INDEPENDENCE â€“ Steve Culp will always remember Christmas Eve 2001.
It was cold and about a foot-and-a-half of snow was on the ground, but when LeBron James and some of his friends decided at 11 p.m. that they wanted to play ball, the former assis-tant coach at Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary High School gladly unlocked the gym.
Forget eggnog or sleeping with dreams of St. Nick dancing through his head. James, a 16-year-old high school junior at the time, didnâ€™t head home until close to 1 a.m.
â€œHis work ethic was what was always most impres-sive, especially how much he stayed after practice and worked on his game, what he did behind the scenes when people werenâ€™t look-ing,â€ Culp said. â€œA lot of people think the game comes easy to him, but he really does work hard.â€
Culp, who was at St. V-St. M for Jamesâ€™ sophomore, junior and senior seasons, has vivid memories of show-ing up at the teenagerâ€™s residence in the Spring Hill Apartments, which are located in one of the most downtrodden areas of Akron, and finding him outside doing pushups, situps and repeatedly running the stairs.
Current Irish coach Dru Joyce II, who led the team in Jamesâ€™ junior and senior seasons, was in charge of the child prodigyâ€™s AAU team for nine years and remembers him missing one practice.
Keith Dambrot, currently the coach at the University of Akron after leading St. V-St. M during Jamesâ€™ fresh-man and sophomore years, simply says the work ethic, personality, leadership and basketball acumen the 24-year-old now displays with the Cavaliers have always been there.
â€œHeâ€™s the easiest guy Iâ€™ve ever coached in my life, without a doubt,â€ Dambrot said. â€œHe was team-oriented, he worked hard, he knew how to play and he was a fast learner. He was just a basketball genius, really.
â€œHe was the best teammate Iâ€™ve ever seen. If we played a bad team, he would get everybody in-volved. He didnâ€™t care how much he scored. If we played a great team, he would take things on his shoulders, but he would still make his teammates better.â€
In those days, it was Dru Joyce III, Sian Cotton, Wil-lie McGee and Romeo Travis that James showed the way. These days, itâ€™s everyone from Cavaliers veterans Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Mo Williams to youngsters J.J. Hickson and Darnell Jackson.
â€œHe sets the tone for the culture around here,â€ Cleveland coach Mike Brown said following practice at Cleveland Clinic Courts. â€œI can preach all day â€“ â€˜Come in early; get a thou-sand extra shots inâ€™ â€“ but it wouldnâ€™t mean a thing. Heâ€™s the one who sets the culture.â€
From Little League baseball to peewee football to AAU basketball, James has always been that way â€“ partly by choice and partly by nature.
â€œIâ€™ve always loved to play a game and be part of a team,â€ he said. â€œI like that side of the game. Iâ€™ve always wanted to be part of a team. Thatâ€™s just stuck with me my entire life.
â€œIâ€™ve always wanted to be a leader. Iâ€™ve always wanted to be that guy that, if things go bad, it falls on me. If things go well, the team gets the success and the prize.â€
James, who will likely be named league MVP sometime during the Cavaliersâ€™ upcoming Eastern Conference semifinal series with Atlanta or Miami, has always been â€œThe Guyâ€ on the hardwood, but heâ€™s also always been one of the guys.
â€œWe enjoy each othersâ€™ company and it shows,â€ he said of the Cavaliersâ€™ tremendous chemistry and camaraderie. â€œYou see how much, during the game, the bench is into it.â€
It was the same way at St. V-St. M, where James al-ways seemed to have a knack for knowing when it was time to get serious and when it was time to shake things up a bit.
â€œHe knew how to keep guys loose,â€ Culp said. â€œHe was probably the goofiest guy in the locker room. He was just trying to get his teammates to relax. They figured if he wasnâ€™t nerv-ous, why in the world should they be.â€
With the media hounding his every move as a high school senior, James showed up playing with a tiny automotive Hummer when the Ohio High School Athletic Association was investigating how his single mother, Gloria, was able to buy him that vehicle for this 18th birthday.
These days, he concludes practices at Cleveland Clinic Courts by playing whatâ€™s called â€œThe Rain Man Gameâ€ with teammates Williams, Delonte West, Daniel Gibson, Wally Szczerbiak and Tarence Kinsey.
Stationed behind the 3-point line in the left corner, the players take turns launching shots 30 to 40 feet in the air. The last person to make one has to do pushups while his teammates scream and carry on like 13-year-olds.
Itâ€™s all good-natured fun â€“ the hilarious West often breaks down and does wide-legged, one-armed pushups that leave his teammates rolling on the floor â€“ but itâ€™s still a competition.
â€œIâ€™m really competitive,â€ James said. â€œI hate to lose in anything I do, even when Iâ€™m not the best at it. I in-vented that game and Iâ€™ve lost one time â€“ and I was not happy about it.â€
Culp, Dambrot and Joyce II have no trouble picturing such moments. They know James likes to have a good time, but they also know how badly he wants to win, whether itâ€™s the slam dunk competition at the McDon-aldâ€™s All-American Game or attempting to bank in shots off a gym wall.
â€œHe was really mature from the standpoint of his competitiveness and how much he wanted to win,â€ Culp said. â€œEvery drill, he wanted to win. He got very upset when he didnâ€™t, but he kept coaching his team-mates.â€
Added Dambrot: â€œLeBron wants to win at everything. Thereâ€™s not one thing the guy canâ€™t do if he wants to do it. If he wanted to lead the league in rebounding, he could lead the league in rebounding. If he wanted to be the best defensive player, he could be the best defen-sive player.â€
Years ago, Culp regularly attended the famed Boston Shootout, where Patrick Ewing, the top pick in the 1985 NBA Draft, and Kenny Anderson, the No. 2 selection in 1991, were the ballyhooed high school stars of their time.
â€œThe comparison of the way they played to the way LeBron played was unbe-lievable,â€ Culp said. â€œHe was so far ahead it wasnâ€™t funny.â€
It wasnâ€™t just the myriad basketball abilities and tremendous strength and athleticism of the now 6-foot-8, 250-pound James that stood out, but also his desire to be coached and make his teammates better.
â€œHe had a thirst for the game,â€ Joyce II said. â€œHe and my son Dru, I always described them as sponges. I had to keep learning and growing as a coach because they soaked everything up.
â€œWeâ€™d teach a new play, and LeBron knew what everyone was supposed to do. He had that kind of mind and ability to focus on the details.â€
Things are no different in Jamesâ€™ sixth year in the NBA. Heâ€™ll spend time pretending to be an NFL quarterback, taking an imaginary snap from center with a basketball, then rolling out left and launching a one-armed, 75-foot shot, but not before heâ€™s put in almost an hour of extra work.
â€œHe has the work ethic and a very good nature,â€ Ilgauskas said. â€œHeâ€™s a very good person. He treats everybody the same, and that just carries over to the rest of the team.
â€œHe leads by example, and it makes all the other guys fall into place.â€
James knows this is as well as anyone, but refuses to make a big deal out of it.
â€œItâ€™s not about taking pride in it or working at it,â€ he said. â€œItâ€™s just who I am. Iâ€™m a down-to-earth guy. I love to have fun, but Iâ€™m a competitor. I love seeing the success of my teammates. Iâ€™ve just always been that type of guy.â€