a nearby bleacher. “It has always been me and the boys growing up,” she says. “It was hard to find girls who wanted to play basketball after school. I’m only 5 feet 10 inches tall, which is small even in women’s basketball, but playing on this court taught me how to play like a boy. They were never easy on me.”
The more things change, the more they sort of stay the same. A young man with dreadlocks sidles over, and it’s obvious he’s been egged on by the bleacher crowd. He and the mayor begin a tentative good-humored dance as James gathers strength and lobs trash talk. “What, you got a fan club over there?” she says. James sinks four in a row, taunting a bit in this make-it-take-it round—“I need the ball back… again,” she says—but never crossing the proverbial line. She’s a born athlete and politician, and the young man walks away a happy potential voter, chuckling about losing the game.
James, the eighth overall pick in the 2006 WNBA draft, entered the political arena fresh-faced after six years of playing professional basketball in Israel. She had always been determined to help her community, most notably by starting the Tamara James Foundation in 2006 to help disadvantaged youth and appearing before the City Commission on behalf of the nonprofit. After retiring from basketball in 2015, James ran for the City Commission in Dania Beach, which has a system in place stating that the candidate who gains the most votes becomes the city’s mayor.
“When I ran for office here, I conducted a grass-roots campaign,” she says. “I knocked on doors and met the residents of Dania Beach. I didn’t rely on my name, and I didn’t have any grand political speeches to make. People can spot a genuine candidate when they see one.”
On the community center wall is a photo of her basketball jersey from the University of Miami, where James attended college and where she still holds the career record for most points scored—2,406—in women’s or men’s basketball. Her University of Miami basketball jersey was retired in 2010, four years after she graduated. After playing for the Washington Mystics, the South Broward High School standout went on to play in Israel, Spain and Turkey. “A little bitty basketball took me around the world,” she says.
Her sports dreams began at a basketball hoop found on the same street where her 6-year-old son, Dion, plays now. “My parents had one of the first houses on this street, and when I was a kid, that apartment complex across the street was all woods,” James says. “Dania Beach has so much development going on now.”
Her time as mayor intersects at an exciting point in Dania Beach’s history, when development is at a high and projects such as the 102-acre mixed-use project Dania Pointe are on the precipice. Dania Beach, Broward County’s oldest city, was incorporated in 1904 and founded by Danish settlers who raised tomatoes. It’s one of the few Old Florida enclaves left in South Florida and has a renowned antique district. James—the city’s second female African-American mayor after Bobbie Grace, who James counts as a mentor—is focused on preserving the historic character while merging new development and boosting the economy.
“We have a Dania Beach Oasis program to help our existing neighborhoods,” she says. “New development should address the needs of Dania’s residents, which is what we’re trying to do with Dania Pointe. In the Northwest section—from I-95 to NW First Street by C.W. Thomas Park, between Griffin Road to the north and Stirling Road to the south—we’re working on new landscaping with bicycle lanes and more.”
For James, it’s all about staying the course—a lesson she learned as a basketball star. “Dania Beach is a hidden gem in South Florida,” she says, “but we can keep that old Dania Beach flavor and still evolve. We can be a little bit of everything for everybody.”
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2018 Issue.