ATLANTA — Kwame James waited nearly 10 years to be sworn in as a U.S. citizen, a long time compared with the time he spent helping subdue would-be shoe bomber Richard Reid on a trans-Atlantic flight.
James, now 32, wore a gray pinstriped suit and blue tie last week during the ceremony, which ended years of immigration limbo that began after he helped thwart the terror attack aboard a Paris-to-Miami flight in December 2001.
The 6-foot-8 basketball player was napping when a flight attendant roused him. Ten rows back, Reid was scuffling with passengers and the crew after he tried to ignite explosives hidden in his shoes. James helped tie up Reid with belts and headset wires, and took turns holding Reid by his ponytail with another passenger until the plane could land in Boston.
Nearly 10 years later, James would rather talk about how happy he is to be a new citizen and his passion for music.
"I became a citizen of one of the best countries in the world and I am very happy," he said Friday, a day after he was sworn in as a citizen in Atlanta. "All the things that people come here for, that's what I'm here for, the opportunity. You can come from nothing and become something here, just through hard work."
James, who was born in Canada and raised in Trinidad, played professional basketball in France. He had been traveling to the U.S. to meet his then-girlfriend and take her to his family's home in Trinidad for the holidays. He returned to France after the trip but asked his basketball coach for some time off when the reality of the flight's close call set in.
"I didn't understand the magnitude of what happened at first," he said.
He entered the U.S. as a tourist but later realized he couldn't overstay his visa if he wanted to become a citizen later. He agreed to testify against Reid, but the government seemed to turn its back on him after Reid pleaded guilty before trial in October 2002, said his immigration lawyer, Michael Wildes.
Wildes was shocked that someone who had acted heroically might lose permission to stay in the U.S., and he volunteered during a nationally televised news show to take the case for free.
Wildes brought James' case to the attention of then-New York Sen. Hillary Clinton and Rep. Joe Crowley. He also helped James apply for a visa that allowed him to play basketball.
James, who had played two years in high school in the U.S. and then four years of Division I at the University of Evansville in Indiana, made the cut for the minor league Brooklyn Kings. The assistant coach and co-owner of the team, Dan Liebman, said the two "became like brothers" and even let James crash at his apartment.
"He's an incredible class act through and through," Liebman said. "People should model their children after him."
James married his girlfriend, Jill, and became a legal permanent resident. After several more years, he applied for citizenship and was finally sworn in Thursday.
After giving up basketball, James got a job as a sales representative for Pfizer but later was laid off. Having shown he could get a job on his own, James felt comfortable accepting help offered by Liebman and agreed just over a year ago to move to Atlanta to help expand his friend's IT staffing firm in the Southeast.
Given his love for hip-hop and urban music, James was happy to move with his wife and two young children and be near the city's vibrant music scene.
For now, though, he's just looking forward to something he's never done in the U.S.: "I can't wait to vote in the next election."