Friday, August 21, 2009

LeBron James: The Can't-Miss Kid From Akron

In January 2003, while on assignment for Time magazine, I compiled this report for a story that was slugged "High School Phenom." The subject: LeBron James. The magazine did not profile James till much later, though my notes survive...

"Did I make it?"

With a swagger equal to his skill, LeBron James sounds strangely tentative as he throws out the question during a St. Vincent-St. Mary High School basketball practice. James had just scampered along the baseline, hurtled his 6-foot-8, 240-pound body through the air, grabbed an alley-oop pass, and thrust it through the rim without the advantage of actually seeing the basket.

Did he make it? Yes, of course. He’s the can’t-miss kid from Akron, Ohio.

Likewise, there appears to be little doubt that James will make it—and in a big way—in the NBA. He is generally regarded as the favorite to be selected first in the June draft. Of course, that is if, as expected, he chooses to skip college. But with so much spotlight so soon, less certain is whether he will meet the lofty expectations that his raw talent and solid work ethic have spawned.

Not since Lew Alcindor dominated the New York high school hoops landscape--before his dominance at UCLA, and before his incarnation as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar--has a high school player been so ballyhooed. And James has not only been celebrated, but he has been coronated—he goes by the humble title of “King James,” in case you haven’t been able to see through the school-imposed covering that shields the tattoo on one of his arms.

Like, Alcindor, James has played in the Pauley Pavilion at UCLA. Only, James has done so in a high school uniform. (Game is Saturday, Jan. 4, between St. Vincent-St. Mary and Mater Dei.)

With a national schedule and national TV exposure, it's as if James is squeezing in a variation on the college experience.

What does he make of all the hoopla?

LeBronmania has gotten so big that his games have been moved from St. V’s tiny gym to the University of Akron’s JAR (James A. Rhodes Arena). Ask Akron townsfolk how many names they could reel off from the college’s starting lineup and you will likely receive a bunch of the the schools quirky nickname: Zips.

But ask about LeBron James while chatting with the convenience store clerk, and she will be moved to talk about the time LeBron once paid a visit to the business.

He is regarded with widespread fondness in the Akron area, though most close to him are quick to go on the defensive without any prodding. It's a natural byproduct of coverage expanding beyond the hometown son making good theme and into the harsh glare that comes with a national media spotlight. In mid-December, guardian figures—particularly his mother, Gloria—were feeling burnt by some blunt descriptions about LeBron’s longtime mentor and father figure, Eddie Jackson.

“Just right now, we’re not trusting (the media) at all,” said Gloria James. “We’re really right now not in a hurry.”

“It was `ex-con’ this and `con’ that,” said Bruce Kelker, a construction worker who has remained close with LeBron since he first coached him in football nearly a decade ago.

LeBron's not arrogant, friends say, when he might appear aloof or cocky. He’s handling the media onslaught better than anyone else caught up in the attention, according to St. V athletic director Grant Innocenzi. LeBron's a softie with kids, signing autographs when they flock to him after games and around town.

Early on in the practice, only three friends are in the gym. One is Maverick Carter, a 21-year-old who was the senior leader of the St. V football and basketball teams when James was a precocious freshman.

Carter played basketball on a scholarship at Western Michigan University for a year, then transferred to Akron to focus on his studies. He's high-tailing his studies to earn a bachelor's degree as soon as possible. Carter is clearly in position to continue as James' right-hand man when the pros come beckoning. More than ever, he is filling that role in the wake of the imprisonment earlier this month of Eddie Jackson. He is serving a three-year sentence after pleading guilty to charges of mail fraud and mortgage fraud.

Though friends speak glowingly of Jackson, and insist that his behavior should not taint any telling of the LeBron tale, one can’t help but wonder at its significance. Is it a harbinger of difficult times to come, or an early wake-up call for LeBron to watch who he draws close to him?

Coach Dru Joyce II guides his team with a bemused smile and intermittent bellows of "Stop! Stop! Stop!" He moves in to correct a player on his mental or physical approach to the game. The warm-up drills, from a "weave" in which teammates pass to one another then run behind their target to a full-court 1-on-1 regimen, gradually ratchet up the intensity. James punctuates many of his moves with a thunderous slam drunk. He's not the only one on the squad to dunk--at least four players do it during practice--but his are clearly a breed apart.

Early on in the scrimmage, LeBron navigates down the lane, only to lose the ball in the clutter of hands, elbows and knees.

"Damn!" he utters in frustration. Another player must have murmured something in reply because a moment later, LeBron's voice climbs an octave as he huffs, “That’s not cussing!”

