BEFORE MAURICE CLARETT ever won a BCS championship, after-partied with 50 Cent, warred with the NCAA, sued the NFL and spent three and a half years in jail for aggravated robbery and carrying a concealed weapon, he watched a basketball game with LeBron James' mother.
On Feb. 17, 2002, Clarett, an early enrollee at Ohio State, drove from Columbus to Youngstown State with no ticket and no plan. The star tailback, USA Today's high school offensive player of the year, knew that the NBA's future No. 1 pick was barnstorming through Clarett's hometown. What the 18-year-old did not anticipate was finding just one open seat among 6,500 in the Beeghly Center: down there, courtside, to the right of a cheering woman he'd never seen before.
Gloria James and Maurice Clarett would become acquainted soon enough. The former -- whose 17-year-old was on that week's cover of Sports Illustrated -- wondered why locals kept approaching this 5'11" kid for autographs. The latter -- who obliged every request with his self-appointed sobriquet, The Greatest of All Time -- noted that this lady kept calling LeBron her "baby." Introductions were made, parallels were drawn. At the buzzer, Clarett was whisked into the St. Vincent-St. Mary locker room for a summit with Gloria's son.
What ridiculous luck.
As it turned out, Akron's Chosen One -- in his free time a nigh-unstoppable prep receiver -- had heard all about The Greatest: the 300-yard games, the 10 yards a carry, the 30 touchdowns in a season at Warren G. Harding High. The pair of Ohioans, born one year and 50 miles of I-76 apart, swapped numbers, pledging to reunite. "We were two young guys from the hood," Clarett says. "We grew up in single-parent homes. We had success we'd never seen ourselves having. We were happy being around the best."
No, their backgrounds weren't mirror images: Clarett's youth had jagged edges -- he was sent to a Youngstown juvenile-detention center for fighting, breaking and entering, and auto theft -- while a circle of male role models had stepped in to insulate and center LeBron after a fourth-grade year of constant instability. But this friendship seemed fated, historic. Soon, LeBron proudly announced to reporters that the two were talking "every day."
Take June 8, 2002, when James broke his left wrist in a hard fall in AAU ball, imperiling his senior football season. This was no minor injury, and LeBron actually loved the gridiron more than the hardwood. Yet the brazen Clarett -- who'd committed to OSU by cold-calling then-head coach Jim Tressel and saying, "I'm coming to your school. This is Maurice Clarett" -- couldn't resist sending a mischievous get-well text: Man, leave football to me.
LeBron obliged, even doing his friend one better: He happily left college to Clarett too.
IT IS A SUNLIT afternoon in late August, and Clarett sits at the dark brown dining table inside his lightly decorated house in Canal Winchester, a sleepy suburb southeast of Columbus. Clad in black shorts and a sleeveless workout shirt, his 230 pounds are so thickly muscled, so football-ready, that the 29-year-old's past 10 years feel ever more unfathomable.
Who'd have guessed that rushing for the winning touchdown in the 2003 BCS title game as a freshman -- a child's fantasy come true -- would end up as Clarett's final meaningful act on a football field? Who'd have guessed that Clarett, hailed as LeBron's football counterpart, would ruin his life trying to approximate King James? "The celebrity that me and LeBron had, it was like magic," Clarett says. "I was having a ball, man."
At least it felt that way then.
Three weeks after capturing the Buckeyes' first national title in 34 years, Clarett sat courtside at LeBron's last home game in Akron. A month later, in March, he watched LeBron drop 27 at the McDonald's All-American Game in Cleveland; security had to keep autograph hounds in the crowd at bay.
When out on the town, LeBron's crew operated less like an entourage than a unit. To inhabit his inner circle was to enter and exit vehicles with a practiced efficiency, LeBron the first one in and last one out. To grace LeBron's birthday party in Cleveland was to glide from limo bus to cake-cutting to VIP section, through back halls Clarett never knew existed. To try to schedule LeBron was to hear a refrain: Don't call me, call Mav. Maverick Carter was a childhood friend, fellow ex-wideout at St. Vincent–St. Mary and manager-in-waiting. Which is to say that LeBron's buddies already rolled like they worked for a millionaire.
