This column on LeBron James appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun in December 2002.

Prep star James proves hype is justified

By Ed Odeven

Believe the hype.

LeBron James is that good.

In a rare nationally televised high school game Thursday night — the first shown live in 13 years — in something dubbed the Progressive High School Classic at Cleveland State’s Convocation Center, countless sports fans across the country got to see with their own eyes why every coach, talent evaluator, agent and shoe company mogul salivate whenever they see James on a basketball court.

This is what they witnessed:

James carried the No. 23 St. Vincent-St. Mary (Akron, Ohio) High School basketball team to a 65-45 victory over the nation’s No. 1-ranked team, Oak Hill Academy of Virginia.

James showcased a full, polished repertoire of offensive moves, including fadeaway jumpers, spot-up three-pointers, getting open and gliding through traffic with a purpose, posting up with ease, finishing with a soft touch on shots in the paint.

James dunked with authority.

James crashed the boards for rebounds.

James followed up errant shots with putbacks.

James ran the floor with the graceful stride of a seasoned pro, with an exceptionally quick first step.

James fired no-look passes with the impeccable showmanship of Magic Johnson or Jason Kidd.

ESPN basketball commentator Jay Bilas calls James “the best high school basketball player I’ve ever seen. He’s more physically imposing than Kobe Bryant” was at the high-school level.

James, a 6-foot-8, 240-pound man-child, can play anywhere on the basketball court. Anytime. That’s why he’ll be the No. 1 pick in the 2003 NBA Draft.

The senior, who led his school to state titles as a freshman and a sophomore, settled for jumpers on his first three shots, all misses.

Then he picked up his game and did what all great players do: make their teammates better. He zipped a pass to a teammate. The shot was off the mark, but James wasn’t. He leaped up, grabbed an offensive rebound, and in the same motion, slammed it through the rim. That put the Fighting Irish ahead 10-5.

Moments later, James, alone on the fastbreak, brought the crowd to its feet with an explosive windmill jam, making the score 13-7.

In an exciting sequence of second-quarter events, James darted across the lane, running a backdoor cut to perfection and finished off the play with a muscular jam. Then after nabbing a defensive rebound, James dribbled up court, leading the 2-on-1 break. Without slowing down, stopping or turning around, James delivered a behind-the-back bounce pass to a teammate, who was fouled slashing to the hoop.

Longtime hoops announcer Dick Vitale, who makes his dough commenting on college ball, was thrilled by the pass. “Are you serious?” he shouted.

A few possessions later, James jammed again with three defenders surrounding him, giving the Fighting Irish a 23-20 lead.

St. Vincent-St. Mary led 30-25 at halftime.

Oak Hill, a team stacked with a roster of Division I-bound players, went on a 10-0 run to tie it at 37 midway through the third quarter.

James gave his team the go-ahead basket, 39-37, when he muscled his way inside for an easy deuce and hit the foul shot to complete the three-point play. After that, the Fighting Irish coasted to victory, beating a team they’d lost to in two previous meetings. In fact, it was only Oak Hill’s fourth loss in as many seasons.

James finished with 31 points, 13 rebounds, six assists and a couple steals and blocks for good measure.

As a junior, James averaged 29.8 points, 8.3 rebounds, 5.7 assists and 3.3 steals per game. He says he can keep improving every day. That’s the type of attitude that helped propel guys like Magic and Michael Jordan to the superstar level as pros.

Before the game began, Vitale, a noted maestro of hyperbolic banter as well as accurate insight, offered this opinion:

“If he’s half as good as I’ve heard, he’ll be one special kid.”

He already is.