(He must do 10 push-ups every time he swears, based on Coach Joyce's policy.)

His height, strength, quickness and agility overwhelm anyone who comes in his path. As his football coach, Jay Brophy aptly notes, “He is a man amongst boys.”

After one slam, LeBron swaggers away with the shout, “Ain’t nobody in the world gonna stop me...nobody!”

Jed Dunn, basketball coach at Brush High School in South Euclid, can attest to that bold claim. Dunn first encountered James nearly four years ago, during the summer heading into LeBron’s freshman year at St. V. Already a coach, Dunn was in his mid-20s, having played as a walk-on point guard at the University of Akron after a solid high school career.

“I knew who he was, but never played against him. At one point, I stopped the game and jokingly said, `Listen, I’m going to have to leave here if you keep embarrassing me. This is my hometown too.’”

“He was competing with college kids in the eighth grade…just his floor awareness at that time was amazing,” recalled Dunn.

Dunn came away from that pick-up game with a word-of-mouth mission. He told friends and colleagues, “Write this kid’s name down and put it in your wallet. They’re saying, `Why? Why?’ I told them, `In a couple of years you’ll know about him.’ But it turned out to be that freshman year (when James emerged).”

Last season, Dunn brokered a reconciliation between James and Roy Hall, a rugged Brush player now playing at Ohio State on a football scholarship. During a moment of frustration, Hall lowered his shoulder and knocked James to the floor with a hard foul. On and off the court, tensions had been mounting in the moments since the foul, and during a break in the action, Dunn urged Hall and James to “make it right” and shake hands. After first refusing to do so, James wound up embracing Hall.

“The whole crowd cheered,” said Dunn. “Later people called and e-mailed, and said it was a great way to handle it.” He was impressed not only by that sportsmanlike display but also James’ going out of his way this fall to greet Dunn’s daughters by name at a nearby mall. Granted, the girls’ names have handy basketball connections—they are Jalen, 7, (as in the Chicago Bulls’ Jalen Rose) and Kobie, 4, (as in the Los Angeles Lakers’ Kobe Bryant).


It's a rainy December night in Ohio and relatives and friends of the members
of the St. V basketball team have sidled into the squad's practice at
The JAR. More formally known as the University of Akron's James A. Rhodes Arena, the setting has seen competitive intensity give way to a playful, family atmosphere.

With St. V, practice just sort of peters out--there is no single moment when
Coach Dru Joyce II whistles his players to a halt, they assemble in a huddle
and then break with a roar. At least on this night, that communion was
reserved for an early stage of the practice. No, with this nationally ranked
team, you know practice has wrapped when the pace of layups and dunks simply drops to a point of inertia.

"Marcus--let's go!" says Felicia Johnson, trying to coax her son to get off
the court so they can begin the 40-mile drive home to Cleveland. Her husband, Omar, observes their son quietly. Marcus, a sturdy 6-foot-3 freshman who has thrown down power dunks throughout practice, firmly shakes his head and sizes up a shot from the baseline.

He has had a big week: he turned 15 on Monday night, then scored 16 points the next night in St. V's 103-49 rout of Willard. Already, he is gaining national exposure. But he has not been the draw for college coaches, NBA scouts and an ever-expanding television audience.

That distinction goes to the young guy shadow-boxing along a sideline of The JAR. His name is LeBron James and if you haven't heard of him, the day may come soon where you won't go a day without hearing his name. Along with his best buddy, Maverick Carter, James is whooping it up, bare-chested and dressed only in his shorts and socks as he teasingly menaces his friend. Pockets of activity have popped up throughout the gym, but most of the eyes are on LeBron.

He's grown accustomed to the spotlight.

Three years ago, LeBron was the up-and-coming freshman and Maverick the star senior who led St. V to the Class III state basketball title. Now, he is
very likely five months away from becoming the first player selected in the
NBA draft. While it has become almost routine for high school standouts to
get selected in the first round, LeBron James would be the first to get
picked first overall.

Based on salary slots established by the league, the selection means an automatic $13 million annual contract for James. An endorsement with Nike or adidas is in the offing as well, for perhaps even more millions. You may want to put your money on Nike, especially since Maverick interned for the company last summer.

James has already played pick-up basketball games with NBA stars. In fact,
Cleveland Cavaliers coach John Lucas got fined $150,000 for inviting James to take part in an impromptu workout with his team two summers ago.

So forget a few grains of salt--you need an entire shaker--when James'
mother, Gloria, insists, “It’s still up in the air. Regardless of what everyone else is saying, he’s still considering college. College is still an option.”