And in essence, they already did. With the one-and-done rule still a glimmer in NBA commissioner David Stern's eye, there was no pretense about a basketball prodigy's trajectory. Hell, LeBron was driving a Hummer H2 that his mom had secured after being approved for a loan because her son was, well, LeBron. Conversely, no player, not even the best freshman back in Buckeyes history, could jump to the NFL until he was three years out of high school. Leave football to me? Clarett wasn't allowed to accept a dime until 2005.
One spring afternoon, though, while trudging past OSU's English building, he heard what making millions felt like. Well before the Cavs drafted him, an excited LeBron called: He'd just signed a seven-year, $93 million deal with Nike. "It was high-level moment after high-level moment after high-level moment," Clarett says.
There was the time LeBron took him to a 50 Cent concert in Cleveland, a night Clarett was so psyched for that he brought a camera. (Photographic evidence shows a young LeBron, with Clarett and 50 Cent, in a custom No. 0 Bulls jersey.) There was the time they hung out with Jay Z backstage. There was the time they attended a party in Cleveland and Biz Markie deejayed. There was the time Clarett traded numbers with Snoop Dogg, who knew the tailback from controlling him on PlayStation.
Clarett says he was intoxicated by being "a somebody. And if you're a somebody, you want to be around another somebody." That summer, he was around LeBron so much that he even opted to work out with his pal's personal trainer rather than back in Columbus.
That decision rankled Ohio State, predictably. But it was nothing compared to the chaos to come. On Sept. 10, 2003, the school's AD announced that Clarett was suspended for his entire sophomore season due to an NCAA investigation. The charge: He'd received improper benefits worth "thousands of dollars" from a family friend and misled investigators on the case. Maurice Clarett was guilty of acting like a pro, a few seasons too early.
"I'll be there 24/7 for him if he needs me," LeBron told reporters after the news broke. "I know it's going to make him a stronger person. I hope he just knows I'm there for him." At the time he said this, he was on the set of a commercial shoot in Cleveland.
CLARETT'S RESPONSE ARRIVED two weeks later, ringing with defiance. His college season was dead, so he hired a legal team to sue not the NCAA but the NFL, challenging the three-year rule that barred him from his millions. Clarett was on television nonstop, taking Football Inc. head-on, and LeBron's prediction came true: His friend had turned into a figure of strength. In private, though, he was veering wildly, straining to keep his path parallel to LeBron's.
From memory, Clarett can recite the exact time and place when he finally felt his trajectory turn asymptotic. Fatefully, again, his 20th birthday, Oct. 29, 2003, had doubled as LeBron's NBA debut. A limo carrying Clarett and 14 friends and family members pulled up to a club in Columbus to celebrate. But before heading in, Clarett's eye caught the car's TV showcasing his buddy in Sacramento. "A couple months ago, we'd been rolling in the same crew," he says. "Now it was like, man, our lives are in so different places. He's running on the court as LeBron James, and I'm in Columbus. I was so far away."
The Greatest had been reduced to a lawsuit winding grimly through the courts. Clarett's petition was denied on May 24, 2004; by then, the bridge back to OSU was torched. So for the next year, until he was NFL draft-eligible, Clarett had one mission: Get back to being a somebody, by any means necessary.
His ego never once let him consider joining LeBron's crew even in some menial capacity. Instead, Clarett ran with 10 old friends and cousins, all from Youngstown. And he returned to the very question that had thrice gotten him locked up as a kid: What can I do to get respect from my friends?
The answer involved clubs across the country, and Percocet, and tributaries of alcohol, and Tylenol-Codeine No. 4, and a series of women who didn't know enough to know he was a has-been, and Tussionex Pennkinetic, and Vicodin, and weed, and Xanax. "I didn't know to talk to a psychiatrist or psychologist," Clarett says, his voice shrinking to a low rasp. "Depression hurt more than any hit I've ever dealt with. There are no weights to lift to get that off you."
That Denver still made him a third-round pick in 2005 was either a remarkable tribute to his talent or an astounding scouting failure. Either way, Clarett insisted on bypassing the Broncos' guaranteed $410,000 signing bonus for an incentive-laden four-year deal that could have been worth anywhere from zero to $7 million. The 21-year-old -- still desperately dreaming of being a millionaire -- was promptly cut in the preseason, receiving zero.
Despite his old friend's public 24/7 offer, about the only thing Clarett was successfully doing was dodging LeBron. "He was this $90 million brand," Clarett says. "I was a nobody. I didn't identify with him anymore."
