The rise of a star
On December 12, 2002, a near-sellout crowd of more than 11,000 fans streamed from the cold, dark Cleveland evening into the bright light and swelling noise of the downtown CSU Convocation Center. It was a big night. They were there to watch a high school kid from a small parochial school in nearby Akron play basketball.
They would not be the only ones watching. A television crew from ESPN2 was there with the network's top announcers to broadcast the game nationwide. Reporters from local and national newspapers, including the New York Times and USA Today, were on hand to cover the story -- both the on-court action and the hive of activity buzzing around it.
Why the big fuss over 17-year-old LeBron James?
He was "The Chosen One." That was how Sports Illustrated had labeled this tall, charismatic teen when the magazine of record in the sports world made him only the eighth high school ballplayer to appear on its cover in 48 years. LeBron had been touted widely and wildly by many sports insiders as one of the best high school basketball player ever. Maybe the best. Ever.
This night was his chance to prove it. Would he truly shine as a legitimate star, ready to make the huge jump directly to the NBA? Or would he disappoint, revealing, as critics complained, that this kid had been extravagantly overrated?
LeBron was already on a first-name basis with Northeast Ohio; he had been making headlines locally since his sophomore year. And he was well known to the small community of serious high school basketball fans throughout the U.S., who knew him as a natural talent and a tough competitor. But this night, before a packed house and a large national television audience, would be his coming-out party.
"Dickie V! Dickie V!"
For a moment the cries of the basketball fans in the arena were as deafening as the man standing courtside, smiling happily at his fans.
"Dickie V! Dickie V!"
Dick Vitale, the iconic face and unstoppable voice of big-time college basketball, had walked onto the floor with his ESPN2 colleagues.
If you were a stranger to the game, you might have thought Vitale was the reason these fans were jammed onto the bleachers overlooking the basketball court. After all, the teams were only high school students. The announcer was a star, and obviously a fan favorite. Dickie V loved the games, loved the kids, and wanted everyone to be a winner.
Beside him were NBA hall-of-famer Bill Walton, still tall and powerful looking, the opposite of Vitale with a matter-of-fact delivery and expressions ranging from deadpan to deader-pan.
With them was Dan Shulman, who loved sports and had found his dream job as a reporter. He would fill in moments of silence if Vitale and Walton ever paused to catch their breaths.
"I hope Dan isn't getting paid by the word, because he won't make any money," Vitale joked.
The hype and hoopla generated by the event did not excite everyone.
Veteran CBS Sports basketball analyst Billy Packer had gone on the record in opposition to this particular event and to the televised promotion of high school kids in general.
"Well, television is a business but I am very much against the promotion of high school athletes as if they have accomplished something beyond high school athleticism, and if I were assigned to do that game I wouldn't
Packer had been involved with basketball for many years and had seen many prodigies who never quite succeeded in the majors. He thought high school players needed a few years of college to mature.
Of LeBron James he said, "Let him win a state high school basketball championship before we name him the greatest high school player to come out of Ohio."
He had a good point. However in this particular case, he might have been wrong. To begin with, LeBron and his teammates had already won two state championships. But it wasn't just the two championships that made LeBron different. This youngster displayed such genuine poise, charm, and maturity that most who had watched him closely over the past three years agreed he had the polish of a professional already.
As LeBron prepared for the night's game alongside his teammates, he wasn't thinking about other people's expectations for him. His own were great enough. This game was special to him for reasons more important than
LeBron's school, St. Vincent-St. Mary High School of Akron, Ohio, was a small urban Catholic school usually known more for its academics than for its sports teams. The school had lucked into basketball glory when LeBron and his four closest friends enrolled together, bringing the core of a team like none the school had ever seen before.
That night, the St. Vincent-St. Mary Fighting Irish were facing mighty Oak Hill Academy, a prep school from Mouth of Wilson, Virginia that was a perennial national powerhouse with rosters filled with top Division I college basketball prospects. The two teams had faced one another twice in the two previous seasons, and the Irish had lost both times.
During LeBron's sophomore year, St. Vincent-St. Mary played Oak Hill in the National Hoops Classic at Battelle Hall in downtown Columbus, Ohio. The Oak Hill Warriors should have dominated the court, with six players on their roster who would go on to play Division I college ball. The Irish surprised them, though, and took a lead into the third quarter -- only to lose at the buzzer on a missed shot by LeBron, who was devastated to have let his team down.