James did not suit up for football this past fall--too much is riding on his
continued health--but he was an All-State wide receiver who towered over secondaries.

Coach Jay Brophy, a member of the University of Miami's national title team in 1984 and a linebacker in the NFL for five years, said determination and desire set James apart from his peers.

"No matter what he does, he wants to be the best at it," said Brophy.

Brophy said James has handled the hoopla well, but "I just hope he can remain somewhat of a kid as long as he can. (If he goes pro this year), he becomes a businessman at 18. That's pretty tough to do, but he's got a great head on his shoulders."

It would be a far cry from the days last year when Gloria would occasionally
come to school lunch to bring the peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich that "Bron Bron," as he is nicknamed, had forgotten to pack.

Brophy recalled James approaching him during a fish fry around Thanksgiving to let him know he would be near the school gym about 90 minutes before practice, to complete his weightlifting regimen. “He really leads by example,” said Brophy. “He doesn’t just talk the talk. He walks the walk.”

“He's a throwback. He's an old-timer,” Brophy added. “He's a kind of gym rat. He's earned his way in. He made himself what he is. He doesn’t owe anybody a thing."

“Don’t read the papers,” Brophy tells James. “Don’t listen. Enjoy yourself and keep working on your game.”

Along with Frank Walker, Bruce Kelker coached LeBron in football dating back to when LeBron was 9 years old. He says LeBron is the best tailback he has ever seen. He was scampering for touchdowns—18 in a 6-0 Pee Wee season for the East Dragons—“before he could dribble or make a layup in basketball,” said Kelker. “But he was taller than anyone else.”

Kelker said LeBron’s large, powerful hands are among the physical gifts that set him apart. “That boy’s hands is what makes him so special.” If LeBron were not a basketball player, he would make a great artist, said Kelker.

“LeBron hates to lose,” said Kelker. “That boy does not take losing well at all.”

LeBron went out for baseball when he was 9 or 10 and the team was poorly coached and was so disorganized that it did not have uniforms through its first two games. Both contests ended in lopsided losses. LeBron quit the team, never to return.

The chemistry of his basketball team stems from the core group of four players playing football, then basketball together for half their young lives.

Joyce said LeBron’s work ethic and passion at practice has rubbed off on other players. To keep things interesting, the coach creates scenarios. In one, the team that LeBron plays on is the third-string team. Sometimes, he carries the squad to victory against his mates in the starting lineup.

Other times, the coach gives one team a 20-point edge with eight minutes of action. It’s no surprise that LeBron is assigned to the team trailing. He likened LeBron to a sponge, soaking up instruction.

“Anything we taught, he caught on very easily,” said Joyce.

Maverick’s father, Otis, remembers a tournament game during LeBron’s freshman year. Maverick had fouled out in the third quarter. “I kept screaming, `LeBron, LeBron! Don’t let us go out like this!’ He looked at me and said, `I got this.’

Behind James, St. V advanced to the state semifinals and on to the title.

“When he gets on that court, he’s like a gorilla,” said Otis Carter.

Kelker said LeBron is mischievous.

According to Tim Rickus, business and promotions manager for the high school athletic department, that side of LeBron came out after the 102-49 romp of Willard on Dec. 17. A reporter asked LeBron how he and his teammates were reacting to all of the media attention, including ESPN’s televising of the game. LeBron responded, straight-faced, that they were all watching the coverage all day long at school.

“He’s got an awesome sense of humor. Very quick-witted…he knows exactly what to say. That’s a part of LeBron that people don’t realize,” said Rickus. “That’s going to carry this guy above and beyond.”

Of all the media attention, Rickus said, “LeBron has handled this better than anyone else involved.”

Said Kelker: “There’s nobody knew it was going to balloon like this.” He said that on the Saturday morning after the ESPN-2 game, he called LeBron to let him know that a segment on the game was about to be aired. Later, Kelker called again to get LeBron’s reaction, but he had left.

“He went to practice. He didn’t even care about watching it. It don’t go to his head,” said Kelker.

For the first time since he was in the 8th grade, LeBron is playing against players his own age, or younger. “Right now, they don’t have a chance,” said Kelker.

LeBron’s mom, Gloria, gave birth to LeBron when she was just shy of 17 years old. Ever since, times have been tough financially. She often would see him on weekends, but turn to a supportive network of families like the Walkers and Joyces to help raise LeBron.

His father has not been a part of his life, though he recently is referred to in the ESPN article as being in jail, either currently or recently (I would need to re-read the story to be sure.).

