GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Karie James likes to keep her family close to her heart, that’s why she and her son Lacey James wear matching necklaces with a cross and Lacey’s basketball number.

It’s a testimony to the trials and tribulations of his basketball career. The next step in his journey is with the Grand Rapids Gold. The West Michigan native signed with the team last month. 

“It’s faith that got us through it, and then basketball helped open a lot of doors too, along with the faith,” Karie James said.

Lacey James was raised in Grand Rapids by his mother, where the saying “ball is life” couldn’t be more true. 

“We’re basketball junkies, we love the game, it’s been our life, (and) it’s opened a lot of doors for us,” Karie James said.

From late nights shooting at the gym to playing at the park as a kid, it’s all been a part of realizing Lacey James’s dream — one that hasn’t come without sacrifices.

“It’s a sacrifice, but you know that one day I’ll be all worth it. With the kid wearing the name on the jersey, those are the days where you say, ‘ok it is worth it’… but at the end of the day, you’ll look back and you’ll be happy with the sacrifices and the decisions you’ve made,” he said.

Getting to the Grand Rapids Gold has been a long road. From his high school years playing for Wayland Union High School to a Division 1 basketball scholarship at Northern Illinois to starting his pro career overseas in the British Basketball League, the 6-foot-nine forward has been all over the map. That’s what makes playing basketball back in his hometown all the more fulfilling.

“Because people want to support you, even people that don’t know you. That means you’re doing something right with your platform and with things that are your craft and everything, so that is one of the dreams,” he said.

But at one point, Lacey James thought those dreams were over. In high school, he was diagnosed with Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM).

It’s a disease that affects the heart muscle and can sometimes lead to life-threatening complications.

Despite never having any symptoms and being a healthy athlete his whole life, it stopped Lacey from playing the game he loved.

“Your life or your decision to play basketball or not was in somebody else’s hands. And you couldn’t control it. People always say control what you can control, but I couldn’t control that,” Lacey James said.

Due to his heart condition, he was referred to the NBA’s Fitness-To-Play Pannel, and his first season in the G League was cut short. At the time, he played for the Westchester Knicks.

“It was devastating,” his mother said. “When I picked him up from the airport, it crushed your heart as a mother. Seeing it in his eyes and his face, it was like someone just shattered his dream.”

Lacey James spent months staying ready, just waiting for the NBA’s clearance to play.

“I never knew when I would get that clearance. So that was probably one of my toughest years, and that was very hard. But I was happy,” he said.

Finally, in March, Lacey James was deemed healthy to play after missing an entire season. Only two players in NBA history have been cleared by the Fitness-to-Play Panel, and he is one of them.

“When something could be taken away from you, you got to take a step back, and say hey ‘I’m blessed with this.’ Let me not take it for granted, because some people do. Just to have that early in my career, and to enjoy each day, it could’ve been taken away from me, but it wasn’t, and I really appreciate it,” he said.

Lacey James likes to say that he’s ‘just getting started’ as he works for a call-up to the NBA.

And there won’t be any doubts that he’s playing with heart.