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SportsThe Chosen Ones - An oral history of LeBron...

The Chosen Ones – An oral history of LeBron James’ only loss to an Ohio team in his legendary high school career

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Twenty years ago, there was a basketball player in northeast Ohio who was beginning to make some noise. The “Kid” from Akron, as he was known, appeared to be a surefire superstar. Then, in February 2002, the 17-year-old junior for Akron’s St. Vincent-St. Mary High School appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated. On it, he was anointed “The Chosen One.” Instantly, LeBron James became a household name and the basketball landscape changed forever.

We all know what LeBron has become: a player widely considered one of the greatest of all time. But this isn’t that story. This is the story of the only team in the state of Ohio to get the better of him — for one day and one day only. This is the story of “The Chosen Ones,” the one Ohio team that beat LeBron James in high school.

The Plan

Bill Brewer, head coach of Division II Roger Bacon, a small Catholic high school outside Cincinnati, knew prior to the 2001-2002 season that he had a group with potential for a special run. During Brewer’s memorable tenure, though, his most notable move happened off the floor. The coach heard that a school featuring a young phenom named LeBron James could be making the move from Division III to Division II. So when the state released this information, confirming the move, Brewer immediately called St. Vincent-St. Mary. Brewer knew his team would have to defeat the two-time defending state champion from Akron in order to get to where it wanted to go.

Peggy Brewer (Coach Brewer’s widow): Back in, I think, April or May, when Bill realized St. Vincent-St. Mary was going to move up to Division II, he really wanted to play them early. And he worked hard to make sure he got that game scheduled in December. And I honestly didn’t think anybody could be as big as he was saying. I was like, “He’s not the next Michael.” And I think Bill said, “Yeah. He is.”

Josh Hausfeld, Roger Bacon guard (1998-2002): St. V. was going from D-III to D-II, and we had an open game, they had an open game, so Coach Brewer, within the first 20 minutes of the schedules coming out, called them and said, “Hey, we want to play you guys.” That was probably one of the most important things that Coach Brewer and our coaching staff did was scheduling that game.

Beckham Wyrick, Roger Bacon forward (1998-2002): I think, for one, just to give us a look at LeBron in person. I think it was just to gauge, really, how we would do versus them. And I don’t think many people outside of the people inside our locker room gave us much of a chance to compete in that game.

The Opponent

Sure, we all know LeBron was far more talented than anyone else at the time. But he was by no means the whole team. St. Vincent-St. Mary had several Division I college prospects and was looking to capture a third straight state championship.

Tony Meale, author of “The Chosen Ones”: When St. Vincent-St. Mary would play, it was pretty much a circus, in the best way possible. Imagine the Harlem Globetrotters as a high school basketball team with the best player in prep history. They would outscore teams, they would gamble on defense, they were going for steals — and every other play, it seemed like it was a chance for LeBron to just take flight. It was the Showtime Lakers meets the Harlem Globetrotters. It was just a sight to behold. It was something that none of us had ever seen. You’re just thinking, “How are these kids still in high school?”

Austin Carr, color commentator for the game, longtime Cleveland Cavaliers TV analyst: They were the matinee act of the country. And they were traveling around the country playing all these teams and winning. Everybody was expecting the same thing to happen, that they were going to win the championship again.

Wyrick: They were a really, really tough team. They were the team to beat, for sure. I think that was something that motivated us as a team from southwest Ohio.

First Game

Roger Bacon and St. Vincent-St. Mary met at Kent State University in front of a packed crowd. The goal for this game, Roger Bacon team members said, wasn’t necessarily to win. It was to prove to themselves that they belonged on the same court as LeBron James and his star-studded supporting cast.

Hausfeld: When we played him the first game, the refs were taking pictures and getting autographs with him. He was larger than life.

Roger Bacon lost the game 79-70, with Brewer’s players certainly meeting their initial goal for Game 1. They would be ready to see St. Vincent-St. Mary again in the playoffs.

Brian Neal, Roger Bacon assistant coach (1997-2005): Although we didn’t win that game, our guys left that locker room thinking, if we did get a chance to play them again, we would have a great chance to win.

Frank Phillips, Roger Bacon forward (2000-2002): That first game was pretty big for us. We did lose, but it was just being able to get the feel for LeBron and the team. And the environment. It was a large crowd, so just being able to be around the huge crowd was shocking for us as well.

