LeBron James: Akron, Ohio's 'Shooting Star' Before LeBron James became one of the biggest stars in the NBA, he was just a kid from Akron, Ohio. Shooting Stars tells the story of his early years. James and his high school coach, Dru Joyce, talk about life before the NBA.
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LeBron James: Akron, Ohio's 'Shooting Star'

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LeBron James: Akron, Ohio's 'Shooting Star'

LeBron James: Akron, Ohio's 'Shooting Star'

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

In his new book, basketball star LeBron James describes a game that he and his friends played for the youth championship the summer before they started high school.

To this day, despite all the wonderful things that have since come my way, despite being a member of the U.S. Olympic team in 2004, and the one in 2008, that won the gold medal. And going to the NBA finals in 2007 with the Cleveland Cavaliers and leading them into the play-offs the last two years, I am still haunted by what I did. We get possession, down by two. And now, there are only four seconds left and I know it's up to me because either we are going to go down with me shooting or win with me shooting. From my vantage point everything goes into that sensory flow of slow motion and the ball hits the rim and goes in. Win the game. Win an AAU Championship. Put Akron on the map, fulfill not just my goal but the goal of my brothers, Little Dru and Shaun(ph) and Willie(ph) until it pops out.

"Shooting Stars" is the story of LeBron James and the friends he calls his brothers. And it's the story of the man who coached them in that game and later in high school, Little Dru's dad, Dru Joyce. It's a book about growing up poor in a small city in Ohio, about celebrity and hype, about friendship and loyalty and betrayal.

If you'd like to talk with LeBron James and Coach Joyce, our phone is 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, one of the kings of Latin comedy, standup Joey Medina stops by.

But first, Coach Joyce joins us from member station WKSU in Akron. And nice to have you on the program today.

Mr. DRU JOYCE (Coach, Cleveland Cavaliers): Thank you. It's nice to be here.

CONAN: And LeBron James is with us from our bureau in New York. His book written with Buzz Bissinger is called, "Shooting Stars." And it's nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION as well.

Mr. LEBRON JAMES (Basketball player, Cleveland Cavaliers): Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And why is it that reading the book, the long chapters are all about the games you lost?

Mr. JAMES: You know, I hate to even think about those moments even though those games, you know, I think it only made us better. I think you have - in order to be successful you have to go through, you know, trials and tribulations throughout basketball and throughout life to become better, you know. And I think that's why we - you know, I dedicated one chapter to the point of us losing big games that we thought we could have a chance to win but ultimately made us better.

CONAN: Made you better because it taught you that you weren't quite as good as you thought you were.

Mr. JAMES: Yeah, exactly. You know, it basically put us back in our position. You know, but it helped us, you know, mentally just, you know, refocus, you know. And every time we lost we may have been just a little bit, you know, I don't know to say, arrogant but not as focused as we knew we could have been. So, you know, when we lost the game that we thought we should have won at the time, you know, we refocused ourself and we was ready the next time.

CONAN: Dru Joyce, let me ask you, obviously part of this book is the story of your relationship with your son. And I must say it's an unflinching look at that relationship. There's also the story of you as a coach, somebody who did not start as a basketball coach, who learned it as he went along, as you were coaching these kids in games like that AAU Championship game that we're talking about.

Mr. JOYCE: Yes, you know, I grew up Southeastern Ohio playing football and that was my love and what I wanted to do. And I tried to make my son a football player. And when he wasn't having that, you know, he used to follow me to - I used to bring him to some pick up basketball games I - I used to play. And I saw he had a love for it. And just like any father, I just wanted to be involved with my son and it led to all this.

CONAN: And when did your son meet LeBron James?

Mr. JOYCE: Wow. I think the first time, you know, they were adversaries for the first few times they saw each other, first in football. Drew did play one year of football and, you know, LeBron's team dismantled his.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JOYCE: And then the next year, they faced each other in a recreation basketball league in Akron and they were on two opposing teams. And, you know, those games are very highly contested games and once we put the team together, that's when they became friends. But at first, there is - it was an adversarial kind of relationship.

