The players on Roger Bacon High won't soon forget their 2002 Ohio state title-game upset of LeBron's ballyhooed team
POSTED: Jun 9, 2015 10:28 AM ET
Ex-Roger Bacon High School star Beckham Wyrick, who now plays in Europe, is pulling for LeBron James in The Finals.
CLEVELAND — Should the deadlocked 2015 NBA Finals suddenly develop a Warriors-like mentality, Stephen Curry will align his name next to the others who denied LeBron James a championship. Yes, if all goes well for Golden State against this crippled Cavaliers team, in a week or so Curry would join Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki and of course, Josh Hausfeld.
That's good company, three former MVPs, like Curry. That's one player who is considered the best power forward in NBA history, another who's surely the finest international player in NBA history, and also a top-flight regional sales manager for a Cincinnati flooring company.
As the NBA championship series swings to Ohio for the next two games, the local atmosphere will be dominated by LeBron as everyone braces for what he might do next. His heightened visibility here will also trigger a fresh round of memories for Hausfeld and a handful of high school teammates who had the honor of giving LeBron his first taste of bitter championship medicine.
Has it really been 13 years? That's what Hausfeld, Beckham Wyrick and the others often say to themselves, and so, too, would Bill Brewer if he were still alive. The coach at Roger Bacon High School was only able to admire his greatest work for five short years before a bad heart stole him much too soon from wife Peggy, their three young daughters and the feisty group of teenage boys who stared down the most hyped (if not the best) prep player of our lifetime.
Around these parts, it's a story that never really died. There aren't too many days that go by when I don't think about it.
– Former Roger Bacon High School standout Josh Hausfeld
A Sports Illustrated coverboy at 17, the No. 1 pick of the 2003 Draft at 18 and the star of an Akron prep powerhouse that barnstormed the country playing on national TV, LeBron lost only once in Ohio during his storied high school career.
That came in his junior year in the state championship game to RBHS, a small Catholic school from Cincinnati. LeBron is too busy concerning himself with keeping Curry from hitting jumpers from Lake Erie today. But, if he took time and dug into his memories, might he draw parallels between the current plight of these Cavs and the underdog team of future 9-to-5ers that shocked him and all of Ohio in 2002?
Like the Cavs without an injured Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, RBHS seemed vulnerable against LeBron and St. Vincent/St. Mary of Akron, except for the unshakable belief that they would somehow find a way to win when few thought it was possible.
"I can't explain it," Hausfeld said. "We knew it would require our best effort, and it had to be a total team effort, and everything just came together. Around these parts, it's a story that never really died. There aren't too many days that go by when I don't think about it."
Only in understanding the magnitude of James' impact -- even at a very young age -- can you comprehend what Roger Bacon did. At 12, LeBron held his own against college players in pickup games. At 15, NBA scouts were well aware of him. At 16, he would've been the first player taken in the Draft except he was just a high school sophomore. His team, affectionately known as St. V's, played before packed houses across the country and in front of ESPN cameras and was nationally ranked.
Peggy Brewer was astonished at all the attention, and on the eve of her husband's biggest game, she asked him about LeBron: My gosh, is he all that?
"He's the best player I've ever seen," Bill Brewer said.
"Can you beat him?" Peggy asked.
"I'll do my best."
He was an old-school coach at the end of an old-school era. A lot of kids today might say, 'I don't have to listen to that.' But a lot of us grew to appreciate him after we left school and got older.
– Ex-RBHS star Beckham Wyrick, on coach Bill Brewer
Bill Brewer lived to coach basketball, not only to teenage boys but third grade girls. It was his life's calling, his passion, his duty, to make sure impressionable kids knew the right way to play and prepare. He had a jagged edge that his players found difficult to embrace, and to be quite honest, some weren't thrilled with his methods and strict attention to detail.
"He was an old-school coach at the end of an old-school era," said Wyrick, the player who would guard LeBron in the title game. "A lot of kids today might say, 'I don't have to listen to that.' But a lot of us grew to appreciate him after we left school and got older. We knew what he was doing. He was teaching us about responsibility and working hard to achieve something."
Brewer didn't prepare to coach against LeBron the night before the championship game or even two nights before. He started drawing up a game plan months earlier, before the season even began.
"At the end of the 2001 season," his wife explained, "Bill knew he had all of his players coming back and that he would probably go far the next season. And if he went far, he would very likely play against LeBron. So he started thinking about it, what he would do against him, how he wanted to defend him, how his players would prepare for him."
Brewer and RBHS had the luxury of a warm-up against St. V's when the teams met during a winter tournament at Kent State. Nervous, unsure and sometimes unsteady at first, RBHS soon found itself in a tighter-than-expected game and lost 79-70. It became the fuel they kept in storage and unleashed that spring at the state tournament when the rematch, played in Columbus, was official.
A generous amount of attitude in the title game was certainly evident with Beckham, who strutted onto the court leading by his chin. Just days before, LeBron appeared in Sports Illustrated with the blazing headline that proclaimed him The Chosen One. And so when the RBHS players began announcing their defensive assignments before tipoff, Wyrick, a 6-foot-6 forward who exuded attitude, marched straight over to LeBron and bellowed: "I got the Chosen One."
And what did LeBron say?
"Uh, nothing," Wyrick said.
Moments into the game, Wyrick tried to rattle LeBron again by sticking a forearm into LeBron's jersey. But even then, LeBron was a smart and calm player who never became unraveled, a trait that wisely followed him into the NBA.
"I was in his ear the whole game and he really didn't say much," Wyrick said. "I wanted to get as physical as I could to get some sort of edge, touching him and bumping him when he came across the lane, because obviously he was such a tremendous player, far better than any of us."
