Remembering LeBron before he reached the top

Remembering LeBron before he reached the top

A few thoughts from the week in sports …

I still remember the first time I heard of LeBron James.

The Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary basketball team and their 6-foot-4, 180-pound freshman phenom were scheduled to play in the Div. III Wooster Sectional/District in March 2000. Several people told members of our Daily Record sports staff, “You have to go check this kid out.”

The buzz around James at the time was he was the best freshman in the state and was talented enough to one day play at Ohio State.

No one could have predicted James would grow to be 6-9, skip college altogether and get drafted No. 1 overall by the Cavaliers and become a billionaire while he was still playing and the NBA’s all-time leading scorer.

Before James, it seemed like the iconic sports talents always came from somewhere else.

James realized his boyhood dream of putting his hometown of Akron onto the map and brought thrills to all of Northeast Ohio.

There are plenty of critics of James, and I was a loud one after he left the Cavs following “The Decision.”

However, James came back to Cleveland and brought the city a championship in 2016, something no major sports team had accomplished since the 1964 Browns.

Say what you want about James’ sometimes polarizing takes on politics and other issues, but he’s had an incredible career. Four NBA titles, 10 Finals appearances, four MVPs, the all-time scoring record and No. 4 ranking for assists put him head to head with his boyhood hero Michael Jordan for the NBA’s Greatest of All-Time.

Athletes, fans and media members like myself in The Bargain Hunter/Wooster Weekly News coverage area’s Wayne and Holmes counties had a front row seat to witness James’ meteoric rise.

Here are some classic early LeBron tales readers may not be aware of. If you know the stories, hopefully it will be fun to relive, or maybe there will be a detail or two you've forgotten:

Tournament trail

Many local basketball fans probably aren’t aware James played his first three OHSAA tournament games at Wooster High School in 2000.

The eventual Div. III state champion Irish defeated Loudonville (75-39), Hillsdale (63-46) and Waynedale (73-51) in the Wooster Sectional/District.

I went to the Hillsdale game, and James didn’t do a whole lot in the first half, deferring to his older teammates. In the third quarter, James went 7 for 7 from the floor including a dunk and NBA range 3-pointer, en route to finishing with 23 points. Yep, I understood why there was so much hype around No. 23.

Hillsdale’s Justin Chenevey, who’s now a Wooster resident and youth coach, led the Falcons with 13 points against SVSM. That’s a pretty cool high school highlight.

“I couldn’t even get a timeout called in time to stop it,” Hillsdale coach Dave Honaker told me for a 2003 story on James, whose SVSM team would defeat an undefeated Falcons squad 78-56 in a Canton Regional game the following year.

Snowbarger coached LeBron

Current Wooster High School varsity coach Michael Snowbarger was an assistant coach for SVSM during James’ final three seasons.

Snowbarger was helping his cousin, who had recently moved from Maryland to the area, find a high school in the mid-1990s, and one of the stops was SVSM.

“I had several talks with (SVSM coach) Keith Dambrot, but my cousin wound up going to Akron Hoban,” Snowbarger said. “Timing was everything, though, and Dambrot said, ‘I have an opening on my coaching staff. Would you mind jumping onto my staff and being one of my assistants?'”

Snowbarger joined the staff after James’ freshman season and was the JV coach and a varsity assistant. When Dambrot moved on to coach at the University of Akron, Dru Joyce II was named head coach, and Snowbarger became one of his top assistants along with Steve Culp.

“Being around LeBron James, it was amazing,” Snowbarger said. “Obviously, he had the physique and the great athletic ability, but what a lot of people didn't see was his drive to become the best.

"There were times it was just him and me in the gym from 5-10 at night. It was a lot of shooting, a lot of work to get better. And his basketball IQ was second to none.”

Coming from an inner-city neighborhood, James talked to Snowbarger about wanting to make a better life for himself and his mom.

“He’d say, ‘I want to make it (to the NBA) so I can have grass in my yard,'” Snowbarger said.

James hasn’t forgotten those who helped him along the way, and he always has a smile when he sees Michael and Jen Snowbarger and their kids at a Cavs game or a SVSM event.

Follis Field visit

James and the Snowbargers hung out together on the sideline at Follis Field in September 2010 when James came to watch his nephew Martice Jackson play football for Wadsworth.

A student reporter from the Wooster Blade came up and asked James if he’d answer a few questions.

“It was shortly after ‘The Decision’ when LeBron had announced he was leaving Cleveland to sign with Miami,” Snowbarger said. “He told the student, ‘Nah, I better not. My last interview didn’t go so well.’”

Visit to West Holmes

Many people believe James could have made it to the NFL if he chose a different path.

James demonstrated his football talent by catching nine passes for 147 yards and three TDs in a 27-7 win over West Holmes in Millersburg in 2001.

Retired West Holmes coach Bob Maltarich had a great quote when asked beforehand if it was exciting that James was going to play at Knights Stadium.

“I just want to get the game over with and (James) not to get hurt,” Maltarich said. “We don’t need the media all wondering where Millersburg is if he gets hurt and then coming down here to do stories.”

Parting shot

Although I haven’t always agreed with James’ comments or actions, it’s been a lot of fun to watch him grow up in Northeast Ohio and become an all-time great. Thanks for the memories, LeBron.

Aaron Dorksen can be emailed at

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