Northeast Ohio celebrates LeBron James after favorite son becomes NBA's all-time scoring leader
As the number of reporters waiting to ask LeBron James postgame questions ballooned to about 20 during his junior high school season at St. Vincent-St. Mary, a decision was made to streamline interviews by holding news conferences.
"When we traveled around the country, there were some reporters that didn't want to believe that he was that great," STVM boys basketball coach Dru Joyce II recently told the Akron (Ohio) Beacon Journal, part of the USA TODAY Network.
"There were some that thought that he was catered to, and they came at him like that. He handled it much better than most teenagers would."
During that same season, a 17-year-old James appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated with the title "The Chosen One" and the following caption: "High school junior LeBron James would be an NBA lottery pick right now." The magazine's publish date of Feb. 18, 2002, came roughly 16 months before the Cavaliers drafted James first overall.
"When the Sports Illustrated thing happened, those are high expectations, but I always believed from those years in high school that he had the shoulders to handle it," Joyce said. "He was a unique person who could handle all that's been put on him."
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Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of James' legacy as a superstar athlete and international icon is how he never allowed an unfathomable amount of hype to derail his NBA career.
James, 38, didn't just meet expectations. He shattered them like a glass backboard victimized by a ferocious slam dunk.
The resume includes four championships – in 2020 with the Los Angeles Lakers, 2016 with the Cavaliers and 2012-13 with the Miami Heat – four regular-season Most Valuable Player awards, four NBA Finals MVPs and 19 All-Star selections.
And on Tuesday night, James added the NBA's all-time scoring record to the long list of achievements he has compiled in his 20 seasons. He surpassed Hall of Fame center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's 38,387 career points, scoring 38 in the Lakers' 133-130 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder at Crypto.com Arena in Los Angeles.
James entered the game needing 36 points to break the record. He reached the total by making a turnaround jump shot with 10.9 seconds left in the third quarter, and the game was halted to commemorate the occasion. Abdul-Jabbar handed a ball to James, then they exchanged a handshake and a hug on the court.
Speaking into a microphone, James thanked fans, Abdul-Jabbar, family, friends and other supporters. Swept up in the emotion, James let an f-bomb slip at the end of his brief speech.
"We should have a parade downtown for him because the NBA has been around a long time, and it's a heck of a goal to accomplish," Cavaliers legend and longtime Northeast Ohio resident Larry Nance Sr. said. "The best fans are here. They all love LeBron. We all do, and we've watched him do so many great things like (spearhead the development of the I Promise School in Akron). We're all so proud of him, and we're going to celebrate because he's ours.
"He's Ohio's, and we're going to celebrate just like we won a championship."
James had already become the NBA's all-time leader in combined regular-season and playoff points. He eclipsed Abdul-Jabbar in the joint category on Feb. 12, 2022.
But now James is professional basketball's undisputed scoring champion. He has the most points in NBA history in the regular season (38,390), the playoffs (7,631) and the regular season and playoffs added together (46,021).
"In my book, he's already the greatest," said New Orleans Pelicans forward and Akron native Larry Nance Jr., who played with James when they were members of the Cavaliers during the 2017-18 season. "He's the greatest player I've ever seen and I think the greatest player who ever touched the court."
Reasons to be skeptical
Akron native and former NBA player Jerome Lane Sr. admitted he didn't believe all of this would come to fruition for James.
Lane is a former STVM star whose jersey hangs alongside LeBron's in the high school gymnasium named after James. Lane attended all of the Irish's state championship games during the James era and thought the hysteria surrounding the phenom would be detrimental when he reached the NBA.
"For him to start off his career with the weight they put on his neck," Lane said, "I mean, I just can't believe he survived.
"I'm really going to be honest. I just thought they just threw too much stuff at him at one time for him to bear. I just thought he was going have a mental breakdown. Then when he fought through it, he came out smelling like roses."
The buzz surrounding James reached the national stage – especially with STVM playing in several other states – yet people from Akron knew about it on a deeper level.
The vast majority of the STVM home games during LeBron's junior and senior seasons were moved to the University of Akron's Rhodes Arena to accommodate larger crowds. During his final high school season (2002-03), the Irish's games could be purchased by Northeast Ohio residents through pay-per-view. Two games were televised on ESPN2.
Meanwhile, shoe companies Nike and Adidas were courting James for endorsement deals, with Reebok entering the fray shortly before the NBA Draft. The seven-year contract James eventually signed with Nike before he had ever played a minute for the Cavaliers was worth $90 million.
"He was the league's face at 18, and he took that (expletive) on like it was nothing – like a champ," Lane said. "That feat right there is unbelievable. I think that feat right there is more unbelievable than him breaking the scoring record."
Joyce explained a key to James overcoming the pressure heaped upon him at a young age could be found in his support system on the STVM roster.
Joyce first coached James as a 10-year-old AAU player. The coach's oldest son, Dru Joyce III, and Sian Cotton were members of the same AAU team. They would later unite with Willie McGee and Romeo Travis to form STVM's "Fab Five" with James as the headliner. Those former STVM standouts attended Tuesday's game along with other loved ones of James.
