‘Freak of nature’

Pistons VP knew James was destined for stardom long ago

In his fourth NBA season, LeBron James is averaging 27 points, seven rebounds and seven assists a game.
Layne Murdoch (NBAE/Getty)
AUBURN HILLS, Mich. – John Hammond got a call from an old coaching buddy seven years ago. Keith Dambrot served under Ben Braun at Eastern Michigan when the Eagles had done some damage in the NCAA tournament and then he’d run his own program at Central Michigan. So Dambrot, who’d coached three future NBA players at EMU, wasn’t awed by talented teen-agers the way many high school coaches might have been.

But he was fairly thunderstruck by a certain Akron, Ohio, teenager who immediately became the best player on his Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary team for the 1999-2000 season.

“John probably thought here was this high school coach exaggerating,” says Dambrot, now the head coach at Akron University. “But I told him I’ve got this freshman who is going to be the best player I’d ever coached. I had Grant Long, who played with the Pistons, and (twins) Charles Thomas and Carl Thomas – both played in the NBA – and as a 14-year old, he was probably better than both of those guys.”

He, of course, was LeBron James. And by the time James was a sophomore in Dambrot’s last season at St. Vincent, he called Braun and told him he might as well stop sending the kid letters.

“Three games into his sophomore year, I told coach Braun, ‘You might as well forget it. He’s never going to go to college. It’s not even going to be close.’ After I left, he just got monstrous physically. If he would have stayed 6-4 (and 170, what James was as a freshman), he would have been a really good pro. But you add the physicalness … he’s just a freak of nature.

“Both on and off the court, he’s a genius. He just has a knack for knowing how to act and knowing what to do and when to do it. He was an unbelievable guy to coach – team-oriented, understood when to score and when to pass. Just has a really good mind and heart. That’s the best way to describe him. You just don’t find guys like him. Even to this day, if he scored eight points and his team won every game, he’d be happy.”

The Pistons would be happy, too, if they could somehow hold James to eight points Thursday night when James’ Cleveland Cavaliers host the Pistons in a nationally televised matchup of the top two teams in the NBA’s Central Division. James, now in his fourth season, is averaging 27 points, seven rebounds and seven assists a game.

“Early in his career, you might start making comparisons with basically the best who have ever played the game,” said Hammond, vice president of basketball for the Pistons now but a Los Angeles Clippers assistant coach at the time he had the conversation with Dambrot. “You start talking about Oscar Robertson, Michael Jordan, Elgin Baylor – it looks like LeBron has that kind of package because of his size, his amazing strength, his amazing quickness that he has with that size and now you’re looking at his skill development and all the things he can do on the floor.

“The guy does it all. He handles the ball, he breaks down the defense, he finds open people, he’s a great finisher to the basket, he makes his free throws, he has 3-point range – it’s hard to say there’s a weakness in his game. I guess you could say maturity – the fact that he hasn’t done it year after year after year the way superstars like Jordan, Baylor and Robertson have. Time will tell, I guess.”

Shortly after Dambrot made that phone call to Hammond, he happened to notice that an AAU event was scheduled for a Sunday in Los Angeles when he had nothing else to do.

“I thought it would be fun to go over and see some of my college coaching buddies,” Hammond said. “I walked into the gym and at these AAU events there are massive games going on at one time. I walked into the gym and I wasn’t there 30 seconds, a minute, and I saw this guy make a play – this unbelievable, athletic play. And, I swear to you, I thought to myself, ‘That’s LeBron.’ And that was going into his junior year. It’s amazing how good he was.”

If James hadn’t been such a basketball prodigy, the NFL undoubtedly would be monitoring the progress of a senior wide receiver at Ohio State with freakish size and strength – if, in fact, James hadn’t already left college for the pros. James gave up football after his junior season at St. Vincent, but high school talent evaluators like Tom Lemming had called James the best football prospect in Ohio and the best wide receiver in the nation.

“I will tell you that when I was at St. V’s, they had two football coaches who’d been in the NFL,” Dambrot said. “Jay Brophy played for Miami and has a Super Bowl ring and Mark Murphy was a strong safety for 12 years. And they told me he was a sure-fire NFL receiver. He was devastating. As a freshman, they hardly threw him the ball. He started off playing jayvee. By the end of the year he was on varsity and they’d thrown maybe two balls his way all year. In the state playoff game, he caught 11. It was like he was Randy Moss out there.

“I don’t know what his 40 time was, but I’ll tell this: If you ever watch an NBA game, there’s no one quicker from one end of the floor to the other.”

The NFL’s loss was the NBA’s gain – Cleveland’s, especially. James, at the very least, figures to be an MVP candidate for the next decade and beyond, and his enormous marketability ensures that the Cavs will be a commercial success, as well.

“I’m not going to say I knew he was going to be this good, this quickly,” Hammond said. “But you could see that kind of greatness and potential in him when he was still in high school. He had all the tools, and the thing that was so amazing about LeBron was you looked at him and wondered, is he really 17, 18? And when you talk about all that ability, the most important ability he has is the ability to make everyone on the floor around him better.

“I think of (John) Stockton and (Karl) Malone in Utah. You look over their careers and whatever other three guys they plugged in with them, their games were always elevated when they went to Utah. And when they left they were never as good. The same was true of Michael. I can guarantee you there are three guards – John Paxson, Steve Kerr and Craig Hodges – who are saying their luckiest days were playing with Michael. Many guys are going to be saying the same thing about playing with LeBron.”