COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Urban Meyer doesn’t think about him as the one that got away. He also isn’t spending any time wondering what might have happened if one of the most freakish wide receivers he ever recruited had chosen to keep playing football instead of sticking with basketball.
Instead, the Ohio State coach is just content to sit back with the extra time off he has this time of year, tune in as a both a fan and a friend and watch LeBron James do the work he was always born to do when the NBA Finals tip off Thursday night with his Cleveland Cavaliers taking on the Golden State Warriors (ABC, WatchESPN, 9 p.m. ET).
If he happens to be asked, Meyer will crack a wide smile and admit he had no idea who he was dealing with the first time they met almost 20 years ago at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in Akron, Ohio.
“I walked into the school, the coach, Jim Meyer, great guy, probably in 1998 or ’99, and he said, ‘Hey, come here a minute. I want to show you this. What do you think of this kid?’” Meyer said. “I started watching the video, and I was like, ‘Oh, my God.’ He was six-foot-whatever, obviously real big back then, too.
“He asked me what I thought and I said, ‘I want to offer him right now. Who is he?’”
That kid was already on his way to becoming one of the most prolific receivers St. Vincent-St. Mary has ever had despite hanging up his cleats for his senior season to focus on basketball. And his recruiter was then working for Notre Dame as a wide receivers coach and was captivated by a target with the size and speed James possessed, a combination that produced 103 receptions, 2,065 yards and 23 touchdowns.
At that time, Meyer was completely unaware of the exploits that were unfolding on the hardwood. And before the truth was revealed, James was called down to the office for one of the rare recruiting pitches from Meyer that had no shot at working.
“The bell had just rung for class, and I stick my head out the window and you can tell who he is because he’s a foot taller than everybody else walking down the hallway,” Meyer said. “He said, ‘Hello, coach, I’m LeBron James.’ I said, ‘I’d love to have you. Why don’t you come up to Notre Dame because we’d love to talk with you?’ He said, ‘I appreciate that.’
“Then we sat back down and the coach told me, ‘He’s done. You don’t know who that is?’ I said no. ‘That’s the next Michael Jordan.’ I’m just like, come on.”
James has more than lived up to that hype since then, and with two NBA championships already to his credit, he’s got a chance for a third back in the home state he shares with Meyer.
Meyer has followed much of James’ career from a distance since that early meeting. But after returning to take over the Buckeyes ahead of the 2012 season, the two reconnected and formed a bond thanks in large part to James’ football fandom -- which has included appearances on Ohio State’s sideline during key games at the Horseshoe and showing up and celebrating with the team at the College Football Playoff National Championship.
“He’s a big part of who we are, from afar,” Meyer said. “And I think we’re a big part of who he is. He’s a guy who really respects Ohio; it’s his roots and was a big part of why he came back. I just admire that, I admire his dedication to family, that he does things right. The only thing I ever hear [negatively] about him is about the way he left, but is there ever an easy way to leave? You don’t hear some of that other stuff, and I really respect him.
“He’s an extreme competitor. There are a lot of big freaks out there, God gave them talent, but they don’t possess the same competitiveness that LeBron does. I think he’s a very good leader, but I’m a huge fan, so I’m very biased.”
The combination of his personal affection for James, the relative freedom on a football coach’s schedule this time of year and the fact that it’s Cleveland adds up to the perfect package for Meyer.
From a couch in his office, he raved about the performance James and the Cavs put on in the destruction of Toronto in Game 5 last week. And Meyer hasn’t hesitated to put his own fandom on public display after appearing behind the Cleveland bench during the playoffs last year.
And with some time to tune in, he’s again set to support one of his favorite players that he never coached.
“Oh, no,” Meyer said with a smile. “If he would have played football, we would have got him.”