CONAN: And, LeBron James, tell us a little bit about that. You call him, Little Dru, the general.

Mr. JAMES: Absolutely. He was - you know, he was the, you know, the captain of our ship, he kept everything going. You know, we was kind of like the soldiers and, you know, Dru is one of those guys that was just tough as nails as, you know, kind of explained. And even playing against him at an early age and then playing alongside of him for the rest of my career, I definitely knew that he was the guy that was going to keep the motor going for all of us.

CONAN: And a lot of the beginning of the book is, as you call it, assembling the pieces. You need five players to be a basketball team, actually you need more than that but…

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: …five at one time. And you keep describing the different characters who joined this, well, not just this sports team, but become, well, this friendship that just seems so powerful in your life.

Mr. JAMES: Well, absolutely. And, you know, I didn't have that growing up, you know, being a single - being a single child in a single parent household, I didn't have, you know, brothers or anybody that I can kind of confide to in the time of need. And, you know, someone I could talk to beside my mother. Of course, I can always talk to her but sometimes you want that same age bracket to talk to. You kind of relate to them sometimes a little bit better. So, you know, when I found that in Sheenan(ph) and Dru, first off, and then, you know, when Willie(ph) joined the team and then Romeo(ph) later on down the line, I was like, wow, this is a group that I know I can, you know, be trustworthy to.

CONAN: At first, called the Fab Four, then the Fab Four plus One and finally the Fab Five, when things were finally worked out between you guys and Romeo.

Mr. JAMES: Right. Yeah. Right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Dru Joyce, I wanted to ask you, there is - I had not understood this at all, but there was a lot of tension in the city of Akron when first your son and then his friends decided not to go to the big public high school but to attend instead St. V, St. Vincent, St. Mary's, a Catholic school.

Mr. JOYCE: Yes, you know, in fact we lived probably five blocks from Buchtel High School at that time. And, you know, Buchtel High School had a great reputation. They had a lot of success and had a, you know, a very good high school coach. And honestly, I was on the bench. I was an assistant coach at the time and…

CONAN: A lot of people thought you were put on the bench as an assistant coach because your son and his friends would then go to that high school.

Mr. JOYCE: I - there's no qualms about it. I was there to deliver the players. I recognized that, you know, what I was there for and the, you know, I wanted to learn more. I thought Harvey Simms(ph) was a good teacher and I could learn some things from him. But, you know, it just came down to a situation where Dru didn't feel comfortable. He didn't feel like the - he was going to get a chance and decided he was going to do something else. And as a father, I had to respect, you know, what he was saying.

CONAN: No, I understand that part. But I - a lot of people will be surprised to read that the African-American community in Akron or at least much of it regarded you as a traitor.

Mr. JOYCE: Well, you know, you have to understand, the young men, you know, had built a pretty solid reputation from sixth grade, actually fifth grade, all the way through eighth grade now. And they were, you know, well known around the city of Akron.

So, when you have that kind of local celebrity, everyone just assumes that it was going to go a certain way. And when it didn't happen that way, there were some - there were some bitterness and there were some things that were said that, you know, kind of took us by surprise at the level of the bitterness. But I'm not, you know, originally from Akron. I moved to Akron in 1984. So, I didn't understand totally that the St. V, public school, Catholic school thing that had been going on for years in the city of Akron.

CONAN: LeBron James, did that - did you experience some of that feeling, that why are you going to the wrong school?

Mr. JAMES: Well, absolutely because, I mean, you've got to look at it, it's during this period of time, it's the summertime in between, you know, graduating eighth grade, middle school, to now, you know, going to the ninth grade and the high school. So you know, during the summertime, we were still playing basketball in the black community. We were still playing against these kids that was going to Buchtel, that was going to other Akron public schools, so - you know, and we're still in the AAU tournament.

So we see all the coaches. We see all the fans that was going to support Buchtel and all these other schools, and you know, at this point, we - I don't know if they really know that we're not going, but you know, we've kind of already decided that we're not going to Buchtel. So you know, we heard a lot of the blunt. You know, we going to barbershops, you know, we're going into the mall and we're going to their football games and things like that. So we heard a lot of it.