In truth, he barely recognized himself. On Jan. 2, 2006 -- the same night Ohio State won the Fiesta Bowl -- Clarett turned himself in for robbing two people with a gun outside a club in downtown Columbus. Released on bond, he was slated to appear in court on Aug. 14. But come Aug. 9 -- three weeks after Clarett's girlfriend, Ashley Evans, gave birth to a daughter, Jayden -- erratic driving metastasized into a high-speed police chase that terminated with a spike stick deflating his SUV's tires. Inside, cops found Clarett wearing a bulletproof vest alongside four loaded guns. He weighed 270 pounds.
By his own admission, Clarett had been making calls while driving. He rang an ESPN reporter, apparently asserting that he'd just phoned LeBron, who was then overseas for the FIBA World Championship. But when asked now, Clarett can't remember if a conversation with LeBron happened. In fact, he can't remember much of anything from that night. Police had also discovered a bottle of Grey Goose, half-empty, in the car.
ON ONE OF HIS four Christmases behind bars, Clarett received a gift: a new number for the guy he used to talk to every day. He's not sure if it was a Don't call me, call Mav situation; the info came via Rich Paul, a crew member who has since become LeBron's agent. But Clarett could never bring himself to pick up the phone. His ego, as usual, wouldn't permit it: "I know I could've been like, 'Yo, I need something: some clothes, some money.'"
Instead, back at his dining table, he calculates that it has been seven years since he and LeBron have spoken -- for certain -- and a decade since they last saw each other in the flesh. "Saying 10 years is, like, whoa," he says. "It feels weird. It doesn't feel that long." He pauses. "That's probably because I see him on TV so much. Because, I guess, everybody sees him."
Since being released from Toledo Correctional Institution in April 2010, Clarett has played a season with the Omaha Nighthawks of the now-defunct United Football League, and he couldn't resist using Twitter after the Trent Richardson trade to ask the Browns for a tryout. (No response.) He even called coach Mike Tomlin, who'd sent Clarett an inspirational letter in jail, when the Steelers' running back depth shriveled this summer. Tomlin's reply: We just signed Felix Jones. "But it just felt good to tell him that I'm doing well," Clarett says. "That I'm supporting myself outside of football."
Forty-three months of prison have grafted structure onto his life for the first time, shoving books into his hands -- he calls The Wisdom of Andrew Carnegie as Told to Napoleon Hill "my bible" -- and inspiring daily workout sessions at 5 a.m. "In jail, you literally sit all day, thinking about how a life unravels," Clarett says. On the brink of 30, he is acutely aware that those lessons came too late, that his window for LeBron-level success has long shut.
But while the NFL may not want Clarett as a player, the league did have him address this summer's rookie symposium in Aurora, Ohio. Colleges pay to hear him speak. And in August, he heard from Romeo Travis, a member of LeBron's inner circle. He asked if Clarett could counsel Alex Abreu, a guard at Akron, where LeBron's old St. Vincent–St. Mary coach, Keith Dambrot, is the head man. Abreu pleaded guilty in June to one count of felony drug trafficking. The 22-year-old, who is no longer enrolled at Akron, needed to comprehend that his path was running closer to Clarett's than to LeBron's.
"I DEFINITELY BELIEVE that what separates success is operations," Clarett says today. "I honestly believe LeBron was thinking ahead about the relationships he wanted to have and the people he wanted to stand next to."
The teenage Clarett never understood LeBron's trajectory as a function of foresight and organization. These days, however, Clarett is awed by the fruits of such maturity. High-level moments still widen his eyes, even watching on a screen.
There was the time LeBron received a police escort, driving to a Jay Z concert the wrong way down a Miami street. There was the time he slung an arm around Jerry Jones, the billionaire owner of the Cowboys, before a game in Dallas. There was the time LeBron accepted an invitation to speak at an Ohio State football pep rally, of all things, before the Buckeyes beat Wisconsin at home on Sept. 28.
"I say this all the time," LeBron declared to a delirious crowd in Columbus. "If I had one year of college, I would have ended up here."
Maurice Clarett's alma mater erupted, perfectly underscoring the magical celebrity of LeBron James. Nobody cared that they were applauding something that never even happened. Nobody remembered that the Chosen One had left Columbus, happily, to a friend who wanted to be The Greatest.