LeBron James is playing in is fourth consecutive NBA Finals and gunning for his third consecutive NBA title. He’s being called by some the greatest small forward ever and he hasn’t yet reached his 30th birthday. We take a look back at the growing legend in his first national cover story in the November 2001 edition of Student Sports Magazine when James was entering his junior season at St. Vincent-St. Mary (Akron, Ohio).
By Brian Windhorst, Special to StudentSportsBasketball.com
Explosive like Michael and savvy like Magic, Ohio phenom LeBron James is so young, but already drawing comparisons to the game’s greats
LeBron James is only 16 years old, yet he has already achieved things no one before him has ever come close to. He’s had his driver’s license for just a few months, yet he’s already guided a team and himself to national prominence.
Some people say he’s the best basketball player ever to play in the state of Ohio, and he’s just started his junior year of high school. In truth, James’ story could already fill a book and someday it probably will. But let’s start somewhere near the beginning, a little more than a year and a half ago.
On December 3, 1999, James stepped onto the court for his first varsity basketball game. He was a rather baby-faced 14-year-old who stood 6-foot-3 and was playing in basically a meaningless game in front of a small crowd.
James had won himself a starting job at St. Vincent-St. Mary, a parochial school in downtown Akron, Ohio. He and the Irish were playing at Cuyahoga Falls, a large suburb of Akron. But another parochial school in Cuyahoga Falls was playing in the state championship football game that night, and thus the crowd was light.
James quietly scored 15 points that night as the Irish rolled to a blowout victory. Little did many in attendance know, but a star was hatched and he’s been soaring ever since.
A year later to the day, James again took the floor for his opening game. But it wasn’t in front of a small crowd in a suburb. There was a near sellout crowd of 5,000 people at the University of Akron. The things that happened in between and since, well that’s already the stuff of legend – the Legend of LeBron James.
Today, James is almost universally considered — by most recruiting experts, premier summer camp directors, a growing number of college coaches and a great deal of NBA scouts — the best high school player in the nation. These are not the exploits usually attained by a player who has yet to play a game in his junior year.
The raw numbers tell the story. As a sophomore, he averaged 25 points, seven rebounds, four steals and six assists in guiding St. Vincent-St. Mary to a second straight Ohio Division III state championship. In his two years at the school, the team is 53-1. The loss may be the game he is remembered for the most — but we’ll get to that later.
Last winter, he became the first sophomore in Ohio history to be named the state’s Mr. Basketball. Later, he was named an All-American with the likes of Eddy Curry and Kwame Brown, who were taken in the top four of the NBA’s draft in June.
But folks, we’re just getting started.
“He sees the game in a way I’ve never seen before,” said his former high school coach Keith Dambrot, who used to be the head coach at Central Michigan University and recently accepted an assistant coaching position at the University of Akron. “He knows the game. He understands everything he sees. He’s the one you see maybe once in a lifetime.”
Last March, he scored 54 points in the two games at the state tournament in Columbus and was named the tournament’s MVP for the second straight year. North Carolina head coach Matt Doherty and California head coach Ben Braun flew in just to watch the game with 17,612 other fans, the first sellout in a state championship game since it was moved into Ohio State’s Value City Area at the Jerome Schottenstein Center.
The Irish finished the year 26-1 and earned a No. 3 ranking in the final Student Sports FAB 50. The team’s only loss came to Oak Hill (Mouth of Wilson, Va.) Academy, which finished the season undefeated and ranked No. 1. It was a 79-78 defeat last January in front of 11,000 fans at a tournament in Columbus. While numerous college and NBA scouts showed up to watch Oak Hill center DeSagana Diop, later taken eighth in the NBA Draft by the Cleveland Cavs, and the rest of Oak Hills’ all-star cast, James stole the show.
He scored 33 points on a flurry of 3-pointers, off-balance jumpers and dunks. He was, by far, the best player on the floor. He missed a 19-footer at the buzzer that would’ve won the game and probably the mythical national championship.
“He’s a special player; you aren’t going to see many like him,” Oak Hill coach Steve Smith said. “He took it to us.”