CONAN: We're talking with LeBron James about his new book "Shooting Stars," and also with us is his coach in his AAU days as a youth basketball player, later, also in high school, Dru Joyce. 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. Let's talk with Chip(ph), Chip on the line with us from Tulsa, Oklahoma.

CHIP (Caller): Hey, thank you so much for taking my call. Mr. James, you've also got a skill set that makes you incredible successful at this. Do you think that the focus in junior high and high school on sports tends to make kids forget about the academic pursuits as much. And it's also where I live, there's a football rivalry between two school systems, Union and Jenks, and this has actually turned into a nationwide phenomena, and they are recruiting kids from, like, elementary school for these programs, and I just can't help but think that that's going to affect, you know, their academics and the other stuff that they're focusing so hard on just that one narrow sport or that one narrow talent or whatever. Do you think that it should be a more rounded program or less emphasis put on the sports and more on the academics or whatever? And I'll just take my answer off the air.

CONAN: All right, thanks, Chip.

Mr. JAMES: Well, honestly, I think, you know, kids should definitely understand that education is important. I think when you're really, really young, you know, you're seven, you're eight, you're nine, you're 10 years old - it's really hard to get a good grasp of what education means. So I think as you continue to grow, you should start to get a little bit better.

I think what can really help is the role models that they look up to and their parents. They should really focus on them staying down on their schoolwork, because, you know, kids love sports. I mean - and when we're focused on playing sports, that's one thing that we just always think about. And then if our parents aren't on us, and you know, our guardians or our role models are not keeping up on us about our schoolwork, then it can easily be forgotten about because we love sports so much. It's just the competitive nature of kids.

So I really think parents and role models and guardians or whoever that's laying down that household, whoever - you know, the people that's giving those words should always mention schoolwork because it's important.

CONAN: We're talking with LeBron James, now of the Cleveland Cavaliers though once among the stars of the St. V Irish in Akron, Ohio. We're also talking with his high school coach, Dru Joyce. If you'd like to talk with him, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. It's just over a month until the NBA regular season gets underway. LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers tip off against Boston on October 27 and hope to make another playoff run. This, though, is not going to focus on pro basketball - all right, we'll ask him about Shaquille O'Neal, and we'll ask him whether he's going to stay in Cleveland - but we're going to focus on his new book called "Shooting Stars," which is about friendship and loyalty, the professionalization of high school sports and his home town, Akron, Ohio.

And also with us is Coach Dru Joyce, who was instrumental in teaching LeBron James about basketball and about life, 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And LeBron James, just following up on that last phone call, you do write in the book about, well, you were aware of it all the time at the time, but going to tournaments in places, or Louis, Delaware, was in fact the place where you were writing about and all of the shoe companies and things like that were professionalizing the high school game. I wonder, with a little perspective on it now, what you think about that.

Mr. JAMES: Well, I think it can get out of control sometimes. I think, you know, no kid at a certain age should have the stardom that I had and we had, you know, at that. I mean, you honestly don't know, you know, how to - there's nowhere you can get coached for that, you know? And, you know, a lot of kids can get drawn into stardom and say they wish they could, you know, have this type of stardom, but when they get it, they don't know how to react to it.

I think it hurt a lot of people's careers, you know, especially as kids because it's too much pressure, I believe, but the one thing that I'm blessed and I'm humbled about, that I had friends around me, and I had a mentor in Coach Dru. You know, it didn't matter if I was on the cover of Sports Illustrated or - it didn't matter on the yearbook.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JAMES: You know, they was going to talk about me no matter what. You know, my friends kept me humbled. So, you know, I was blessed.

