Oct. 21, 2004
By Tom Archdeacon
Dayton Daily News
LeBron James just doesn't listen.
Twenty months ago, he was told to get out of here.
Now he's back with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Tonight, they play an exhibition game with the expansion Charlotte Bobcats at the University of Dayton Arena, the same place where, if ever so briefly, James got a couple of the rarest -- and rudest -- receptions of his basketball career.
It happened in February 2003 when James, then a high school senior, came to town with his Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary team to play Alter High School in what Adam Gill, then the Knights' center, remembers as "more of a show than a real game -- just one highlight after another."
There had been a paralyzing snowstorm before the arena's much-publicized basketball doubleheader. Highways were closed. One Cincinnati team never showed up. But more than 13,000 fans did because they wanted a glimpse of "The Chosen One," as James had been dubbed by Sports Illustrated.
"Everybody at school was excited to see LeBron play," remembered Andy Stichweh, then a 6-foot-5 Knights forward. "Everybody talked about how bad they were gonna whup us."
And that's just what the James Gang did, overwhelming Alter, 70-43. But in the middle of that dark cloud you can find some selective silver lining if you listen to Gill and Stichweh.
Both did what few guys in the NBA and almost no one in high school has ever done. They each blocked one of James' shots and, in fact, Gill got another one a month later when SV-SM won a four-point nail-biter over Alter in the state championship game in Columbus.
At UD Arena, Stichweh got the best block when he smothered a James put-back attempt. Gill's swat, though, came with sound effects.
"He yelled 'Get outta my house!' " Stichweh grinned. "That's Adam. We're getting trounced, but he's still talkin'."
Gill, speaking by phone from the University of Central Florida, where he's about to begin his first season of college basketball after a redshirt year, chuckled about the trash talk:
"Yeah, that's what I said. LeBron just laughed then he dropped another 20 on us after that, but I don't tell that part."
As he sat in the corner of the Gund Arena dressing room Monday night before the Cavs' exhibition victory over the New Jersey Nets, James was asked if he remembered his first trip to UD Arena.
"Oh yeah, I remember it," he nodded. "I only got blocked a couple times in my career, so it stands out. And the fans there wouldn't let me forget it."
The always-vocal Alter student section -- sitting directly behind the basket where Stichweh had made his deflection -- began to needle James, chanting "Over-rated!"
The moment rekindled, James now quickly doused it: "But we blew 'em out. And I dunked on them, too. Yeah, I got blocked, but tell 'em that's the last time. It won't happen again."
That's almost certain.
James is the marquee player in the NBA. Gill -- who did tour China with collegiate players late this summer -- is yet to play his first college game and Stichweh is not playing college ball at all. A sophomore chemical engineering student at the University of Dayton, Stichweh sat down in Kennedy Union after Tuesday's classes and talked about book life without basketball.
"I was a late bloomer and always better at school than basketball," he said. "I would have kept playing if it was an option to get me into a school with a good engineering program, but that really didn't happen. And that's OK because I've got my hands full. Chemical engineering is a very demanding major, so my basketball is just intramurals now."
He did play this summer with Gill and several college and pro players in the Kentucky Select League in Lexington, but those were just weekend games. During the week, he worked as an $8.75-an-hour maintenance man at Incarnation Catholic Church.
James, meanwhile, has endorsement deals with the likes of Nike, Upper Deck, Sprite and Powerade worth more than $120 million on top of a three-year, $12.96 million rookie contract that soon will mushroom to a staggering sum.
While on far ends of the pay scale, Stichweh and Gill still feel a connection to James. As he talked, Stichweh opened a folder of papers and pulled out a photograph from the UD Arena game. It showed him defending a James jump shot on the baseline.
"If you see LeBron, could you get him to autograph it?" he asked.
In his dorm room at Central Florida, Gill has a picture, too. It shows him blocking James.
"As soon as you walk in, it's right in front of you," he laughed. "One of the other big guys on our team saw it and said, 'Man, you blocked the hell outta that guy.' Then he looked a little closer and said, 'Is that LeBron James? ? If I was you, I'd milk that for all it's worth.' "
Gill good-naturedly does just that.
"Me and Andy decided when we have kids we're never gonna let them wear LeBron jerseys," he laughed. "We'll tell them, 'We played against him and blocked him. Wear our shirts!' "
If the kids listen, they'll be about the only ones not wearing a No. 23 Cavs shirt.
James' jersey was the No. 1 seller in the NBA last season. Over 1.5 million were purchased. Tuesday, at the Gund souvenir shops, you could buy every kind of James souvenir you could imagine -- from specially embroidered jerseys for $75 and $28 bobbleheads to gold, silver and bronze medallions bearing his likeness, pennants, T-shirts, caps, plaques and roly-poly toys.
James is the bigger-than-life presence for the Cavs. Last season -- as the NBA Rookie of the Year -- he led the Cavs to an 18-game improvement in the win column. In the process, attendance went from a league-low 11,497 the year before to 18,288. Broadcast revenues were up 300 percent and the team played on national TV 16 times compared with none the season prior.
Before Monday's game, coach Paul Silas talked about how "special" James is, saying he has a "Jordanesque" capability about him. And the 6-foot-8 forward showed some of that against the Nets, opening the game with two fast-break, nolook passes that resulted in scores. Next came two dunks -- a windmill 360 and then a far-reaching tomahawk slam that started somewhere out in Euclid.
"You just have to get on the court with him once to realize he plays at a whole different level," Gill said.
Stichweh agreed and added: "What I really like is how he's handled himself in the pros. He's a team player."
The people at UD Arena learned that in 2003 when, after the game, James took the public address microphone and told the adoring crowd about his teammate, Corey Jones, an unheralded white kid who'd had a career day and scored 20. James then handed him the MVP trophy he had been given, saying: "He deserves this."
There is one other memory from that game, too.
A photo from that game was turned into a James rookie card that was included in every issue of Sports Illustrated for Kids. It showed James dunking on Stichweh as Alter teammate Doug Penno tried in vane to stop the shot.
"Yeah, I was kind of embarrassed by it, but what can I do?" Stichweh said with a growing smile. "Everybody saw that card. It sells for something like $100 on QVC now. And when I showed up my first day this year at the place on campus I share with some other guys, I opened the door and there was that card. One of my roommates had put it up on the inside of the door, right at eye level, a picture of me getting posterized for everyone to see."
With LeBron James, "Get outta my house!" never seems to work.