But what James has done in the high school arena simply pales in comparison to what he has accomplished during the summers.
James first started turning heads on the national scene when he was still in junior high. Part of a fantastic group of players who now all attend St. Vincent-St. Mary, James helped lead his summer team to the nationals year after year. The summer before his freshman year at St. Vincent-St. Mary, James and current Irish teammates Dru Joyce, Sian Cotton and Willie McGee finished second in the nation at the AAU National Championships in Orlando, Fla.
“We knew back then that we had a group of kids that could be really, really good,” said Dru Joyce Sr., who coached James’ summer teams and recently was hired as the head coach at St. Vincent-St. Mary. “But LeBron, he was just special.”
The friendships between James and his teammates started when they were just 11 years old and have become one of the most important bonds in his life. They all decided they would go to the same high school.
“We made a promise to ourselves,” James said. “We decided that nothing would split us up. Not coaches. Not girls. And definitely not school.”
But it was these summers, with and without his friends that have earned James his reputation. After his freshman year, James had his unofficial coming out party at the Five-Star Camp. He was simply head and shoulders above anyone there as a 15-year-old. Growing to 6-foot-6, James’ fluid moves on the court blew the scouts away. He demonstrated the ability to play four different positions, showing off his jump shot, rebounding and passing skills.
Some great players have come through Five-Star, like NBA stars Grant Hill, Rasheed Wallace and Stephon Marbury, yet camp director Howard Garfinkel told reporters after seeing James that he was as good or better than all of them — as a sophomore.
“All of it hit me rather quickly,” James said. “I try not to listen that much to what people say about me and just try to go out and work.”
Then came last summer, where James crashed through the ceiling. He started off by being the first underclassman ever invited to the USA Basketball Development Festival in Colorado Springs, Colo. He did more than justify his presence. In five games, James, now at about 6-foot-8, scored an outrageous 120 points, breaking the camp’s scoring record and being named the camp’s MVP.
Then came the biggie, the adidas ABCD Camp at Fairleigh-Dickinson University in New Jersey in July. This invitation-only camp, along with the Nike All-American Camp in Indianapolis, are regarded as the most prestigious in the country. While he was at the camp, a camera crew followed James around from ESPN’s The Life, producing a documentary about his week there. James and local New Jersey product Lenny Cooke were the two highest-profile players of the 230 in the camp.
Cooke, a senior at nearby Old Tappan High, was named the MVP of the camp the year before and is expected to be one of the top prospects in next June’s NBA draft if he skips college.
Both had outstanding weeks, becoming the leading scorers in the tournament. But James showed his all-around game, lighting it up from three-point range and displaying his excellent passing skill that has some experts comparing him to a better shooting Magic Johnson. In one game, he had 15 assists.
“His court vision is unbelievable,” said one NBA scout. “He sees things two passes in the future.”
Then, watched by a legion of college and NBA scouts, as well as a horde of reporters, James and Cooke squared off in a game late in the tournament. Cooke, cheered on by a large group of fans, stared James down early in the game, dribbled the ball repeatedly between his legs and drilled a long 3-pointer.
But his celebration was limited as James showed his stuff. He would score a game-high 24 points, while holding the 6-foot-8 Cooke to just nine. Then, just for good measure, he hit a running three-pointer from 25 feet away as the buzzer sounded to give his team the win.
“He was better than I thought he was,” Cooke said.
“It was just another game,” James explained. “I just try to play my best whenever I’m out there.”
But beyond his words, the statement James made with his play resonated across the country. He was named the camp’s MVP award and caused college coaches to come up with one superlative after another, albeit not by name because NCAA rues forbid it.
“There’s a player here, and he isn’t a senior, who, if he keeps up his current attitude, is a lock NBA player,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino told ESPN.
But there was much, much more. A New York Times columnist, stunned by James’ play, wrote a story claiming James might consider turning pro after his junior year of high school. Major newspapers up and down the East Coast did stories and James was featured in Sports Illustrated and the Sporting News.
