"Yeah, this was the place," said Dru Joyce II, stepping on the floor of the basketball court.
His mind raced back through the years to the day a boy, aged 10, walked onto the court, took a quick pass from another boy, and easily lifted the ball in a sweet arc into the hoop. Swish!
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The youngster was LeBron James, a neighborhood kid who lived nearby the old Salvation Army gym and basketball court on South Maple Street in the West Hill section of Akron. The kid from the neighborhood would grow into the star player on the Cavs and one of the greatest in the NBA with record upon record under his belt.
But Joyce saw him early.
"You know, honestly, we could see his ability in the recreation league," said Joyce, who coached boys his age. However, LeBron was more of a shooter than a playmaker. Joyce said the youngster did not share the ball as much as he should have.
"I said to him one time, 'Bron, if you pass the ball, everyone will want to play with you,'" remembered Joyce. "And he got it."
He said all of the boys on his team, including his son, Dru III, embraced what he and other coaches tried to teach.
"LeBron always was a sponge," he said. "He just made me and the other dads involved better coaches because he and my son, Dru, just soaked everything up."
The team was a traveling team which went to many places for games. A few years later, when Joyce had become the assistant basketball coach at Akron's St. Vincent-St. Mary High School, LeBron and Dru III made the team. When the head coach, Keith Dambrot, left the job for the top coaching position at the University of Akron, Joyce was asked to replace him.
"I didn't know if I was quite ready and I can remember saying that to my wife," he said. He remembers his wife said that he could not say 'no' to the high school coaching position.
"She said this is God honoring all the time you've been with those boys, driving up and down the highway," he said.
In many ways, the way he had coached LeBron and the other boys over the years on their travel teams marked a launching pad for his own life. The years served as proof he could do it as the head coach at St. Vincent-St. Mary, where the team would go on to national honors and bring large numbers of college and professional coaches simply to watch the high schooler named LeBron James.
From high school, Lebron's star continued a meteoric rise. He was the most widely sought-after high school kid. When Lebron turned eighteen and graduated from St. Vincent-St. Mary, the Cavs came calling. He was the team's first pick in the NBA draft.
To this day, Dru Joyce maintains a close connection to LeBron. They talk to each other and text each other on a regular basis. Joyce views LeBron as a son. LeBron grew up without a father figure in his home, but Joyce seemed to fill that role. When asked about their relationship, to the question of, "He's a son to you, isn't he," Joyce took a deep breath. His eyes seem to well up a bit as he looked away, and then downward, and then he brought his eyes back level. "Yes," he said.
"I'm thankful, I'm blessed that LeBron's mother saw enough in me to give me an opportunity to be involved in his life," he said. "On a bigger scale, that God chose me to be that person to be around."
There was a quiet in his voice. In that same voice, there was a pride. In his voice, there were memories of the old gym where he sat answering questions about the kid from Akron who walked in and asked for the basketball. And quickly put the ball in a high arc, watching it fall softly into the net. Swish!
Dru Joyce thought about that and thought about the youngster whose gift with a basketball would send him far higher than any ball he sent in an arc toward the rim. LeBron James was in the superstar stratosphere and Dru Joyce helped from an early launch pad.