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Sports | Using the principles of Christ, LeBron James' high school coach helped keep the superstar and his teammates grounded

In his new autobiography, Shooting Stars, co-written with Friday Night Lights author Buzz Bissenger, LeBron James reveals the journey that took him from the housing projects of Akron, Ohio, to basketball superstardom. The book, along with a documentary out this month, More Than a Game (for a review, see "Basketball brothers," Nov. 7, 2009), characterizes James' journey to becoming arguably the best player in the NBA as a team effort. In particular, he gives credit to the man who coached him and three of his best friends from the fifth grade to his senior year in high school: Dru Joyce II.

"What Coach Dru did for us was set up life for us after the game of basketball. He taught us to use the game of basketball and not let the game of basketball use us," James has said of the man he calls his teacher, father figure, and friend. Recently, I had a chance to chat with Coach Joyce.
Q. You took an unusual route to coaching, especially for someone who has a record of state and national championships under his belt. Can you briefly describe how it happened?

When my son Dru was in the fourth grade, he played on an Amateur Athletic Union travel team and I helped the coach out as much as I could as a way to spend some quality time with my son. After losing a couple of kids toward the end of the season, the team didn't have enough players. So when I saw LeBron playing at a community center, I encouraged him and a couple other boys to join to keep the team going. The next year, when the boys were in the fifth grade, the parents called me and said "Hey, the coach doesn't want to coach the team anymore, but we still want our sons to play. You helped out a lot last year, why don't you coach the team?" I didn't have a background in coaching and hadn't played basketball seriously myself, but I wanted to spend that time with my son so I agreed, buying all kinds of books about coaching basketball and looking for advice from coaches at my son's basketball camps and that kind of thing. And I kept offering myself up as an assistant to their junior high and high school coaches as well, partly because I enjoyed it and partly because I felt it was a way to stay connected to my son and his three friends [LeBron James, Willie McGee, and Sian Cotton] who had become an important part of our lives.

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Then, at the beginning of their junior year, after back-to-back state championships, their high school coach quit to take an assistant coaching job at the University of Akron. The school offered me the job of head coach. So I quit my job [as a sales manager] and accepted the position.
Q. Did you have any hesitation about making such an abrupt career change?

Of course. Especially considering how high expectations were because of their previous track record. It felt a bit like a no-win situation-if they won the state championship again, it would be because of the way [their former coach] trained them. If they lost, it would be because of me. But my wife helped me see that God was opening a door for me and that I needed to have the faith and courage to walk through it.
Q. In the production notes for More Than a Game, you say that basketball is a vehicle. What is it a vehicle for?

Especially in the African-American community I think sports are viewed by schools, parents, coaches and the players themselves as a goal unto themselves, and what I wanted the guys to understand is that basketball isn't everything in life. Basketball is a vehicle that can take you someplace depending on your level of skill and dedication. When my son started in grade school, his dream was to play on a Division I college team, and we used it to achieve that goal and to get him a scholarship for a college education. That's where the vehicle took him, and for every one of the kids it's something different. For LeBron, it's taken him to highest heights of professional basketball. But what I want my players to do is to use the game in such a way that they get something positive out of it and not become a basketball statistic-one of these guys who never got an education, didn't make the right decisions, was used up by the system, and ultimately left with nothing.
Q. How do you as a coach help inoculate kids against complacency and arrogance so that they don't get "used up by the system"?

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