June 27, 2016

Mostly cloudy

Most Valuable practicer

Rick Noland
The Gazette

INDEPENDENCE – 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, didn’t head home until close to 1 a.m.

“His 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 weren’t look-ing,” Culp said. “A lot of people think the game comes easy to him, but he really does work hard.”

Culp, who was at St. V-St. M for James’ sophomore, junior and senior seasons, has vivid memories of show-ing up at the teenager’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 James’ junior and senior seasons, was in charge of the child prodigy’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 James’ 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.

“He’s the easiest guy I’ve ever coached in my life, without a doubt,” Dambrot said. “He was team-oriented, he worked hard, he knew how to play and he was a fast learner. He was just a basketball genius, really.

“He was the best teammate I’ve ever seen. If we played a bad team, he would get everybody in-volved. He didn’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.”

In those days, it was Dru Joyce III, Sian Cotton, Wil-lie McGee and Romeo Travis that James showed the way. These days, it’s everyone from Cavaliers veterans Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Mo Williams to youngsters J.J. Hickson and Darnell Jackson.

“He sets the tone for the culture around here,” Cleveland coach Mike Brown said following practice at Cleveland Clinic Courts. “I can preach all day – ‘Come in early; get a thou-sand extra shots in’ – but it wouldn’t mean a thing. He’s the one who sets the culture.”

From Little League baseball to peewee football to AAU basketball, James has always been that way – partly by choice and partly by nature.

“I’ve always loved to play a game and be part of a team,” he said. “I like that side of the game. I’ve always wanted to be part of a team. That’s just stuck with me my entire life.

“I’ve always wanted to be a leader. I’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.”

James, who will likely be named league MVP sometime during the Cavaliers’ upcoming Eastern Conference semifinal series with Atlanta or Miami, has always been “The Guy” on the hardwood, but he’s also always been one of the guys.

“We enjoy each others’ company and it shows,” he said of the Cavaliers’ tremendous chemistry and camaraderie. “You see how much, during the game, the bench is into it.”

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.

“He knew how to keep guys loose,” Culp said. “He was probably the goofiest guy in the locker room. He was just trying to get his teammates to relax. They figured if he wasn’t nerv-ous, why in the world should they be.”

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 what’s called “The Rain Man Game” 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.

It’s all good-natured fun – the hilarious West often breaks down and does wide-legged, one-armed pushups that leave his teammates rolling on the floor – but it’s still a competition.

“I’m really competitive,” James said. “I hate to lose in anything I do, even when I’m not the best at it. I in-vented that game and I’ve lost one time – and I was not happy about it.”

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 it’s the slam dunk competition at the McDon-ald’s All-American Game or attempting to bank in shots off a gym wall.

“He was really mature from the standpoint of his competitiveness and how much he wanted to win,” Culp said. “Every drill, he wanted to win. He got very upset when he didn’t, but he kept coaching his team-mates.”

Added Dambrot: “LeBron wants to win at everything. There’s not one thing the guy can’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.”

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.

“The comparison of the way they played to the way LeBron played was unbe-lievable,” Culp said. “He was so far ahead it wasn’t funny.”

It wasn’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.

“He had a thirst for the game,” Joyce II said. “He 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.

“We’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.”

Things are no different in James’ sixth year in the NBA. He’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 he’s put in almost an hour of extra work.

“He has the work ethic and a very good nature,” Ilgauskas said. “He’s a very good person. He treats everybody the same, and that just carries over to the rest of the team.

“He leads by example, and it makes all the other guys fall into place.”

James knows this is as well as anyone, but refuses to make a big deal out of it.

“It’s not about taking pride in it or working at it,” he said. “It’s just who I am. I’m a down-to-earth guy. I love to have fun, but I’m a competitor. I love seeing the success of my teammates. I’ve just always been that type of guy.”

Contract Rick Noland at (330) 721-4061 or rickn@ohio.net.

Rick Noland About Rick Noland

Rick Noland is the Cavs beat writer for The Gazette and the author of "Over Time," a compilation of stories he's written in more than 30 years as a journalist. He can be reached at 330-721-4061 or rnoland@medina-gazette.com. Like him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.