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King James brings his game
by Bruce Meyer / December 14, 2002

THE GAME

From a basketball standpoint, LeBron James clearly came out the winner on all fronts during St. Vincent-St. Mary's decisive 65-45 win Thursday over Oak Hill Academy, the Virginia team that had been the No. 1 ranked high school team in the U.S.

Not only did LeBron lead all players with 31 points, 13 rebounds and six assists, he helped his team avenge losses the past two seasons to Oak Hill, which has three players already signed to attend top Division I college teams next year. It clearly was not just another game on the schedule for St. V. and LeBron, who in the first two games of the year had let other teammates carry the scoring load as he concentrated on dominating with passes, rebounds and block shots.

But during the Oak Hill game, televised nationally on ESPN2, James turned up his offense several notches as he and teammate Romeo Travis combined for 48 of St. V's 65 points, topping Oak Hill's output all by themselves.

LeBron also didn't disappoint in terms of showmanship, bringing the crowd to its feet with a thunderous windmill dunk near the end of the first quarter and several no-look passes that led to easy lay-ups for teammates. He scored 13 points in the first half, then opened the third quarter by scoring his team's first 10 points. And after Oak Hill used a 10-0 run to tie the game midway through the third, LeBron was able to rally his team to avoid the comebacks that did St. V. in the last two years against Oak Hill.

"I'm very happy with the way that I played and the way our team played," James said after the game. "I'm especially happy with the way we rallied back after Oak Hill tied it in the third quarter. That brought back memories of last year and two years ago." After weathering that storm, St. V. and James dominated, holding Oak Hill, which had been averaging nearly 100 points a game, to just two fourth-quarter points.

The one chink in LeBron's offensive armor on the night was his first-half outside shooting. He scored all of his points on lay-ups or alley-oops in the half, with all his jumpers missing the mark. James, however, did hit two three-pointers in the second half that helped seal Oak Hill's fate. His intensity on defense also likely will have to improve once he moves to the next level. In fact, his big windmill dunk in the first quarter came after he'd been knocked to the ground on the offensive glass and he didn't hustle back on defense. When his teammates stole the ball, he was ready to cherry-pick the play at halfcourt and go in for the uncontested dunk.

St. V. Coach Dru Joyce said he talked to LeBron at half and told him to concentrate playing more on the post in the second half. "Once he got down on the block, they couldn't stop him," Joyce said. "They were so conscious of him. They started running three guys at him. Sometimes that's a mistake because he sees the floor so well; he made a lot of nice passes.

It is his passing and ability to see the floor, even more than his shooting and as much as his athleticism, that others say makes James a special player. And that's the abilities that NBA scouts look for and what will likely make him the first pick in next year's draft (though his NBA-ready, 6-7, 240-pound body doesn't hurt either).

"He's more seasoned and more experienced," Oak Hill Coach Steve Smith said of LeBron after the game. "The best thing he does is pass. He makes them all better. He makes players out of non-players."

Smith has coached his share of players that ended up in the NBA or in Division I college ball, and he didn't hold back in his praise of James. "He's the best I've seen. I've coached good players, I've coached against good players, and he's the best I've seen. And I said that two years ago when he was a sophomore. He's off the charts."

Taking the next step to the NBA, however, is a different matter, where guys will be up in his chest pressuring him every night, Smith said. But James body and skill level will allow him to compete right away, as long as LeBron doesn't try to force things, the Oak Hill coach. "He just needs to relax and let it happen. You can't live up to the hype," Smith said.

And the hype, in LeBron's case, already is way out of hand.

THE HYPE

For LeBron, the hype has been building for some time. He's long been expected to be the No. 1 draft pick if he skips college (not that there's anyone who thinks he won't go to the NBA). "Sports Illustrated" already deemed him the "Chosen One" in a cover article. Tickets to his school's games are advertised for sale by ticket brokers, with the ads touting "LeBron vs. whomever."

But the buildup to Thursday's game against Oak Hill (Va.) Academy truly got out of hand. It all started with the fact that Oak Hill was the No. 1 ranked high school team in the nation and had beaten LeBron and St. V. the past two years. Oak Hill wasn't just another team on a schedule that will take James and his teams to seven different states, including such storied arenas as UCLA's Pauley Pavilion, the Palestra in Philadelphia and the Dean Dome at the University of North Carolina. Oak Hill is a team that plays a national schedule every year, had a combined record of 155-5 the last five seasons and sports such famous alumni as Jerry Stackhouse, Rod Strickland and Ron Mercer. It also was the one team LeBron wanted redemption against to prove he has the game to back up the hype.

Given the fact that the game, after all, still was a regular season high school basketball game, the buildup became almost comical. It was televised on ESPN2, which sent its own celebrity analyst team of Dick Vitale and Bill Walton to call the game. Not coincidentally, "ESPN The Magazine" came out with a cover story on LeBron this week. A press conference held two days before the game - one of the few chances LeBron himself will be made available to the media outside of post-game press conferences - drew reporters from the "Philadelphia Inquirer" and "Pittsburgh Post-Gazette," two cities just ahead on the "LeBron Tour of America."

The game itself felt more like an NBA atmosphere, though in Cleveland the Cavs just wish they'd get this kind of attention. The Goodyear Blimp was overhead; parking around the arena went for up to $20; ticket scalpers were making the rounds; courtside seats went for $75 a ticket, with other prices ranging from $15 to $35; nearly 100 media credentials were issued; 10 NBA teams had scouts in attendance; Ohio State Basketball Coach Jim O'Brien was there, though primarily to see one of his recruits, Oak Hill forward Ivan Harris; and some local celebrities were on hand, including six Cleveland Browns players, and women's boxing champion Vonda Ward, who signed a number of autographs and even took in the post-game press conference. And remember, all this for a high school basketball game.

But LeBron himself seems impervious to the hype, even thrives on it. "I want to be on all the magazines," he said at his press conference earlier in the week. "I'm having real good fun." He seemed most excited that Dick Vitale was calling the game. At one point in the second quarter after he made one of his trademark passes on a St. V. fast break that led to two foul shots for a teammate, LeBron played to the crowd - and did it right in front of Vitale and Walton.

Despite all the attention LeBron gets, Coach Joyce does try to insulate his top player and the rest of the team as much as possible. Tattoos must be covered up with patches, practices are closed and the coach cuts off any questions to James about his post-high school plans, insisting that the talk be about this season or past accomplishments. And LeBron clearly is close with his teammates, several of whom he has played with since he was nine years old. "I'm enjoying the ride with them," LeBron said after the Oak Hill win. "I'm with them all the time. I spend more time with them than with my family. With them, I'm laughing and being myself. I keep them level-headed and they keep level headed."

Already named the "Chosen One" by "Sports Illustrated," it seems "King James" will be the next moniker to stick, as that is showing up on shirts worn by St. V. fans. Published reports say Nike and Adidas are the most likely to win the bid for LeBron's shoe contract, and the price likely will be in the $20 million to $25 million range, which will easily dwarf his first NBA contract.

But again, LeBron seems to eat up this sort of stuff, and already is quite adept at dealing with the media. "I chose this life. I don't want to get away from it." Like he joked to the press after the Oak Hill game, "If I want more free time, "I'll just quit basketball." The media laughed; Coach Joyce did not. And if any of the many reps from Nike or Adidas at the game heard the joke, they probably weren't laughing either.

Bruce Meyer is a regular contributor to HoopsHype.com

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