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Bringin' down the house
by Bruce Meyer / March 27, 2003


Just four days after leading his St. Vincent St. Mary team to its third Ohio state title in four years, LeBron James took center stage in the biggest of the high school all-star games and clearly showed why he's clearly the top prep player in the nation and certain No. 1 pick in the upcoming NBA draft.

With an all-star line of 27 points on 12 of 24 shooting, seven assists -- many of them spectacular -- and seven rebounds in 26 minutes, LeBron led his East squad to a 122-107 victory in the McDonald's All American High School Basketball Game before a record crowd of 18,728 at Gund Arena in Cleveland.

In the process, he gained high praise from coaches and players from both sides as he took home the John Wooden Award as most outstanding player in the game and also was honored as the McDonald's Player of the Year before the contest. In winning the game MVP, he follows in the footsteps of such NBA stars as Alonzo Mourning, Shaquille O'Neal, Chris Webber, Jerry Stackhouse and Kevin Garnett, who all won the honor as high school seniors.

And as usual, it wasn't just the scoring and dunks that electrified the crowd, but LeBron's ability to pass and innate sense of the game that thrilled the fans and coaches alike. Early in the game, it was all about the pass as King James -- as he likes to be known by -- constantly looked for ways to get his teammates easy buckets.

"Early, I just wanted to get my teammates comfortable and into the flow," James said, noting that most of the others had never played before a crowd this size. "By getting them the ball early, it got them comfortable so they'd realize we're just out here trying to have fun."

But later in the game, when the West squad made a bit of a run, LeBron said his teammates encouraged him to take over, and that was exactly what he did. "The West team started to make a comeback; they got it within nine," he said. "So my teammates told me, 'We know your scoring ability, so just try to take over a little bit.' And I was glad I was able to do that."

Some of his highlights included:

- An alley oop dunk in the opening minute of the game.
- A no-look alley oop pass to Charlie Villanueva for a slam.
- A sweet dump-off pass off a drive for an assist.
- A steal four minutes into the game that he unselfishly gave up to a teammate for a dunk.
- A highlight assist off the backboard to Villanueva for another dunk.
- A move down the lane with five minutes left in the first hand that he finished off with an underhanded scoop with his left hand.
- A behind-the-back pass to James Lang who, however, got snuffed on the finish.
- In the first minute of the second half, he hustled for a loose ball and in one motion picked up the ball and passed it backward down the court that let to another dunk for Villanueva and...
- Him getting booed with nine minutes left when he was out ahead of the pack but settled for a nice easy dunk instead of a highlight slam after getting too far under the hoop.

If all that wasn't enough, LeBron sealed the deal in an 80-second highlight reel stretch late in the game when he delivered an alley oop pass to Michael Jones for a jam; brought the crowd to its feet with a reverse over-his-head dunk on a fast break; a relatively easy layup on another break; and a one-hand slam off an alley oop pass from Chris Paul.

The only part of his offensive game that wasn't on was his jumper, and there's no way to tell what kind of defense he's capable of playing in an exhibition game like this where street ball, running and dunking rules the night.

All in all, LeBron definitely was impressed with his game, saying that he enjoys the great passes even better than scoring. "When you score, you get one cheer," James said. "But when I pass, you get two cheers-one for the pass and one for the score."

He also showed his unselfishness by not going for the game scoring record of 31, set in 1999 by Jonathan Bender. "I feel that individual records never tell what the team has done," James said. "Team victories are better than individual victories."

James also was sure to pass on praise to his entire squad-especially the unselfishness of the players. "We worked extremely hard in practice," he said. "And tonight we shared the ball. You don't see too many teams share the ball in all-star games."

East Coach Ron Hecklinski from Anderson (Ind.) High School also had nothing but good things to say about LeBron. "When the best player is not only the most talented but also knows the game and has been well coached from his high school and AAU teams, that makes it all the more special," the coach said. "He's a wonderful kid with a great future."

And Hecklinski has no doubt that the right choice for James is to go to the NBA. "I think it's a very good decision for him, economically for his family, being able to take care of his family," Hecklinski said. "Emotionally, basketball-wise and body-wise, I think he's ready to play. And these three or four days I've been with him have really solidified that thinking."


Of course, with LeBron, the game's only part of the story. There's also the hype, and those handling PR for the McDonald's All-Star Game festivities didn't do such a good job in this area. On media day Tuesday, it was first reported that James would meet with just four media outlets: the George Michael Sports Machine, Black Entertainment Television, One-on-One Radio Network, and a public relations crew for the Cavs.

But with so many media attending -- at the game, media tables encompassed three sides of the court and there were two other auxiliary media areas -- a press conference with LeBron was called at the last minute. But the ground rules were strict: questions were allowed only on the upcoming game, his visit to the local Ronald McDonald House (beneficiary of the game's proceeds), and being named McDonald's High School Player of the Year.

So take away such topics as declaring for the NBA draft; the upcoming battle to win LeBron's shoe contract; his Hummer; and the controversy surrounding his acceptance of two throwback jerseys valued at more than $800 that led to a two-game suspension that still has some court matter pending, there wasn't much left to talk about. With those guidelines, the press conference lasted a whole seven minutes, and even then the PR person twice cut off questions and threatened to revoke media credentials for any media member not toeing the line. Not exactly a way to get good press for your event.

In his defense, however, LeBron himself is much better at dealing with the media than the PR people charged with "protecting" him during the event. As for all the hype he always replies: "I love it." And as for living up to the hype, he says: "I just go out there and play my game. I don't just try to do things for the crowd. I'm just out there trying to play for my teammates and my coaches."

He even took someone's cell phone during the game to briefly chat to the fan's kid, who couldn't make it to the game. "I just asked him if he was watching on TV and he was," James said. He even has advice for the next "LeBron James," as there's always another phenom somewhere down the road. "It's just all about staying focused," LeBron said. "You just have to stay focused no matter what happens. Your family has to be a big part of it. Make sure you have a close inner circle."

One thing he was coy about was when he will make the anti-climactic decision to declare for the NBA draft, saying there will be no decision at least until after he plays in two other all-star contests on his schedule. "God will lead me in the best direction and I will follow his footsteps," he said. "He only knows where I might be. I just take one step by one step because you're not promised tomorrow."

Bruce Meyer is a regular contributor to HoopsHype.com

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