"What a lot of people don't realize is the significance of his friends and his teammates because they kept him grounded for those years," Joyce said. "He was never treated differently by me or any of those close friends on the team. We recognized he was the best player, but we also recognized you can't do anything without us. He recognized he can't do anything without the team.
"When I see him play today and I see him make the pass when others say he should have been more selfish and taken that shot, that just does my heart good. Because that's how we brought him up – to understand that the game is five on five, and you've got to trust your teammates, and they've got to trust you to make it work."
Evolution of LeBron James
In an interview last month with ESPN, James said sitting atop the scoring throne had never been a goal of his because he's always been "a pass-first guy." Last week, James moved into the fourth spot on the NBA's all-time assists list.
However, LeBron's game has also changed with time. The 6-foot-9 James is more of a post presence nowadays than the wingman he had been for years.
"He's continued to figure out ways to get better and sustain a high level of play,” said Pelicans guard CJ McCollum, who is also a Canton, Ohio native. "Obviously, his jump shot has improved since his younger years, and his athleticism is still there after 20 years. It's crazy.
"But I think his basketball IQ, his ability to manipulate a game, make the players around him better and almost be a coach on the floor is impressive. For him to sustain that level of play for so long just shows you how great he truly is and how much he takes care of his body and does the little things to make sure he gets the best out of himself."
James' career regular-season averages are 27.2 points on 50.5% shooting from the field, 7.5 rebounds and 7.3 assists per game. He's still dominant this season, scoring 30 points, grabbing 8.5 rebounds and dishing out 7.1 assists a game.
"First, he used to just drive a lot, and then he picked up a little jumper. Now he picked up 3s," Nance Sr. said. "He just evolved his game and got better each year, and that's the sign of a superstar — to be able to look at my weaknesses and develop them and make myself better. I've seen him play with pretty much a broken right hand and still average 28. I mean, he just doesn't take no for an answer. He's going to figure out how to do it, and he's one of the most unstoppable people I've ever seen."
The determination of James caused Joyce to chuckle when he reflected on his former pupil insisting the scoring record wasn't a target.
"This has just happened, but it's just happened because of his desire to be the best," said Joyce, who has led STVM to seven state titles as a head coach. "That just kind of goes along with the territory. You can't be the best and not score the ball.
"I used to tell him, 'Hey, you speak your reality into existence. Don't be afraid to say what you believe, and then you've got to work at it. But you can't be afraid to say 'I want to be the greatest.' He said it, and he understands that saying it isn't enough. There's work involved, and his work ethic is one of the best ever."
Cavaliers forward Cedi Osman witnessed the work ethic as a rookie in Cleveland during the 2017-18 season, James' last in his second stint with his hometown NBA team.
"He would be the first one coming into the gym and the last one leaving," Osman said. "He's a great example."
A 19-time All Star and six-time NBA champion, Abdul-Jabbar set the career regular-season scoring record in his 15th season when he passed Wilt Chamberlain on April 5, 1984, nearly nine months before James was born.
Abdul-Jabbar played five more seasons and retired in 1989 at the age of 42. He logged 20 seasons — six with the Milwaukee Bucks and his last 14 with the Lakers — and 1,560 regular-season games.
It took James 1,410 regular-season games to pass Abdul-Jabbar, whose career averages were 24.6 points on 55.9% shooting from the field, 11.2 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game.
Nance Sr. and Lane played against Abdul-Jabbar and encountered his signature offensive move.
"Kareem's skyhook is the prettiest shot I've ever seen," said Nance Sr., who added Abdul-Jabbar was a "classy" opponent and among his favorite players. "He could shoot that thing from 15 feet out, just like a jump shot.
"I had a jump hook. I don't think anybody could throw it as smooth and pretty as Kareem. I definitely tried to pick up on a hook because, to me, it's one of the most dominant shots in the history of the NBA that nobody could really block. You've seen guys try to throw hooks, but nothing like his."
Lane called the 7-2 Abdul-Jabbar "very physical" and "strong as hell." At 6-6, Lane said, "No way I was getting near that skyhook. All I could do is once he did the skyhook is block him out and hope he missed."
Plenty of players who have tried to guard James will have stories to tell for generations, too.
"Even his rookie year, he was killing it, and he's killing it now," Osman said. "I think every year, he just got better. On the level he plays right now, it's unbelievable. He's a great inspiration."
Lane wonders whether James will be knocked out of the No. 1 spot on the all-time scoring list, considering he appears to have several years of elite production left.
"He's going to add on so much that it's going to be really hard to get," Lane said.
No matter how it shakes out, no one can deny James has lived up to his billing and then some.
"It's unbelievable. If you wrote it in a book, it'd be like, 'Nah, it's too corny. I can't read that,'" Nance Jr. said. "The dude is incredible. The things he's had to overcome and the way he's given back to the community all while doing it with an unscathed resume and just being the utmost role model is to be commended.
"I don't think it's talked about enough, but the dude is as good off the court as he is on, and we know how good he is on, so that's something to be said. It was an honor of my career getting to play with him."
Now Nance Jr. is among those who can say they shared a court with the new scoring king.
Nate Ulrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @ByNateUlrich.
This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: LeBron James atop NBA all-time scoring list as Akron cheers on