Hausfeld: It got all the distractions out of the way, and, again, it gave us confidence that we could beat them.

Wyrick: I can remember specifically going up to a couple of their players after that game and saying, “Hey, see you again in March.” And I don’t know whether or not they took that seriously, but that was something that I looked forward to from that point on.

The Cover

In February 2002, LeBron James appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated and was anointed “The Chosen One.” Little did LeBron and his teammates know, but this fueled Roger Bacon even more, as the veteran squad awaited a second shot at LeBron and St. Vincent-St. Mary.

Peggy Brewer: Well, the fact that LeBron James was on the cover as a junior in high school was pretty amazing. But I had also heard about the Sports Illustrated curse, so I was kind of hoping that cover of the magazine ended up being a curse for him.

Carr: To me, that’s a lot to live up to. But after I watched him play two or three times, you could see that he was special. To see a guy his size, that young, that could do the things he could do. It was amazing to me.

Hausfeld: I just remember thinking they only put professional athletes on that, and so when there was a high school player — not only a high school player, but a guy we played, a guy we knew very well in the state — I just remember thinking this guy must be larger than life. You know, I only thought they put Michael Jordan on that thing.

Wyrick: As a motivational tool, LeBron being on that cover was really useful for us. When we would get together over at a teammate’s house before or after a game, after that cover came out, there could have been a Sports Illustrated cover dart board overlay. Motivational factor at play, for sure.

The Guarantee

Fast-forward to March 22, the night before the 2002 Ohio Division II state championship game. The rematch that the Roger Bacon team had been waiting nearly three months for had arrived. Earlier that night, LeBron had made a “guarantee” that he would not let his team lose the next day. It was on.

Hausfeld: We were all in a hotel room, and we happened to watch the news, and they showed that press conference. We all just kind of lost it. We jumped up and down like high school kids and said, “There’s absolutely no way we’re going to lose now.” It’s that bulletin board material that we weren’t expecting to get.

Wyrick: We were already motivated enough, but when [LeBron] made that guarantee, that put another layer on the cake.

Phillips: [LeBron] did have a target on his back. Good players recognize good players. But still at the same time, we felt like we had a really good team and were going to be able to withstand his onslaughts of offense.

Hausfeld: I just remember we had a chance to do something special. I knew we were going to win, and I knew we were going to be talking about this for the rest of our lives.

Phillips: Sitting in the hotel. It was hard to go to sleep. Tossing and turning, playing the game out in my head. I definitely was picturing dunking the last second of the game. Like, I visualized that.

The Rematch

It was an unusually early start time, an 11 a.m. tip in Ohio State’s Value City Arena. But that didn’t stop a sellout crowd of over 18,000 people from attending. Brewer and his Roger Bacon squad were ready for whatever St. Vincent-St. Mary would bring.

Wyrick: When we all went out for the matchups, everybody was saying, “Hey, I got 34, I got 21,” or, “I got this guy,” and I called out, “Hey, I got The Chosen One. I’ll be guarding The Chosen One.”

The Forearm Shiver

On the first play of the game, the player guarding LeBron did something so unbelievable, many didn’t even see it. As the years have gone on, the urban legend has grown. Wyrick gave a forearm shiver to James the first time he came down the court. The future NBA superstar was so taken aback, the legend goes, he literally flailed back. The tone for the state championship had been set.

Wyrick: It wasn’t anything malicious at all. I think that it was probably just a season’s worth, a childhood’s worth, of adrenaline, of goals being met, of hard work being realized, all culminating into this one moment. It was just a way for me to give him that message early in the game that, “Today is not going to be your easiest day.”

Hausfeld: He just shoved him right in the gut, basically just sent a message, like, “Hey, we’re here. We’re not backing down. This is the state championship, and it’s not going to be easy today.” It was awesome.

The Third Quarter

After a back-and-forth first half, Bacon made a statement on its first possession of the third quarter. It was a play it had run hundreds of times, resulting in a Wyrick two-handed slam. But it isn’t just the dunk that was significant. Wyrick made sure to mock LeBron after the slam with the trademark Darius Miles celebration, one of LeBron’s favorites. Tone reset.

Wyrick: Some of the NBA guys were doing it, and LeBron, I had seen him doing it. So I did it running back down the court. If you watch the tape, you can see some of my teammates smiling and shaking their heads.

