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The Inside Track | COMMENTARY

Post-LeBronmania: 'It's Still About the Journey'

November 02, 2003|Jim Litke | Associated Press

By now, everybody knows how the first day of the rest of LeBron James' life went.

And the people he left behind?

"Still breathing," St.-Vincent-St. Mary High School basketball coach Dru Joyce II said Thursday with a chuckle, just in case anybody was interested.

"I'm sure people think we'll miss all the attention, playing on TV and in the biggest arenas, and I'd be lying if I said we weren't happy to be part of it. But the lesson I learned from last year is that fame is fleeting and it's based on what everyone else thinks about you, not what you think about yourself.

"My motivation hasn't changed," he added, "and I doubt our kids' has, either. We won't need bright lights and all the stuff to reach our goals this year -- just a gym and 15 guys who want the same thing I want. I'll be happy with that."

It's hard to imagine anyone facing a more daunting challenge than James, the most famous graduate turned out by the small Catholic prep school just west of downtown Akron, Ohio.

The 18-year-old rookie has been labeled the Chosen One. The phenom with the dazzling smile and unlimited game are being endlessly hyped by the NBA in hopes of shifting the focus on the league from the courtrooms where Kobe Bryant and a handful of other stars have dragged it, back to the basketball court.

So far, James is playing along. He had 25 points, nine assists, six rebounds and four steals in his debut Wednesday night, a loss to the Sacramento Kings.

"Winning would have made it even better," Joyce said.

The coach's task in the post-LeBron era sounds simple: take another group of kids and forge them into a competitive team. But he never treated his job that way before, and he's not about to start now.

"What a lot of people don't know is that I coached LeBron, beginning at the AAU level, since he was 11, along with three of the five seniors on last year's team, including my own son. What only the people who were involved in that will ever know, or appreciate, is how much work went into it," Joyce said.

"Last year was a culmination of all those kids' dreams, not just mine or LeBron's, all the way down the bench to the 15th kid on our squad. That kid helped push all the others to be their best, not just in big games, but in practice every day.

"So my job hasn't changed -- it's still to compete for a state title year in and year out, no matter who's here."

In the rush to follow the next big thing, our gaze rarely drifts back to the place where it originated. Yet it's men like Joyce who make those places special: They put down roots and show up for work with the same dedication every day, long after the TV cameras have moved on.

Everybody knows where James ended up, but it's a testament to his coach that four other seniors on last year's state championship Fighting Irish team -- including Dru Joyce III -- are attending college on basketball scholarships.

It's a further testament to Joyce that coaching is his second job. He spends the first half of his day as a key accounts manager for ConAgra Foods, not arriving at St. Vincent-St. Mary until 5 p.m.

He played football and ran track in high school, and didn't start coaching basketball until his oldest son, who accompanied Joyce to pickup games on the weekends, fell in love with the game. To catch up, he did a lot of reading.

"I still quote John Wooden a lot because his words ring true, even if the game has changed a lot from his day. My favorite is the line that each season shouldn't be about the destination, but the journey. And believe me, even the bad things that happened last year turned into good things for these kids and their transition to becoming young men.

"Our toughest stretch came when all those people tried to bring LeBron down, to hurt him, get him kicked off the team. But it led to the most fulfilling part of our season, too. It made the other kids stronger and taught them how special their friendships were, how the only way to reach any goal that really matters is to all pull in the same direction.

"And that," he said, "made my job a whole lot easier."

Joyce won't get to sit down with this year's team for another two weeks, when practice opens.

The schedule won't include games against nationally ranked opponents on pay-per-view, but there are still plenty of tough games set for some big arenas across the state.

Most important, Joyce hasn't lowered his expectations.

"The biggest difference? This year, we'll be competing against the Cavs," Joyce said. "Last year, they were competing against us."

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