James becomes first-ever 3-time Mr. Basketball

Published 12:00 am Thursday, March 20, 2003

COLUMBUS - Having his every move publicized and personal life scrutinized did not stop LeBron James from becoming the state's most honored high school basketball player.

James was a unanimous selection Wednesday as Ohio Associated Press Mr. Basketball, making him the first three-time winner of an award voted on annually by a state panel of sports writers and broadcasters.

''It's a great honor,'' James said. ''I give thanks to my mother, Gloria James. Also, I want to thank my teammates and coaches who have helped me.''

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James has needed their support this year more than ever - on and off the court.

The Ohio High School Athletic Association investigated James after his mother gave him a $50,000 Hummer sport utility vehicle for an 18th birthday present and ruled the 6-foot-8 senior was ineligible for accepting two free ''throwback'' sports jerseys from a Cleveland clothing store. James' family had to file an appeal in court to get him reinstated.

While ESPN has televised two of James' games this year and his highlights have become a nightly fixture on the cable network, James appears to be undaunted by the attention.

He led Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary to the No. 1 ranking in the country by USA Today and a fourth straight trip to the Ohio high school semifinals while playing a schedule that resembled a Harlem Globetrotters' barnstorming tour.

Playing games in New Jersey, North Carolina, California and Ohio - among other destinations - has not stopped James from averaging 31.6 points, 9.6 rebounds, 4.6 assists and 3.4 steals a game as St. Vincent-St. Mary built is record to 23-1, its only defeat being a forfeit.

Fighting Irish coach Dru Joyce II said the team plays so well because James is so good - and intense.

''Everything he does on the court he makes look so easy, but the key is that he works that hard,'' Joyce said. ''There is nobody who outworks him. He's the most competitive guy I know. It's ridiculous.

''He wants to win at everything. At practice, if we're having a bad practice, all I have to do is go fire him up. If I fire him up, it changes quickly.''

Being equally comfortable hitting a 3-pointer, soaring for a dunk or whipping a pass behind his back makes James a lock to land a lucrative shoe contract and play in the NBA next season, likely entering the league as the No. 1 pick in this summer's draft.

''He's a terrific talent,'' said Clark Kellogg, an Ohio high school basketball star at Cleveland St. Joseph two decades ago.

''He's got a great body, outstanding explosiveness and athleticism. He sees the game a frame ahead. That's a unique ability for his age.''

said Kellogg, who played before the Mr. Basketball award began in 1988.

Joe Petrocelli, who's been coaching at Kettering Alter in suburban Dayton for nearly four decades, said James is ''the best I've seen'' in high school basketball.

He coached the Paxson brothers - NBA players John and Jim - but said they can't measure up to James.

''He has a real sense of the floor and the fact that he's an outstanding passer just adds to the whole thing,'' Petrocelli said. ''He can shoot the ball pretty doggone well and if you want to go inside, he can probably score at will.

''Everybody questions his defense, but he really doesn't have to play defense right now. Obviously he'll have to when he gets to the next level, but I'm sure he'll adjust pretty quickly.''

Cleveland Heights coach Jim Cappelletti marvels at James' size and strength, two attributes that should allow him to take the pounding of an 82-game NBA season.

''I don't see any weaknesses,'' said Cappelletti, who's in his 33rd season at Heights. ''It's not very often you see a high school kid who's 6-8 and 240 pounds. Physically, he's a man.''

James also cherishes the legacy he is building, his coach said.

''He has a great appreciation for history and respect for the game of basketball,'' Joyce said. ''Being the first three-time (Mr. Basketball) is something that will probably never be duplicated and he's going to enjoy it well into his later years. I know that he appreciates it greatly.''

James receives a plaque in the shape of Ohio. Also considered for the award were Demetrius ''Mechie'' Johnson (Warrensville Heights), Andrew Lavender (Columbus Brookhaven), Nick Dials (Willard), Jamar Butler (Lima Shawnee), Tyler Renner (Sugarcreek Garaway) and Josh Duncan (Cincinnati Moeller).