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Published: Friday, 3/14/2003

LeBron is right up there with Wilt, Tiger

Has there ever been a better high school basketball player than LeBron James?

Wilt Chamberlain, perhaps, suggest those who saw him play. Remember, Michael Jordan was cut from the team as a high school sophomore.

Has any athlete ever been more celebrated at such a tender age?

Tiger Woods, I guess, although his legend really wasn't forged on the national stage until he won the first of three straight U.S. Amateur golf titles at the age of 18. Hoops fans have been on a first-name basis with LeBron for awhile now.

But those are your options. Wilt Chamberlain and Tiger Woods. Not bad company.

James had no company last night at Savage Hall where, as usual, he was a man among boys.

His Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary team ran roughshod over Tallmadge 82-32 in the Division II regional semifinals.

The game was no story. One player, of course, was.

And he was well worth the price of admission for 8,700, many of whom gave the upper-deck seats in the corners their annual dusting.

I'd like to tell you there's something LeBron James can't do, if for no other reason than to impersonate a basketball expert. But there's nothing, no gaping hole in the resume.

He works his tail off on defense, swats shots, soars to the boards. Starts some fast breaks, contents himself to be the middle-man on others, and finishes many with incredible, powerful, explosive moves and monster dunks that are the offspring of on-the-spot choreography.

Once, he made a steal at center court, floated in for another slam and instead dropped through a routine layup. The crowd, buzzing over his every move, actually booed a little. They were back in his corner just seconds later when he took off from the free throw line on an inbounds play under the St. Vincent-St. Mary basket, leaped a couple feet above the rim and jackknifed the ball through the iron.

We could go on and on, but there is neither time nor space.

King James wasn't the only royalty in the house last night. Bob Arnzen, among the most legendary of Ohio prep coaches - he spent 43 years at Delphos St. John's, starting in 1950 - has seen just about all the great ones through the years and reeled off some names with ease.

But only one, he thought, compared with James.

“Jerry Lucas dominated in the same ways,” Arnzen said. “Remember, though, Lucas was a big body guy in the 1950s. But it's not the same big body we see on some kids today.”

That's the thing about LeBron. He is 6-8, 240 and appears capable of playing any of four positions, including point guard, against any level of competition.

In fact, watching him reminds you equally of Jordan, with whom he is often compared, and Magic Johnson.

James has that same ability to make everybody around him better with no-look passes that boggle the imagination. He draws defensive pressure on the perimeter, creates mismatches that favor his teammates, and owns the vision and creativity to always find them. By his high standards, last night's 19 points in just 24 minutes was so-so, but you should have seen the nine assists.

He also has Magic's smile and a full dose of the same charisma.

LeBron knows he's special, he plays to the crowd, maybe even gets a bit too caught up in his own hype. However, considering the chaotic background from which he springs, folks who have followed him religiously for the past several seasons insist he is a pretty decent kid.

James' senior year has been tainted by Hummergate, the throwback jerseys, his subsequent ineligibility and eventual reinstatement. As hard as he works on the hardwood, his attorneys continue to match his effort in wood-paneled courtrooms in an attempt to keep him in uniform.

For those who are simply fans, not critics, those off-court problems easily give way to the on-court spectacle. And, from the opening tip to the final horn, LeBron James takes your breath away.



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