CONAN: Coach Joyce, let me ask you. Exactly that happened. At 17 years old, when he's a junior in high school, LeBron James is on the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine as titled "The Chosen One." It said if he came out in the NBA draft right now, he'd be the number one choice, and you are just about to coach him and his friends, including his son, in your very first year as a high school coach. You must have thought to yourself: What have I gotten myself into?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JOYCE: You know, as I said, there was times I wanted to go out into my backyard and just scream, but, you know, there was no one to go to. There was no one to ask. We were at the cutting edge of this ESPN-Internet generation that - so it was uncharted territory. But one thing that, you know, what I tried to do with those who were around me was to, you know, circle the wagons, so to speak, and you know, have the kids focus on, when they're in basketball, we closed practices, we tried to show that they could focus during the school day. We wouldn't let anyone into the school building.

We tried to keep, you know, LeBron's life and the lives of the other players as normal as you could possibly try to keep it, under the circumstances. Did we do everything right? Probably not. But you know, I think that, you know, we created a situation that in a lot of respects helped them grow into becoming into the young men that they're grown into today.

CONAN: Well, let's get some more callers on the line, and let's go, where else, Cleveland. Ray is on the line.

RAY (Caller): Hey, good to talk to LeBron and Coach Joyce. I have great respect for the work you do. I am involved in high school basketball, I'm an area coach. I saw LeBron's team win two state championships. I saw them lose one, too, to that Cincinnati team, but I've really been impressed by the continued growth in LeBron. And I saw Coach Joyce's team this summer. They are going to be awesome again.

But here is my question for LeBron. You're such a role model. Your growth and development and maturity have been awesome, and I have a 17-year-old son, and I can't think… But LeBron, one important thing that you could really do that would affect society, and this is a lot to ask of you, but I really respect your commitment to family, your commitment to your children, your relationship with the mother of your children, and I know it's a tough thing, and it's a personal thing, but do you know how powerful it would be if you personally made a commitment to marriage?

CONAN: Whoa. All right…

Mr. JAMES: Well, you know what's funny about that? Me and Coach Dru had a long conversation about that about a week ago. And you know, Coach Dru, you know, is someone I'll always go to in advice, you know. And I asked him about that, and you know, I think we came to the conclusion that basically we're going to have to - you know, you make that decision when you think you're ready for it. You know, you don't want to jump into the situation because other people may want you to get married, or you know, maybe one of the parties may want to be married at the time.

You know, when you both feel like you guys are ready, and right now, I feel like I'm still young, I still don't really know everything. But you know, when I feel like I'm ready, and I think Savannah's ready, we're, you know, there's a possibility we can make that decision. Great question, by the way.

RAY: Well, that's well said, young man. God bless you and Coach Dru and the advice you give and the leadership you show.

Mr. JAMES: No problem.

CONAN: Ray, thanks very much for the call. Here's an email from Josh in San Antonio. Thanks so much, Mr. James, for being an excellent role model. Last week, when President Obama addressed the nation's students, he said they should not focus on being rappers or professional athletes such as yourself. What do you say in response to that?

Mr. JAMES: I agree. I agree because of some - you can always - you can miss out on other opportunities, you know, trying to become, you know, famous too fast or trying to become, you know, have that stardom. And you know, he's not saying that, you know, it's not a possibility of you becoming a professional athlete or a pop singer or a rock star or a rap artist, you know. He's basically saying, you know, take advantage of school. Take advantage of the opportunities that's laying in front of you, and if you do have other talents off that, then take advantage of it also. So I agree with him.

CONAN: Let's go next to Casey(ph), Casey with us from Sacramento.

CASEY (Caller): Oh, thank you for taking my call. Hey, LeBron, I'm not going to try to get you married.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CASEY: Hey listen, I was walking through the park last night, and I saw some pick-up games, and so assuming that the vast majority of basketball players in this country are just recreational pick-up players, how do you see the effect of NBA celebrity on the style of pick-up basketball games? I mean, I didn't even recognize it. You had guys yelling I'm Barkley, I'm Barkley. And I didn't see one pass.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CASEY: So I'm wondering, how do you think the culture of your stardom affects the games on the street? I mean, you're like the Big O. You've got the total package, and I bet you might pass it, but I'm just curious what your thoughts are on that.

Mr. JAMES: Well, I can tell you one person that doesn't enjoy that, and that's Coach Dru, you know, not seeing the ball being passed around. You know, that's just not right way to play the game of basketball. It doesn't matter if it's a pick-up game or, you know, it's an NBA game or a high school game or whatever, but I think pick-up basketball is really important for kids.

