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The Life

December 10, 2002
The two-sport star
ESPN The Magazine

If he doesn't want to play for the Nuggets or Grizzlies, there's always football.

LeBron James is a wide receiver in Tracy McGrady's body, and that was Miami and Ohio State (your Fiesta Bowl teams) offering him scholarships this year. LeBron may have the Pepsodent smile the NBA's been waiting for, but he also isn't afraid to go over the middle on a slant pattern. He played three years of high school football, and would've played this year if there weren't all that cash sitting on the table. It's a shame he quit -- because this was a 6'8", 240 pound pass-catcher with a 37-inch vertical and hands the size of Rhode Island.

LeBron James
"People say I'm a slower Randy Moss," says LeBron.

"But a faster Harold Carmichael," says his high school head coach.

So now we know what could have been. LeBron James is all the basketball rage, and will undoubtedly go No. 1 in next year's NBA draft. But, to get a clearer picture of how competitive he is and how athletic he is and how much of a leader he is, we take you to the football office at his Catholic high school.

There on the staff at St. Vincent-St. Mary's High School in Akron are two former NFL players: head coach Jay Brophy (a former Miami Dolphin) and assistant head coach Mark Murphy (a former Green Bay Packer). These two coaches know wide receivers, and LeBron James was a wide receiver.

"He's an NFL player," Murphy says. "I played with James Lofton and Sterling Sharpe, and he's got all the tools they had. To be honest, I thought Lofton was the best I ever played against, but LeBron is right there."

The problem was the basketball thing. The coaches at St. V's would've used the kid on offense, defense and special teams, except they were afraid to upset David Stern. Wouldn't he have been great blocking kicks at 6'8"? "Probably, but we didn't want to take the chance," Murphy says.

Wouldn't he have been great in the defensive secondary? "Oh my gosh," Murphy says. "I'd have probably put him at safety. Usually, a safety plays from the numbers to the numbers, but LeBron could've played sideline to sideline."

Could he have even played quarterback? "Of course he could've," Murphy says. "He played scout team quarterback for us sometimes. One day, he didn't like the way the practice was going, so he said, 'I'm QB now.' And the first team defense couldn't stop him. He can throw 60 yards. On the freshman team, he used to come in on 3rd-and-25 and throw the long ball."

But the coaches wouldn't even go there. Not since the day he broke his finger as a sophomore.

"It was scary for him," Murphy says. "He came over injured, and the trainer explained to him that it was his non-shooting hand and he didn't have to play anymore. We said, 'Hey, we can use you as a decoy,' and LeBron said, 'Coach, I'm no decoy.' And played the rest of the year with it. But him getting hurt was always on our mind."

Turns out, it was on LeBron's too -- so he wasn't planning to play his junior year. Adidas and Nike were already lobbing free sneakers his way, and he already had Michael Jordan's cell number, and LeBron felt it was best to retire: at 16. But three games of sitting behind the cheerleaders and watching his best friend Sian Cotton (an All-American defensive tackle) have all the fun it tortured him.

"In our third game, we upset this team in Akron," Murphy says, "And the first guy out of the stands to congratulate us was LeBron. He ended up calling his mom -- who was out of town -- and asked her if he could play. He said, "Mom, you always said I could do what I wanted to do.' And so he came back."

You can imagine what Nike and Adidas thought of that.

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  • "I knew I was gonna hear it: 'Why is he playing? He shouldn't be out there,'"LeBron says. "But it's hard sitting on the sidelines. My sophomore year, I did so well. And then the first couple of games, I'd seen the offense struggle, and I knew I could be out there scoring touchdowns. I couldn't take it no longer. I had to play."

    His quarterback would simply throw him alley-oops, the same way his point guard did. "When in doubt, I'd say, 'Throw the fade, throw the fade,'" Brophy says. "LeBron would catch it. There was one play where I was ready to catch the ball myself, out of bounds, and it felt like LeBron went up 12 feet in the air to take it away from me."

    That's why Ohio State's Jim Tressel came to recruit him, and Tressel told Brophy how impressed he was that LeBron looked him in the eye when they spoke. And that's why Miami came and said to LeBron: "Imagine you and Sian in South Beach. Stay one year, and do whatever you want after that."

    LeBron didn't say no, and he didn't say yes. He didn't have to say anything. As soon as the college coaches heard he might go pro after the 11th grade, they knew it was all over.

    But the beauty of it all is that LeBron James -- in some ways -- will always be part football player. Before every St. V's game this year, there was LeBron in the locker room giving his teammates a pep talk. And after LeBron was undercut on a dunk last summer -- and broke his left non-shooting wrist -- it was his football mentality that led him go play pickup games with his cast on.

    "Yes, I played in open gyms with my cast on," LeBron says. "And I played well. Sweat was dripping down my cast. But if I still got my shooting hand, I can play."

    Says Brophy: "After he broke his wrist, he was running the show for all the off-season basketball workouts. He made the other players run wind sprints with him, and you should've heard their moaning and complaining."

    Football is also where he learned to be coachable. For example, he can handle the basketball ball better than every one of his teammates, but the basketball coach -- Dru Joyce -- has made it a rule that LeBron can only bring the ball up court if he gets the rebound. Otherwise, he has to give it to the point guard.

    "And LeBron follows that rule," Joyce says.

    Football is also partly why he's unselfish. He learned in football that it takes a team -- not one 6'8" superstar -- to win. And that's why he is the most selfless basketball player in the nation.

    "LeBron is not a person that'll go out there and score 50," says LeBron. "I'll go into a barbershop sometimes, and they're going, 'Why don't you put up 50?' I'll be, 'Aw right.' But then I get there and I look at my teammates, and I say, I'm not going to score 50. My game won't let me. I'll have a wide-open layup and pass the ball. It seems like my body takes over me. Sometimes I'm too unselfish. I don't know where it came from."

    Maybe it came from football. From a sport that he admits he used to love more than hoops.

    But there's too much cash on the table now. David Stern's cash. Today's slower Randy Moss is tomorrow's faster, taller Michael Jordan.

    Basketball it is. Sorry.

    Tom Friend is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at You can watch LeBron James in action Thursday Dec. 12 on ESPN2 -- followed by NEXT -- at 9 p.m. ET.

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