Joyce first met LeBron when he was 9, and began coaching him in AAU basketball when LeBron was 11. From 11 to 13 years old, LeBron frequently stayed at Joyce’s home.

“In his situation, basketball is like a refuge,” said Joyce. “It saved him.”

A Look at LeBron James' 5th NBA Game

Here is my reporting from November 2003, while on assignment as a stringer for Time magazine:

By Matt Baron

LeBron James is listening to rapper Jay-Z in the corner of the visitors’ locker room at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.

It’s about one hour to tip-off for James and his Cleveland Cavalier teammates as they face the Indiana Pacers. James is about to engage in this last leg of his pre-game ritual: humor the media horde for five minutes or so, and then take a nap to chill out and temper the adrenaline coursing through his 18-year-old body.

“Once you all leave,” he tells the 10 reporters assembled around him, “I go to sleep.”

At that moment, he has all of four NBA games under his belt, but James has already established his rhythm and the self-assured posture of a league veteran. His demeanor is purposeful, bordering on the grave.

Ever since early in his high school career, he has known that interacting with the media is an integral part of his job. Now, as heir apparent to Michael Jordan as the game’s next Big Draw, he is a portrait of poise.

Someone asks him about Larry Bird, the legendary Boston Celtic who retired from the game when James was 7 and is now the Indiana Pacers’ president of basketball operations. Without skipping a beat, James replies, “He’s a competitor. That’s the thing I respect the most about him. Every time he ran out on the floor, you had a chance to win.”

In that respect, he has much in common with Bird.

James led his high school team, St. Vincent-St. Mary High School of Akron, to three Ohio state championships. Three times, he was named the state’s Player of the Year. And it has been nearly two years since his precocious talent on the hardwood landed him on the cover of Sports Illustrated, and alerted the general sporting public to his presence.

James’ muscular 6-foot-8, 245-pound frame bears a tattoo on his upper right arm that reads “Gloria,” in honor of his mother. A tattoo on his upper left arm reads “Beast”. He wears wristbands that read “King James”—in his own honor.

What about your defense? James says he working hard on holding his own on that end of the court. He talks about the shot he has blocked, he overstates the number of steals he is averaging (he says four, it’s actually 2.25). He concludes: “Defense always leads to offense.”

A beat reporter for a Cleveland-area newspaper asks James about rumors that there is a rift between him and fellow high-flying guard Ricky Davis. James suddenly feels the urge to look down and tend to the drawstring on his sweatpants. “I don’t know where that s--- came from…ain’t no rift at all.”

Does it bother him that such a rumor has circulated?

“It only bothers you when you know it’s true,” he says. “I just think people need a story, so people just come to me and Ricky.”

James does not feel compelled to stay within the framework of his journalistic interrogators. Someone asks if the team’s 0-4 start has left him frustrated. He shakes his head and chooses another word: “disappointed.”

“Everybody wants to win,” he adds. “They’re (the wins are) going to come for us.”

A win—LeBron’s first as a pro—very nearly happens on this night. Indiana leads for almost the entire game, but is never able to pull away by much. In the fourth quarter, Cleveland ties the score a few times, then goes ahead briefly in the waning moments.

An Indiana score puts Cleveland behind by a point, 91-90, and the Cavaliers have one last bid to come away with a victory. The final play begins with a missed hook shot by DeSagana Diop. After the ball caroms off the rim, James leaps above a sea of bodies and, about six feet away from the basket, manages to redirect the ball toward the hoop. It comes amazingly close to dropping in, but rolls out and the game is over. For the fifth time in as many games, the Cavaliers have lost again.

James ambles off the court, eyes fixed forward as he caresses his head from an apparent elbow in the last-ditch battle for the ball. He removes his headband and tosses a no-look pass into a throng of fans hollering for his attention.

It has been a strong showing for James, marked by some struggle.

Fielding questions after the game, James dons a Nike Air baseball cap and an attitude that refuses to be boxed in. A reporter asks him if the loss is frustrating, and James still won't buy into it.

"It's not frustrating," he insists, then changes gears as he hollers to teammate Darius Miles, who had been seated next to him. "Hey Miles, you got your CD player over here!"

He has played more than anyone else on either team, 44 of the game’s 48 minutes. Cleveland Coach Paul Silas left him in the entire second half—a show of confidence in an 18-year-old that is unprecedented in league history.

Most 18-year-old rookies have been lucky to get 15 minutes of action, let alone be called upon to run a team’s offense, as James has been assigned as the team’s point guard.

