I haven’t been to very many historical sporting events. No World Cup. No Super Bowl. No championship-clinching win. I was there for the final Philadelphia Eagles win at Veterans Stadium in 2002, went to a few NLDS and NLCS games in 2008 as the Phillies rolled towards a title, and attended a few NBA Playoff games, but they were appetizers. The biggest event I’ve ever attended was the final game of Michael Jordan’s career and while that was great, it’s not like it was the 63-point game at the Boston Garden in 1986 or Game 6 of the ’98 Finals in Utah.
It’s possible that the most hyped sporting event I’ve ever attended was a high school basketball game. LeBron James was a star long before he entered the NBA. He was on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a junior. He was such a big deal that ESPN began broadcasting all of his games, one of the first times a network had done that.
So when it was announced that The Chosen One would be playing in Philly at the Palestra in the fourth annual Scholastic Play-by-Play Network Classic, I snatched up tickets.
There was a buzz in the air. The legendary gym had sold out all 9,000 seats. LeBron’s St. Vincent-St. Mary team was 5 – 0 and came from Akron, Ohio, but they would be spending much of their season traveling the country, showcasing one of the best high school prospects ever.
But LeBron wasn’t the only high school star in the building that day.
The team that ostensibly hosted St. Vincent-St. Mary, Strawberry Mansion, wasn’t a pushover. They had won the Philadelphia Public League the year prior and were led by Maureece Rice. The most prolific scorer in the history of Philadelphia high school basketball, Rice’s 2,681 career points is more than even Wilt Chamberlain scored in his time at Overbrook. Unlike James, Rice didn’t have NBA scouts salivating – he was only six-feet tall and thicker than most high school players – but he had an absolutely devastating crossover.
The game was over quickly. James dominated at the start and then coasted the rest of the way while Rice didn’t score until there was less than a minute left in the third quarter and his team was down by 35.
Fittingly, Allen Iverson was in attendance for the best sequence of the game. And, after waiting and waiting, the fans got to see the two go head-to-head:
After three quarters in which St. Vincent-St. Mary ran away from Strawberry Mansion with its stifling press and its quickness, the crowd erupted in cheers and encouraged James and Rice to go at each other. The two combined for 18 of the 42 points scored in the fourth period.
At one point, James came down the right side of the court, shimmied a bit, and drilled a jumper. But Rice came back at him. Nearly a decade later, a profile of Rice would set the scene:
Nine years ago, inside a cramped, sold-out Palestra, Maureece Rice’s wicked handles added 17-year-old LeBron James as their latest victim. James’ ankles shuffled in confusion before crumbling beneath him. The future NBA scoring champion righted himself with his outstretched palms and bounced back to his feet.
Rice’s ensuing jumper missed the mark. Yet no one seemed to notice. The crowd had been given what it wanted.
The place erupted, but it was far too little, far too late.
LeBron seemed unfazed by it all. After all, his team won 85 – 47 and he finished with 26 points, 8 rebounds, and 5 assists, and 7 steals, a stat line that would become his trademark. And he had already been famous for a few years. Iverson had joined Shaquille O’Neal, Darius Miles, and other pros that had gone to see one of his high school games.
Beyond the stats, you could just see the difference between the two players. One was an inner city guard with a great handle and a decent shot that could score, but didn’t have the size or the quickness to play in the pros. The other was a complete player that could do it all and had unlimited potential and athleticism to go along with his NBA-ready physique. I remember thinking that he looked like an older brother or uncle playing steady point guard with a bunch of kids.
LeBron has won two titles, two Olympic gold medals, and has been to five consecutive NBA Finals. He’s a four-time MVP and twelve-time All-Star. He was the best player on the planet for upwards of a decade, so it’s easy to forget that there was a time when he was still only a high school prospect, one that could possibly – if not likely – fail to live up to expectations. It’s not like he would’ve been the first.
But being there, you could see that he was special. I thought the same when I saw Kobe play in high school. There was a magnetism, a charisma that went beyond what happened on the court. They knew they were destined for greater things. It was only the sixth game of his senior season, but you could see that he was the real deal.
Even with Iverson in the building, James stole the show.
Believe the hype.
Christopher Pierznik is the author of eight books, all of which can be purchased in paperback and Kindle. His work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, The Cauldron, Medium, and many more. Subscribe to his monthly reading review newsletter or follow him on Facebook or Twitter.