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CHICAGO — Urban Meyer thought he had found the next great Notre Dame receiver.
It was 2000, and the young Fighting Irish assistant was in Akron to personally offer a scholarship to a lithe, 6-foot-6 sophomore named LeBron. Meyer knew the kid only as an all-state wideout for St. Vincent-St. Mary on Friday nights, not for his pastime in the winter.
“Thank you very much,” the prospect replied. “I'll consider it.”
The player’s coach laughed and pulled Meyer aside.
“What are you laughing at?” Meyer once recalled replying.
“Do you know who that is?” the coach said. “That's LeBron James.”
“Who's LeBron James?”
“He'll be the next Michael Jordan.”
At Big Ten media days in Chicago this week, Meyer recalled the recruit that got away and smiled. The next time Meyer saw James, a few years ago in Miami, he told the four-time NBA MVP he had made a mistake turning down the full ride.
“He should’ve taken it,” Meyer deadpanned. “He’d be in a much better place right now if he would have played receiver for me.”
Instead, Meyer and James went on to enjoy immense success in their native state — Meyer at Bowling Green State University, James in seven seasons with the Cleveland Cavaliers — then left to win championships in Florida before winding up back to Ohio for larger-than-life homecomings. Meyer came to Ohio State in 2012, while James rejoined the Cavs earlier this month.
Now, Meyer and James are indeed, finally, part of the same team. Beyond the immeasurable impact of James’ return on Northeast Ohio, it is also a major boon for Ohio State, where the biggest star in American sports serves as an unofficial ambassador.
James has said many times he would have attended Ohio State if he attended college, and has since remained connected with the Buckeyes — even when his post-Decision approval rating in Ohio plummeted.
“No matter where I go in the world, no matter where it is, I will always rock Ohio State colors,” James told fans at the Skull Session before Ohio State’s primetime win over Wisconsin last year.
Ohio State’s coaches love it. James has an honorary locker inside the basketball team’s locker room, and an open door at the football complex. When James announced he was returning to Cleveland earlier this month, Meyer texted James to let him know a season sideline pass awaited. Meyer cracked that he expects him to be at every home game.
“It’s big,” Meyer said of James’ ties to OSU. “He means a lot in recruiting. You can’t measure the positive feeling of him standing on the sideline for an Ohio State game. He truly loves Ohio State.”
OSU’s Braxton Miller recalled the awe on the faces of the recruits who visited for last year’s Wisconsin game. James addressed the team and watched the game from the sideline.
“They’re like, ‘Really, man, LeBron is here,’” Miller said. “They were so shocked and surprised that they forgot about us playing the game that night. LeBron was missed in Ohio.”
Meyer, meanwhile, can relate to the pull of home, saying James’ letter to announce his return resonated with him. Born in Toledo and raised in Ashtabula, he grew up idolizing Woody Hayes and the Cleveland stars that came before the biggest of them all.
“Every chance I can, I brag about where I grew up,” Meyer said. “Every Sunday when we could, we would go to the Browns games. I was a big Cavs fan, I went to Indians games.”
As for James choosing basketball over football, Meyer wonders what could have been. He predicts the now- 6-8, 250-pound James could have been an NFL Hall of Famer.
“He’d be an incredible H-back or tight end,” Meyer said. “And he’s still got four years of eligibility left.”
At Ohio Stadium, too, a locker awaits.
“If he wants to come train with us,” Meyer said, “he’s good.”