“He’s got so much energy,” said Miles, who also jumped from high school to the NBA three years ago. In fact, six players on the Indiana and Cleveland rosters made that high school-to-pro transition. In addition to James, Miles and Diop on the Cavaliers, the Pacers have Jermaine O’Neal, Jonathan Bender and Al Harrington.

The Cavaliers turned the ball over a season-low 10 times, but James was responsible for seven of them. On two occasions, he appeared awkward as he brings the ball past half-court and throws passes to the wing that are intercepted. After the game, he chalked those gaffes up to a "lack of concentration." Another time, he foolishly tried to dribble through a double-team and lost the ball.

But none of the mistakes prompted Silas to pull James, and the rookie hustled back on defense to try to redeem himself as quickly as possible.

“He has so many things to think about. He’s not in his natural rhythm yet,” said Silas.

In some instances, too, James’ passes appeared to catch teammates by surprise—actually reflecting a strength that observers have long attributed to him: an ability to see the flow of activity on the court in a way that others don’t readily see. So until his teammates catch on to James’ uncanny vision and court sense, his strength will be a double-edged sword.

Said Cleveland center Chris Mihm, “That’s what I noticed from the get-go is his passing ability. It’s fun to play with a guy like that. He’s really jumped right in.”

Cleveland guard Ricky Davis called the miscues “hard, aggressive turnovers.”

James scored 23 points, but none over the final 7 minutes. His 8-of-18 shooting includes one three-point bomb over Indiana defensive specialist Ron Artest, a resounding slam-dunk on an alley-oop and at least four airballs and outright bricks.

For significant portions of the game, James and Indiana’s Reggie Miller—who at 38 is more than twice James’ age—guard each other.

After the game, Miller said he was impressed with James’ “overall knowledge” of the game. “He’s capable of playing in this league. He’s talented. He has a great future,” said Miller. “He works hard and that’s all you can ask of in a rookie.”

During one lull in the second-quarter, James chats up veteran referee Joe Crawford and punctuates his comments with a huge pearly-white smiling display.

Larry Bird, the Pacers’ president of basketball operations, called James “one of the better passers in the game. In time, the game for him will be easy. I’m impressed with the kid. He’ll get better and better in time.”

Of James’ extensive playing time, and whether it would burn him out, Bird said, “The great players have got to stay on the court.”

Craig Neal, formerly an assistant coach for the Toronto Raptors and currently a scout for the team, watched James play the Pacers.

“He’s not afraid to be great,” said Neal, who played briefly in the NBA about 15 years ago. “A lot of kids don’t want to be that great because they’re afraid of what comes behind it” in terms of off-the-court pressures and generally lofty expectations. “There’s no fear in him.”

Neal has followed James since early in his high school career, and has admired his well-rounded skills. “He was always head and shoulders above everybody because he did every aspect of the game,” said Neal.

While James needs to work on his shooting touch, Neal is confident he will improve in that respect—“he’ll get better because (great players) always do. He does all the little things that all the stars do,” such as anticipating a play before it happens and helping out on defense in ways that don’t always appear on the stat sheet.

The only other player to whom Neal compares James, at this point in his development, is Tracy McGrady, the Orlando Magic forward who led the NBA in scoring last season.

Cleveland Cavaliers Coach Paul Silas played in the NBA for 16 years and was a member of three championship teams. He is in his ninth year of head coaching in the NBA. Silas said he has never coached a player who was as fast a learner as James. “It’s God-given,” said Silas. “God gives people certain gifts. You tell him once, and he’s got it.”

Baron Davis, the star guard for the New Orleans Hornets who played for Silas the past few years, is also a quick study. “Guys like that get kind of bored with a lot of structure,” said Silas. “They want you to move on to the next thing.”

Silas said he did not detect any resentment among James’ teammates over the acclaim he has received. “He handles it so well. If he was gloating, that would be a major problem…but he’s fun-loving. And he’s a rookie. He carries the bags when necessary.”

On a breakaway against Sacramento in the season opener, with a golden opportunity to showcase his leaping ability, James opted to pass to Davis instead of dunking the ball himself. It was a gesture that spoke volumes to his team and to anyone watching that James is interested in sharing the spotlight.

“That was huge,” said Silas. “That just shows his thought process in the game. I guarantee no other rookie in the world would have done that. That showed great foresight.”

“This kid really understands the game and understands how to play,” Silas added. Once James improves his shooting, “the sky’s the limit for the kid. That’ll come. Most players who come in to the league are not as good as they are one, two, three years down the line.”

Silas said James “hates to lose”—another trait that great athletes have in common.