I was in his ear the whole game and he really didn't say much.
– Former Roger Bacon High School star Beckham Wyrick
LeBron scored eight points in the first quarter, none in the second, and St. V's trailed 31-30 at halftime. Hausfeld thought it was odd of LeBron to vaporize during stretches, in a championship game no less.
"He seemed more laid back," Hausfeld said. "There were several occasions when he was just biting his fingernails, which he has a habit of doing. It's not that he didn't care, just a little lackadaisical. A lot of times he didn't even cross half court. Maybe he thought he could just show up and beat us."
Until LeBron dropped 24 in the second half, proving he cared.
"There wasn't a hell of a lot we could do about it," said Hausfeld. "There were flashes where the guy was just on another level."
He sank a half-court shot in the third quarter that caused the arena to vibrate. He tomahawked a dunk that nearly dazed Frank Phillips, one of Roger Bacon's second line of defenders. He got Wyrick into foul trouble and essentially did what he wanted with the ball.
Problem was, Roger Bacon never went away. The score stayed close. And LeBron's teammates, some of whom are fixtures in his inner circle today, struggled. Romeo Travis, the St. V's starting center, fouled out with three minutes left. The loss of the only other true scoring threat on St. V's meant it was LeBron against the dreamers who wanted their 15 minutes of fame.
There were 18,375 fans in the building, many to see LeBron, yet as the game progressed Wyrick heard the impartial fans begin to root hard for Roger Bacon, who eventually prevailed 71-63.
A caravan of delirious players and fans drove from Columbus back to the Cincinnati campus to celebrate, arriving late at night in a gym that was standing room only when the bus pulled up. Hausfeld, not LeBron, was named MVP after notching 23 points, seven rebounds and six assists.
"We did shake hands after the game," Hausfeld said. "He pulled me aside and said, `Hey, you're a real good player, I enjoyed playing against you, good luck in college at Miami of Ohio.' I thought that was classy of him. That was the memory I took from it. He knew about you more than you thought he did."
A few years later when Hausfeld played in the Mid-American Conference tournament, which happened to take place at Quicken Loans Arena, guess who showed up unannounced at one of the RedHawks' practices?
"Two of my college teammates actually knew LeBron, and they went over and talked with him. Then they started waving me over. They teased LeBron: `This is the guy that beat you.' LeBron just smiled and said, `Yeah, you guys played pretty good that day.' He didn't hold it against me," Hausfield said.
Four RBHS players from that team played in the NCAAs, although none were at major powerhouses and none were star players or NBA Draft picks. Wyrick has played overseas and, at 31, just returned from his ninth season in Germany, where he met his wife and had a daughter.
"Behind getting married and the birth of my daughter, that game was the best thing that happened to me in my life," he said. "Although, I really don't bring it up too much. If I have a son, I guess I'll show him the video and say, `Daddy played against the greatest player in the game' and he'll probably say, `Yeah, well so what, can I go to the playground?' "
Hausfeld spent his post-college days working in Tampa before recently returning home to take a sales job. And sure enough, back in a town that doesn't easily forget, a grainy memory was unsealed -- though not by his doing.
"The guy who I replaced was retiring and two weeks ago he had a going-away party. There was a big celebration and the way he introduced me to the company was, `This is the guy who beat LeBron.' I didn't even know he knew."
Peggy Brewer's recollection is bittersweet, savoring the victory many years later yet missing the person she'd love to share those memories with. There was a photo of Bill Brewer that ran on the front page of the local papers the morning after the title game. In it, he's holding their 2-year-old at the time, Maddy. Peggy Brewer's eyes often moisten whenever she sees it.
"She slept through the whole game and her hair was a mess but she was clutching his championship medal while he was holding her," Brewer said. "Obviously she doesn't remember the moment and she was only 7 when Bill died. But it's her favorite picture. It helps her identify with him."
And what about the player who made that game unforgettable in the first place?
LeBron never lost another Ohio state championship game, or any Ohio high school game. He's an Ohio sports icon, melting Cleveland's heart one moment, breaking it the next by moving to Miami, then rekindling the affection by returning to his home state. He's a multiple NBA MVP winner, a two-time NBA champion and in the conversation for best ever.
I want him to do well, and not just because I'm a big fan of his and root for him. The better he does, the better our win was. The greater he is, the greater our legacy gets.
– Ex-RBHS player Josh Hausfeld, on LeBron James and the Cavs
The line of admirers stretches everywhere, even to Cincy. Especially to Roger Bacon High School, whose epic victory even became the subject of a book called "The Chosen Ones: The Team That Beat LeBron" by Tony Meale.
"I don't follow the NBA," said Peggy Brewer. "I understand he's a great player but I also understand he's a great player who has done a lot of great things for a lot of people. Being a good person is more important than being a good player."
Suppose LeBron rallies the short-handed Cavs, who are being held together by paste and tape, and pulls off the upset against the Warriors? It would surely rank highest among any individual accomplishment in a team sport -- steeper than Michael Jordan's flu game in the 1997 Finals, his ankle-breaking jumper over Bryon Russell in the 1998 Finals or Magic Johnson's Game 6 (without Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) in the 1980 Finals.
That's because LeBron must do it while shorthanded for an entire series, not just one game. That would be applauded by all. A group of men in their 30s working in office jobs at the south end of the state are especially praying LeBron comes through.
"I want him to do well," said Hausfeld, "and not just because I'm a big fan of his and root for him. The better he does, the better our win was. The greater he is, the greater our legacy gets."
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