The Irish lost the rematch the following year, at the Prime Time Shootout in Trenton, New Jersey. Oak Hill's team then featured guard Carmelo Anthony, who would go on to help Syracuse University win an NCAA championship. LeBron and Carmelo became friendly rivals. LeBron had the better game, scoring a game-high 36 points to Carmelo's 34, but Carmelo got the last laugh as Oak Hill defeated St. Vincent-St. Mary 72-68.
Now in his senior year, this would be LeBron's final shot at proving his team could take on, and beat, the very best.
"I can't wait for the game. I'm going to put on a show," LeBron predicted.
The event had an electric air of anticipation, with all the energy of a big-time NBA contest.
The star of the show took center stage, wearing his emerald-green Nike shoes and his emerald headband with the prominent NBA logo right on the front. The crowd was primed to witness athletic greatness in the raw.
During the pregame warmup, LeBron put on a show. He indulged in high-flying acrobatics, moving as though boosted by springs in his shoes.
But then, when the game finally started, LeBron seemed to have forgotten everything he had learned about playing under pressure. He tried too hard, used too much muscle, and missed his first few shots. You could almost see Oak Hill's players relax slightly, as though the one player they feared the most might actually be weakening under the tension of the moment.
Eventually, LeBron remembered to relax. He settled down and began making shot after shot, including a spectacular dunk that would be shown repeatedly on ESPN's nightly highlights show, SportsCenter, the following day. LeBron scored 31 points, grabbed 13 rebounds, and dished out 6 assists. When the buzzer finally sounded and the team looked at the scoreboard, they had done more than win. They had bested the best, No. 1-ranked Oak Hill, by 20 points, 65-45.
Dick Vitale stared at the score, stared at LeBron, then declared to the camera, "He's the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth."
What Vitale and many of the others who were watching LeBron for the first time didn't know, though, was that the truth, the whole truth about LeBron James, was not his spectacular performance on the court that night. He had
The story behind the young phenom's remarkable success was visible all around him in the arena that night -- alongside him on the court, on the sidelines, and in the stands. The truth is, without his teammates, his
Sharing the spotlight with him in the afterglow of their win were LeBron's teammates and best friends -- Dru Joyce III, Willie McGee, Romeo Travis, and Sian Cotton -- the "Fab Five," they were now being called, who had grown up together as they played together (some of them for as many as eight years), and who had learned to rely on one another on and off the court. No ballplayer can win a game, let alone a season, without a team, but these particular boys were more than supporting players. "They are my brothers," LeBron insisted, truly meaning it.
At courtside was LeBron's coach, Dru Joyce III, who was leading the St. Vincent-St. Mary Irish toward their third state championship in four years. He was not only a coach, he was extended family; he had been closely involved with LeBron and his own son, "Little Dru," since the fifth grade.
In the stands were hundreds representing St. Vincent-St. Mary, the parochial school where teachers made sure students knew that sports came third, academics came second, and life came first. LeBron was pleasing many of them far more with his good grades and his good behavior than with his slam dunks. LeBron's fellow students teased him at school like anyone else, and they valued him as much for "Best Smile" as "Most Athletic."
Frankie Walker, Sr. was watching nearby, too. He had been the first to place a real basketball into LeBron"s hands and try to teach him the right way to play the game. But more importantly, he and his family at the same time opened their home to LeBron just when the young boy was most at risk of losing his way.
Not able to attend, but present in spirit and watching the game on television was Keith Dambrot. The former Division I college coach had once been laid low by scandal, only to discover budding basketball genius in the
Finally, sitting together in the stands were LeBron's mother, Gloria, and her good friend, the man LeBron called dad, Eddie Jackson.
Eddie was a charming hustler, a man who had served time in prison for selling drugs (and would soon do time again for fraud). But he loved Gloria, adored her son, and vowed to always be there for LeBron. He didn't always
Gloria had become a single parent in high school and never really found her footing. She and little LeBron drifted, living with friends and neighbors, trying to get by. But her love, at least, was steady and ample, and Gloria managed to gather an extraordinary extended family to help nurture the boy. She was fiercely protective of her "baby" and always found a way to get him what he needed. As he grew older, LeBron would joke that because of their ages, they were almost like sister and brother. Regardless, the two were devoted to each other.
After the game that December night, buffeted by media all wanting to interview him about his team's high-profile win, LeBron James looked calm and cool, every bit the smooth professional. He had good reason to be comfortable: he was at home on the basketball court, and surrounded by all his family.
David Lee Morgan, Jr. is the NBA beat reporter for the Akron Beacon Journal. He has won several awards for his coverage of high-school sports for that paper since 1995, including the James A. Sutherland Award, given to the top “rookie” reporter in Northeast Ohio. He is a former high-school and collegiate basketball player
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