Later in the quarter, Roger Bacon went on a 13-0 run, which changed the course of the game.

Phillips: We knew he was coming. We just wanted to stay composed and try to get through it.

Wyrick: There were 18,000 people there. I think it was a record at the time and just that sea of yellow, in our fan section, just going crazy and seeing your classmates and your parents up in the crowd and just realizing, “Man, there’s a whole community behind you guys. And this is something that is right on the cusp.” The win became real there for us.

The Half-Court Shot

At the end of the third quarter, Roger Bacon point guard Dave Johnson iced LeBron with a nice crossover and found Wyrick for a baseline jumper. Bacon was in control. Or was it?

Neal: We were trying to pull away, and … three, two, one, [LeBron] pulls up from just beyond half court and, and sinks it. And it’s one of those things as a coach, you’re just thinking, “Oh … you got to be kidding me. This is the way it’s going to go down?” And when you lose the momentum like that, you really, really worry about how that’s going to play out.

Hausfeld: When that went in, we were like, “That makes sense. It’s LeBron.” And we didn’t really think anything of it.

Wyrick: That’s not a shot that LeBron is going to make consistently. So I wasn’t really worried about the shot. It didn’t really change anything for us or for me about the game.

The Poster

Neither team flinched in a wild fourth quarter. With about 90 seconds remaining, LeBron soared in from the wing and put Frank Phillips on a poster that no one in the arena would ever forget.

Carr: He came in from the right wing, man. And he was like an eagle flying. Pow! The whole crowd went crazy.

Hausfeld: I mean, I knew as soon as he spun, I was like, “Oh, boy.”

Phillips: I think I may have already taken three charges on him at that time. One of my things was catching him bull rushing, and yeah, I slid over. He went by one of our guys on the wing and I slid over outside the blocks and he took off. I looked up at him and he just looked down at me like, “Yeah, you got dunked on.”

Hausfeld: We actually blew up a big picture at our banquet that year with literally LeBron hanging over Frank at the perfect angle, and we gave that to him as a present.

The Finish

A timeout was called with just 22.5 seconds left and Roger Bacon leading by 3. Brewer and Roger Bacon knew the ball was going to LeBron. Every fan in attendance knew that the ball was going to LeBron. Until it didn’t.

Phillips: We knew he was going to try to make a play. Other than that, we could have guys that can be ready and either get a steal or a rebound or something. Other than that, we really were up to his mercy, honestly.

Wyrick: LeBron brings the ball down the court, and I’m there to pick him up, thinking, “All right, well, this is LeBron. This is a shot that he’s taking.” [Then] he kicked it to Chad Mraz on the wing, who attempted a 3. That ball rims off.

We know now that LeBron, throughout his illustrious career, has given up the ball in big moments to make a better basketball play. But at the time, it floored everyone.

Hausfeld: A lot of people didn’t realize LeBron was probably a better passer than a scorer, and we knew he was going to find the open man. He’s very unselfish. So we hugged the 3-point shooters because we didn’t want ’em to tie it up.

Phillips: That was LeBron being LeBron. He’s always looking for a better shot. He’s always pass first. So he did make a good pass, and it was a good shot from [Mraz]. He just missed it.

Hausfeld grabbed the rebound and was fouled. The game rested on the shoulders of Roger Bacon’s best all-around player. The homegrown kid, who had grown up down the street from the high school, made three of four free throws, all but ending the game.

Hausfeld: I think there were eight seconds left, but I knew we had won. It was just amazing.

In the final seconds of the game, Phillips skied for a dunk at the buzzer, providing an exclamation point that will live in Roger Bacon folklore for the rest of time.

Philips: The night before, I pictured myself dunking the last second of the game and I just couldn’t believe that I actually got a chance to do that. I didn’t care that we were up. I knew that was going to be my last chance, dunking the ball in high school and my last points. So I just went up and got a chance to actually dunk. My legs were feeling heavy, I didn’t know if I was going to actually get it.

Wyrick: We were just 12 players on the basketball court, but we weren’t just winning that for ourselves. I think it was special for Cincinnati. So it was bigger than just the game at that point.

Hausfeld: We beat LeBron. We beat St. Vincent. We were state champs. It was my last high school game of my career. It was something I’ll never, ever, ever forget.

Postgame

In the immediate aftermath of the game, LeBron made sure to congratulate each player on the Roger Bacon squad, demonstrating a level of humility and sportsmanship well beyond his years. For that one day, he had been defeated.

