By Greg Bach
Dru Joyce remembers the conversation from nearly 20 years ago vividly.
As a youth basketball coach in Akron, Ohio, he was driving his son and another 10-year-old boy by the name of LeBron James – yes, him – home from basketball practice at the local Salvation Army gym on Maple Street.
“I had a conversation with LeBron the first year I started coaching him because most little kids who are pretty talented they dribble down the court and they take every shot – because they can,” recalled Joyce via a phone interview with SK Live. “I remember driving home from that practice with my son and LeBron and I told him, ‘LeBron, you’re talented beyond belief but if you share the ball everyone will want to play with you.’ And he got it. I never had to have that conversation with him again. He got it because he was around my son and that’s how I raised him to play, too. And that’s how they developed. It wasn’t about them, it was about the team.”
Joyce coached LeBron, his son and several other youngsters throughout their youth, on AAU teams and later on in high school too at now-renowned St. Vincent-St. Mary High School, where they won three state championships and a national championship.
“I tell people all the time that I was blessed to meet LeBron at the tender age of 10-years-old,” says Joyce, the author of the recently released book Beyond Championships: A Playbook for Winning at Life. “He was a young kid who had a gleam in his eye and a desire to just be a kid and enjoy life. I was fortunate to be someone who got involved at that early age.”
And LeBron – who slept on a lot of couches during his childhood and never had a permanent home until his 16th birthday – was fortunate to have Joyce in his life.
“Coach Dru taught me about life,” James wrote in the Foreward to Joyce’s book. “On the court, the goal will always be to win a title. But off the court, the more important goal remains to shape the lives of young people in the community in the same way that Coach Dru shaped mine. And if I can do that, even just a little bit, then I will have accomplished something that means so much more to me than any championship.”
LeBron and Joyce’s son Dru forged a special friendship, and along with two other youngsters on the team they became inseparable and dubbed themselves the Fab Four, an adaptation from the Fab Five nickname of the famous University of Michigan college basketball teams of the early ’90s. Soon, LeBron and the other boys were spending countless nights at the Joyce home for dinners, movies, video games and sleepovers.
“They might not have been blood, but they were definitely brothers,” Joyce writes in his book.
After honing their skills at that Salvation Army gym the group began venturing outside of Akron – something many of the boys had never had the opportunity to do – to play stronger competition in AAU tournaments. The boys would cram into Joyce’s minivan, and he and his wife would drive them to tournaments.
“They just became great friends and they loved one another and lived for one another,” Joyce says.
For Joyce, it was an unexpected adventure as well, finding himself in the position of not only youth basketball coach but role model and mentor to many kids who had no family life.
“I kept my ego out of it,” Joyce says. “I didn’t care if I didn’t know; if I could put LeBron in the presence of somebody else who did know I would do that and I think LeBron appreciated that at a young age that ‘Coach Dru just wants us to get better. He doesn’t care about all those other things – who’s doing the teaching, and who’s getting the credit’ because it was more important to me that all those young men had dreams that they wanted to accomplish and I just saw myself as someone who was there to help facilitate that.”
Joyce recently wrapped up his 13th season as the boys basketball coach at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School, where he continues to impact young lives.
Interestingly, the team now plays its home games at The LeBron James Arena. Named after the school’s most well-known graduate – Class of 2003 – the facility looks nothing like the one James and his friends played in during their high school days. That’s because the facility received a major makeover thanks to James’ $1 million contribution.
“He’s a phenomenal athlete but as his talent grew in the sport it’s his basketball IQ that set him apart,” Joyce says. “People think it’s his size and his athleticism, but it’s not. What sets him apart is his understanding of the game and the process it takes to be great. He’s always involved himself in the process. As a coach when you see those kinds of things that you talked about with him as a young kid it makes you feel good because that’s the one thing that we always stressed with him.”
Check out Part II of our conversation with Dru Joyce for his tips on building confidence and connecting with players HERE.
Long-time college football coach and author of Coaching is Teaching at its Best on being a difference maker in young lives through the power of sport
Princeton basketball coach Courtney Banghart, the 2015 Naismith Coach of the Year and widely recognized as one of the game’s great leaders, on what you need to know to get the most from your young athletes
Former college soccer midfielder and long-time youth coach Jillian Carroll on inspiring young athletes to work together and perform at their best on the field and in their lives
Former Stanford great Nicole Powell, head women’s basketball coach at Grand Canyon University, on creating team cultures where players genuinely care for and support each other