As for the rumors of turning pro after this year, they are a little premature. NBA rules prohibit players from being drafted before their high school class graduates and James isn’t likely to mount a legal challenge to that rule, even though scouts insist he could do it.
“I’m only 16 and you’re only in high school once,” James said. “It is tough to make people understand the NBA will be there in the future. High school won’t be.”
Forever present on the sidelines watching all of this unfold is James’ mother, Gloria. It’s not just cliché to say that Gloria is LeBron’s biggest fan, but that role is reversed as well. James says that his mother is his best friend.
Things haven’t been easy at home during James’ life. Gloria is a single mother and she had LeBron when she was just a teenager. She raised him mostly by herself.
Her support for him is both visible — she is at most games and tournaments, even out of town — and invisible.
“I just want what is the best for him; that’s all I’ve ever wanted,” Gloria James said. “I never expected all of this. It’s been a dream, really.”
Gloria will tell you a story about getting LeBron a miniature basketball hoop and ball when he was just an infant. And how he would spend hours playing with it and dunking the ball. He kept those practice habits up through most of his younger years.
“He was always playing, every day,” Gloria said. “I knew that he was going to be a good basketball player, but to be honest, I never expected this.”
Her constant support is part of the reason why James would consider a jump to the NBA after his senior year in high school, even though his 2.8 grade-point average could probably get him into just about any school.
“He tells me that he wants to buy me a house and a car and stuff,” said 5-foot-5 Gloria, who believes LeBron got his tall genes from the many tall men in her family. “But I just want him to be happy and I don’t want him to be hurt by anyone.”
The feelings are reciprocal.
“My mom is very special to me. She has taught me so many things,” said James, who has a tattoo with his mother’s name on his arm. And creating a better life for his mother is one of the reasons he pours so much time into basketball.
“He doesn’t want it for the money or for the fame like everybody thinks,” Gloria said. “He wants to play (in the NBA) because that’s his dream.”
There is little doubt that the brightest of James’ career is in his future. This season, St. Vincent-St. Mary has put together one of the toughest schedules in the nation. Of the 20 teams on the docket, at least eight of them could start the season with a national ranking in the Student Sports FAB 50. The Irish will open the season at home with a game with St. Louis (Mo.) Vashon, which finished sixth in last year’s FAB 50. There is also a re-match with pre-season No. 1 Oak Hill in New Jersey in February and the team will play in the prestigious Slam Dunk to the Beach Tournament in Delaware just after Christmas.
Due to rampant ticket demand, the team has had to move all of its home games to the nearby University of Akron and will likely outdraw the Zips at the facility this winter.
Impressed enough? We haven’t even discussed James’ exploits on the football field. He’s a wide receiver for the school’s football team. Last season, he had more than 700 yards receiving and was named first-team All-Ohio in Division IV. After briefly deciding to skip this season, James returned to the team after its first game this fall and promptly led the Irish to victory, catching three touchdown passes in his second game back.
His summers will probably be even more high profile, with the national media speculating on his draft status. He’s gotten dozens of tournament invitations and has already made friends with several NBA stars and was even invited to a workout with his hero, Michael Jordan, in late August.
Ah, the growing legend of LeBron James.
And this story is still in its introduction.
Postscript: James’ St. Vincent-St. Mary team was upset in the Ohio II finals by Roger Bacon (Cincinnati). It was the only loss of James’ high school career to an in-state club. St. Vincent-St. Mary finished 23-4 and ranked No. 40 in the final 2001-02 Student Sports FAB 50. A wrist injury prevented James from playing in the 2002 ABCD Camp and from his senior season of football, but during the 2002-03 season St. Vincent-St Mary played one of the toughest schedules ever assembled by a high school team and finished unbeaten on the court en route to a No. 1 finish in the Student Sports FAB 50. James was the No. 1 pick of the 2003 NBA Draft.
Editor’s Note: Brian Windhorst was a staff writer at the Akron Beacon Journal at the time of publication. Today, he works for ESPN covering the NBA. He was hired by ESPN after James made “The Decision” to join the Miami Heat.