Philips: LeBron was pretty cool. He was coming up to us, telling us good game and shaking our hands. He was a pretty good sport.

Hausfeld: It was pretty quick, short, but he did come over and show a lot of class. Specifically for me, he just said, “Hey, you’re a real good player. Good luck at Miami,” kind of thing.

Peggy Brewer: That was a fun night. We had a little tailgate in the parking lot, then the team ate dinner at an Outback Steakhouse. I don’t think Bill ever got approval for that, but it was on the school credit card. Then we had a procession down I-71.

A few months later, LeBron returned for his senior year and led his team to the No. 1 ranking in the country. He would go on to be the No. 1 pick in the 2003 NBA draft.

The Bond

Roger Bacon had just defeated arguably the best high school player in history on the biggest stage. The game created a bond that lives to this day.

Philips: It was a bond even at the time. I didn’t think that it was going to be as strong as it is.

Neal: The fact that I can look at those guys 20 years later and still have relationships with them, and still know what they’re doing, and know their kids’ names, and get updates about the lives they’ve built for themselves … that’s honestly what I remember.

Meale: You’re always a state champion. That’s something that no one can ever take from you. But when you’re the only team to ever do something, and that something involves beating LeBron James, you know what you did was very special.

Tragedy

Five and a half years after the greatest accomplishment of Bill Brewer’s coaching career, he died of a heart attack in early November 2007, leaving behind his wife, Peggy, and three daughters. He was just 42.

Peggy Brewer: He was truly a great, great person. He cared about his kids, he cared about his family, he treated his basketball players like they were family.

Neal: Unbelievable man, unbelievable coach, unbelievable father and husband, and unbelievable friend to me. Bill showed me the value of a tight-knit coaching staff and how important that was to our overall success.

Hausfeld: One of the biggest regrets that I have is not being able to still talk to him, but he was our leader. He got the absolute best out of all of us.

Wyrick: He taught everyone on our team what it meant to work hard, what it meant to be accountable, both for your own actions and be accountable to your teammates. He was a man that at the time I probably didn’t appreciate as much as I should have. I think it took some maturity, some years to pass, for me to really understand the impact and the influence that he had in my life.

Significance

Why should anyone care about LeBron James losing a game in high school? Because his St. Vincent-St. Mary team went an astounding 81-1 during his legendary high school career vs. Ohio opponents and won three state titles.

Neal: This game matters because LeBron James is one of the most amazing athletes to ever play the game. We want LeBron to keep winning because it just allows our story to keep resonating.

Hausfeld: I have three kids now, and I’ve told them, and they tell their friends, and it’s just one of those moments in life that literally, outside of getting married and having kids, I mean, it’s No. 3.

Phillips: I think it’s really important as far as knowing that any team can be beaten.

Meale: The fact that LeBron James has gone on to become one of the best players in basketball history. The fact that it might have impacted however slightly, his decision making on what to do the following year, about whether to return to high school or to try to enter the NBA draft, that win very much changed a lot of lives, including LeBron’s, and may have changed basketball history.

The loss still stung a decade later for LeBron, who mentioned it in a 2011 interview with ESPN.

Neal: If that means that we were a very, very small piece of the motivation that’s helped him become the best player on the planet, then how lucky are we to be part of that journey for him?

Hausfeld: I think the lesson from the victory is, at the end of the day, we all work in teams, and no matter what you do, you know, your household’s a team, your family’s a team, your work environment, and I just think it shows that hard work, having a plan, determination, the power of a team will always prevail.

Peggy Brewer: I think it brings up two things. One, a team is better than a player, and I think Roger Bacon truly did have a better team. They really got along as brothers on and off the court. But it wasn’t just the team, it was the parents, it was the fans. It was truly a special year.

Wyrick: I think that people in our community look at it as like a “Hoosiers” 2.0.

Carr: You may have two or three players in the history of high school sports that have had a career like he’s had. And then to follow it up like he has, this man, he was the chosen one. … It’s a great story for them, because they have a chance to tell their offspring and the grandkids, too, that they were the only team to beat LeBron James in high school.

Meale: This story is about Roger Bacon. But it is first and foremost about the human spirit. It is about any team, any person, any underdog who dares to dream and who, in the face of immeasurable odds, chooses to chase greatness.



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