By David Fong
Regional Sports Content Manager
CASSSTOWN — Four years ago, following “The Decision,” Cleveland Cavaliers fans mad a “decision” of their own.
They decided LeBron James would forever be labeled a traitor, his jersey would be burned in effigy and the man generally regarded as the heir to Michael Jordan’s throne would forever become persona non grata not only in Northeast Ohio, but throughout much of the Buckeye state in general.
Four years — and two NBA titles later — James announced he was coming home and, in an instant, all seemingly has been forgiven as Cavaliers fans have embraced the prodigal son.
Thirteen years ago, Miami East boys basketball coach Allen Mack had his heart broken by LeBron James, too.
On March 24, 2001, James — then a sophomore at Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary High School — helped lead the Irish to a 63-53 victory over Mack’s Vikings in the Division III state championship game. Mack has long since put aside any bitterness he may have felt toward James after the stinging defeat — and much like the rabid Cleveland fanbase, he welcomes James’ return to Cleveland with open arms.
“I think it’s wonderful for basketball in Ohio, specifically for Cleveland,” Mack said. “It was certainly a good surprise to see him return to the Buckeye state. While we were very disappointed to see him crush our state championship dreams, any bitterness there may have been has gone by the wayside.
“We’ll always have the memory of playing against one of the best — if not the best — players in the world. As a coach, that’s how I feel, and I would think most of our players on that team would feel pretty similar.”
When Miami East met James and the rest of the Fighting Irish in the state championship game, James was not yet regarded as one of the top players in NBA history or a global marketing icon — but he was well on his way. The next year, he would be featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated and a number of his team’s games would be broadcast on ESPN.
Mack remembers the hype surrounding James was just starting to build that season.
“His team had only lost one game that year — by one point to Oak Hill (Va. ) Academy, which seemingly was always nationally ranked,” Mack said. “He had helped elevate his whole team. They were ranked No. 1 in the state and were ranked in the nation by USA Today. I believe it was the Sporting News that had named him the top sophomore in the nation at the time.
“When we played them in the state title game, I knew the coach from the University of California and the coach from the University of North Carolina was there. Those things really helped to signal that this guy was going to be a big-time player. My one memory of LeBron was watching him on pre-game warm-ups, and he was already wearing and NBA headband, NBA wristbands and NBA socks. While we weren’t sure what his future would be, we could already tell he had a pretty big future ahead of him. The next year, things really started taking off when he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated and ESPN started broadcasting some of their games as they started to play a more national schedule.”
Despite all the hype surrounding James and his team, an unheralded East team gave the Fighting Irish all they could handle. East ran a box-and-one defense against James, with Nathan Chivington — now the boys basketball coach at Fairborn High School — handling one-on-one defensive duties against James.
Despite giving up six inches to James, Chivington played valiantly, as James only touched the ball one time in the first three minutes of the game and didn’t score a single point in the first quarter. At halftime, the Vikings held a 10-point lead. Eventually, though, Chivington would get into foul trouble and James would shake free from his slow start to finish with 25 points and 10 rebounds.
With 3:24 left to play in the game, East pulled to within one point, 52-51, on a shot by Chivington. James quickly turned the game around, however, picking off an errant East pass and went the length of the court, banking in a lay-up with 2:51 to play to give St. Vincent-St. Mary a 54-51 lead. That would be as close as East would get the rest of the way.
“From our experiences, we told people he was the best high school player we had ever played against,” Mack said. “Obviously at our level, we don’t see a lot of NBA players, but we had also played against two pretty elite players before LeBron in Romain Sato, who had led Xavier to the Elite 8 and played overseas, and Jason Collier, who had played at Springfield Catholic and was a late first-round draft pick for he Houston Rockets.
“The thing about LeBron that really stood out was his athleticism. Even back then, he was the best athlete we had ever seen in high school basketball. The other thing that stood out to me was his presence on the court.”
James obviously has gone on to far greater heights since that match-up — winning a pair of NBA titles and an Olympic gold medal.
And now he’s headed home.
“I think it’s a great thing,” Mack said. “I’m sure most people in Ohio will be happy to have him back.”
Contact David Fong at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @thefong