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.
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"?
That's a great question and it's something I wasn't always successful with. For example, in their junior year, I had coached [LeBron, Dru, Willie, and Sian] for so long that they weren't hearing me anymore. They were still winning and their arrogance was growing as their stars were rising. Until they were humbled by losing state that year.
Now I try to nip that in the bud. My team this year were state champions, and we have a pretty young team-I started three sophomores. To them I use the example of what happened with Dru and LeBron and how they missed their chance at the state championship their junior year because they got so caught up in the hype about themselves. I tell the guys, "This is something bigger than you. What we do here is bigger than the individual, and if you make it about you as an individual, no matter how good you are, you can lose."
You can always be replaced and life will, in its own way, move you out if you don't understand that you need to be thankful that you are blessed with certain God-given talents. You need to use them to His glory and you need to defer to your teammates because we never reach any success all by ourselves.
I talk to my team about seven principles: humility, servanthood, thankfulness, integrity, discipline, passion, and unity-those principles that, if you live by these things, you're going to be a person of good character. The principles Christ taught are real, and if you apply them, your life will not necessarily be easy, but you will stand out in our world as extraordinary, and you'll be able to weather whatever storm comes. I was reading a Scripture in a men's Bible study I'm a part of this morning about how our foundation is built on a rock. I try to impart that truth to every kid who plays for me. Now they may not all receive it-and that's not my job to make sure they receive it-my job is to offer the coaching.
Q. A lot of people might say that humility, thankfulness and servanthood aren't something you see a lot of in professional sports these days. If anything, it often seems like entitlement and self-promotion characterize the industry.
To a certain degree that's true. And I think as far as it is true a lot of that has to do with our culture's reaction to these young men and the way we reward them for the talent they possess and the entertainment value they give us. I still think there are number of men out there who are exceptional athletes but who recognize that they have a platform that's both a blessing and an obligation. But those aren't the stories the media highlights because they're not as juicy to audiences as the downfalls. We have to decide that we're as interested in those stories. Because there are a lot of guys in the league that are quietly going about doing it the right way, and they never get the headlines because the feel-good stuff doesn't sell as well. Just as we've made those kind of swaggering attitudes the face of professional sports we can change it by showing more interest in guys displaying Christ-like qualities.
Q. Can you expand on how you personally handled that with a kid like LeBron, who was already getting national media attention as a sophomore in high school?
You know, honestly, there were times I wanted to step outside my house and just scream because we were at the forefront of the trend of making high school sports a national story, right when ESPN realized it was something they could market. So there was no one I could ask about coaching a kid who's 16 and on the cover of Sports Illustrated. That had never happened before, and, of course, the entire city of Akron was paying attention. They were trying times. And I think a couple dynamics really helped us through it.
First, I made the decision that I was going to coach an entire team, I wasn't just going to coach LeBron. Talented as he was, he was part of a team, and I wasn't going to allow his celebrity to eclipse the team. So I committed to coaching him the way I'd always coached him, and he respected that. I was fortunate that I had earned his trust from a young kid. He knew that no matter what happened I loved him, and that I'd loved him before all the hype. And my love wasn't going to change. Even if it had to be tough love, which sometimes it did, it was still love, and he and the other boys knew that.
The second thing was that the other guys were his lifelong friends. So they were saying, "You're still LeBron to us," not "King James" as he was being called in the papers. They helped keep him grounded. For example, there were times when LeBron would say, "Go interview McGee, he played better than me in this game. Go talk to Dru." There were at least two times that I can recall when LeBron was MVP of a game and he said, "I don't accept it because my teammate Corey Jones played better than me. I played good, but this trophy goes to Corey." Because he showed that kind of humility and didn't put himself higher than the other guys, it made it much easier.
Q. It's interesting you talk about love. I doubt that showing love is something a lot of coaches would describe as part of their job.
My faith is part of everything that I do. I can't compartmentalize it; it's who I am. My wife, the men I study the Word with, they keep me grounded in that faith. I mean, I'm human and there was a time in that first year of coaching that when the spotlight was on me, and I got caught up in the winning and losing and forgot for a moment why God had placed me there. Then after that loss in their junior season, God really spoke to me and made it clear, this is about showing his love to boys and helping them grow into young men.
I believe that God's given me a vehicle. I see coaching as very sacred. I have an opportunity to pour my life into the lives of very young minds. Outside of parenting, what greater responsibility could you have? It's not about basketball. Basketball is just the vehicle that allows me to help build their character.