For one, it made me and my friends really tough, you know, playing outdoor, pickup basketball, because it's times where, you know, you go out to these courts and, you know, if you don't win, and if you don't compete, it's a possibility that you might not get back on that court for probably about another 25 to 30 minutes. So you know, it definitely helped us become better basketball players when we got into the real of things, but you have to pass - please guys, ladies, pass the ball, please.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CASEY: Coming from a point guard of 30 years, I appreciate that advice to all the youngsters, so…

Mr. JAMES: Oh, yeah, no problem.

CONAN: Casey, thanks very much. Let's go next to - this is Joe, and Joe's calling from Boise.

JOE (Caller): Well, it's a great pleasure to talk to both the coach and LeBron James. I came from a team that in seventh grade, or junior high, we lost two games in three years, and our senior year, we were a top-ranked team that lost in our district first game.

So we had to enter the bracket from the back side, and it was the adversity that I wanted to - that was so interesting in the early part of this show, dealing with adversity, when you're supposed to win a game, and you don't, and then how do you comprehend that game and then make use out of the mistakes. And anyway, Coach, I guess I'm directing that more towards you. How did you deal with those games that went the wrong way and then come back and persevere?

And also, my question for LeBron James is: LeBron, you look like you enjoy playing D, and I was a defensive specialist. I rode the pines, but I could play tall, even though I was only 6'1"…

CONAN: Well, if you read this book, Joe, you may find that a little bit amusing, because it took a while for LeBron to appreciate the finer points of defense, as I think Coach Joyce might point out.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JOYCE: Yeah, and answering your first question, as far as how do you bounce back, you know, I think that one thing that as a coach that, you know, I've grown to and I've learned is that, you know, losing is part of it, you know? You're going to lose some games. And, you know, you don't want to lose them, but you're going to lose some. And, you know, I just try to, you know, do this. When we lose a game, you know, I'm looking for a couple of positive things to bring out of it and then we're going to move on.

You know, the past is the past. And I think the one thing that I talk to my guys all about, even in the midst of a game, after a game, you need to stay in the present moment. You can't change the past. The future is not promised. Stay in the present moment and work with that moment.

And you know, I just think it does wonders for kids when they understand and they know that you're not going to beat them up about a missed play or a missed pass or a bad shot that, you know, something LeBron and he'll respond to.

We had - you know, and they used to tell this to me in the huddles. We used to have a saying, when someone was stuck on a bad play, we say, next play. And that was - the idea was to move - let's move on. And I think that's what you got to do. Of course, you want to correct mistakes, but you got to move on and stay in the present moment.

Mr. JAMES: And to go on and answer the second question, I think - I just really, you know, I came to find out that the game of basketball is just - is won on both ends. I think it's all about pride. Defense is all about pride. You know, you're standing across from the other guy and you - I basically go into a game saying, I don't believe you can score me. And it's going to happen.

Just like Coach Dru said, losses happen and you're going to lose games, but, you know, I just really believe that the guy in front of me is not going to score me. And, you know, and it's not just individual defense but at the same time I feel like I'm helping - I'm always try to help my teammates become better. Because offense is easy. Offense becomes easy when you played a defense on a higher level.

And I just - I found a new love for the game when I decided I was going to be, you know, not just the MVP on offensive end but on the defensive end also.

CONAN: LeBron James, I have to say, for you, offense is easy (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: There's a lot of us, there's no shot too short that we can't miss.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JAMES: Sure.

CONAN: We're talking with LeBron James. He's the author of "Shooting Stars" with Buzz Bissinger. He's, of course, the author of "Friday Night Lights" and other books. It's called "Shooting Stars." Also with us is Dru Joyce who was Lebron James' coach in youth basketball, and later as the coach of the Saint V Irish in high school and they went on to win a state championship, one of three that LeBron James and the young men he calls his brothers went on to win at that school.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION coming to you from NPR News

And this next year - if we talk about the present day, LeBron James - is going to be a challenge. I wonder if you have talked with Coach Joyce about the new center on your team.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JAMES: No, we haven't. We haven't. But I think we both got the same thoughts and mind. I think it's going to be great, you know? I'm looking forward to Shaq getting down there to Cleveland. You know, he's been in Orlando, he's been in Los Angeles, he's been in Miami and he's been in Phoenix. So I don't think he owns a big winter jacket if I'm looking at those four team that he's been in.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JAMES: So he better make sure he has his good winter fur because it gets cold in Cleveland.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: But he's also…

Mr. JOYCE: If I…

CONAN: Go ahead, Coach.

Mr. JOYCE: Yeah. If I could say something, you know, and Bron understands, hey, I'm a fan now and I enjoy being a fan. I'm not crossing that line. I go to the games. There's no pressure on me. I'm enjoying being a fan and I'm looking forward to some great basketball.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Well, of course, we're mentioning Shaquille O'Neal, one of the greatest players in NBA history, toward the twilight of his career, he's going to be teammate with LeBron James in the Cleveland Cavaliers next year. And of course, many basketball fans in our audience also know that at the end of this season, LeBron James' contract runs out and he is eligible to become a free agent.

And in that context, Daniel in Lansing, New York, emails to say, born and raised in Cleveland, I am an 80-year-old who was never any good at basketball. But because of you, I have become a fan. I love to watch you and the Cavs play. Please continue to play with the Cavaliers. You've helped give the people of Northeastern Ohio a new sense of pride. They need you. I need you to play for the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Can you tell us anything about your plans following next season?

Mr. JAMES: No. Now, first of all, thank you. That was awesome to know that you have, you know, people like that that really respect the way you play the game of basketball and the way you approach the game of basketball. I think this is going to be a tough decision, honestly, for myself after the end of this year.

And - but I'm looking forward to it. I'm looking forward to hopefully continue on my career in Cleveland or moving on. But I really, I'm really looking forward to this season upcoming.

I think I'm, you know, I think if everything goes right, you know, I've always been happy, you know, being in Cleveland. I have never give any indication that I'm going to leave. So, we'll see what happen. I am a free agent and, you know, I have the right to go anywhere I want to, but you know, my first loyalty is to Cleveland.

CONAN: Let's get one last caller in. This is Brad. Brad with us Medina, in Ohio.

BRAD (Caller): Yeah, sir. Thanks for taking my call. LeBron, my son graduated from Saint V (unintelligible) the year behind you. You used to call him the drawing man because he's designed a lot of the tattoos for the guys on the basketball squad - the Korean Boy, I don't know if you remember him. But in any event, my question is, I see a lot of you about town, now with some of your friends from the basketball team. And I wonder if you addressed that in your book, of how they helped ground you, even still today. I'll wait for my answer off the line. Thank you.

CONAN: All right, Brad. Thank you.

Mr. JAMES: Well, absolutely. My friends, man, are part of the reason why who I am today, still to today. You know, and like I said before, they never let me -they never let me get big headed even if I wanted to. I never wanted to, but even if I tried to they would always keep me grounded, you know? It's just the friendship that we had. We never felt like we were bigger than anybody else.

I think Coach Dru gave us the right path and, you know, and we followed the code. And like you said, still to this day, these guys are with me. You know, we don't see - we don't see each other as much as we used to, of course, because we don't - we're not on the same school, we're not playing on the same team. But we see each other a lot during the summer. And it's like, you know, it's always great seeing those guys.

CONAN: LeBron James and Buzz Bissinger write about - LeBron James and the man he calls his brother in a book called "Shooting Stars." And LeBron James was with us today from our bureau in New York.

Thank you so much for your time.

Mr. JAMES: Oh, thank you very much for having me.

CONAN: And Dru Joyce was the high school basketball coach of LeBron James in Akron, Ohio, earlier, their coach at AAU, and he was with us today from member station WKSU in Akron.

Coach, good luck with your team next year and thank you for your time today, too.

Mr. JOYCE: Thank you very much and I enjoyed myself.

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