LeBron vs. Carmelo: The story of their epic first battle

Jeff Eisenberg
·13 min read

On the eve of a game that pitted high school basketball’s two best players against each other, Carmelo Anthony’s coach spotted something he did not like.

Steve Smith worried that Carmelo had grown too close to LeBron James to be at his sharpest for the highly anticipated 2002 showdown between Oak Hill Academy and St. Vincent-St. Mary.

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Each time Smith came downstairs at the Pennsylvania hotel where both teams stayed, he found Carmelo and LeBron in the lobby laughing with one another or deep in conversation. The two phenoms chatted late into the night about their common experiences, from growing up in neighborhoods rife with gunfire and blaring sirens, to finding salvation in basketball, to having to rapidly adjust to the perks and pitfalls of teenage superstardom.

At one point Smith pulled Carmelo aside and asked his star player, “You do realize we have to play this guy, right? Are you going to be able to go at him?”

Carmelo shot down his coach’s concerns with a dismissive look. “Trust me,” he told Smith. “When the lights go on and the ball goes up, we’re winning that game.”

Eighteen years after they faced one another for the first time as high school phenoms, LeBron and Carmelo are squaring off again this week as aging NBA veterans. LeBron’s Lakers and Carmelo’s Trail Blazers opened the NBA’s most intriguing first-round playoff series Tuesday night at the league’s Disney World bubble.

While LeBron and Carmelo have produced some memorable NBA games, the two close friends and cutthroat competitors have yet to top their lone high school matchup. This is the story of that memorable duel 18 years ago in which two future NBA stars battled in one of the most hyped high school basketball games of all time.

(Courtesy of Oak Hill Academy/Getty Images)
(Courtesy of Oak Hill Academy/Getty Images)

LeBron begins to turn heads

Long before LeBron James sold out arenas, schmoozed with celebrities and graced magazine covers, his first high school coach had an inkling he could be special.

St. Vincent-St. Mary's Keith Dambrot told the three professional basketball players he had previously coached that he had a skinny 14-year-old who was already better than each of them.

"They probably thought I was crazy," Dambrot told Yahoo Sports, "but even then LeBron was so skilled and so smart."

It was 1999, and LeBron did not yet possess the sculpted 6-foot-8, 250-pound physique that would soon become his trademark. When he and childhood friends Dru Joyce III, Sian Cotton and Willie McGee enrolled at St. Vincent-St. Mary, LeBron stood 6-foot-3, 170 pounds with a baby face and spindly arms and legs.

Over the next few years, LeBron underwent a physical transformation without losing any of his explosiveness or floor vision. Dambrot and successor Dru Joyce II also instilled a tireless work ethic in the young superstar, demanding discipline and attention to detail and holding LeBron accountable when he did not deliver.

It's difficult to pinpoint a single game that catapulted LeBron to teenaged stardom, but there are a few early signature moments that hastened his ascent. He dazzled scouts at the famed Five-Star Camp the summer after his freshman year of high school. A year later at the ABCD Camp, he outshined Lenny Cooke, then the premier high school player in the country. In between, he nearly engineered an upset of high school basketball's most dominant program.

Oak Hill Academy was the model for today's boarding school powerhouses, a perennial juggernaut that attracted waves of talent to rural Virginia with the promise of a national schedule, elite coaching and increased visibility. The 2000-01 Warriors were especially loaded, with 7-foot lottery pick DeSagana Diop, Kentucky-bound McDonald's All-American Rashaad Carruth and a slew of other high-major prospects.

Already accustomed to big crowds and elite competition, Oak Hill wasn't the least bit intimidated flying to Ohio to face a sophomore-laden St. Vincent-St. Mary team riding a 36-game winning streak. Then LeBron started throwing down crowd-pleasing dunks during pregame warmups, and the Warriors took a collective gulp.

"He was dunking like Vince Carter in high school with his face at the rim," former Oak Hill forward Antywane Robinson recalled. "We were all down on the other end looking like, ‘Who is this kid?’”

LeBron was by far the best player on the floor that night, scoring 33 points on an array of high-flying dunks and off-balance jump shots. Only LeBron's missed jumper at the buzzer enabled Oak Hill to escape with a 79-78 win.

"I told everybody after that game, 'That's the best sophomore I've ever seen,' " longtime Oak Hill coach Steve Smith told Yahoo Sports. "I had Jerry Stackhouse and Ron Mercer in the 1990s. I'd seen all the good players at the Nike All-American camp. I had a pretty good idea of what a really good high school player looked like, and I'd never seen anybody that good."

The near-miss elevated the stature of LeBron and his teammates, yet left them hungrier than ever for a signature win. They'd get another crack at Oak Hill the following winter, but by then the Warriors had a potent new weapon to deploy.

The arrival of ’Melo

Robinson expected to start at small forward for Oak Hill during the 2001-02 season until the Temple-bound senior received a call from his coach.

Steve Smith revealed that a heralded small forward from Baltimore named Carmelo Anthony had enrolled at Oak Hill, leaving Robinson the option of either playing out of position at power forward or competing for playing time with the newcomer.

At first, Robinson was stubborn. He refused to surrender his role without a fight, not even to a polished future lottery pick with uncanny skill and shooting ability for his size. On move-in day, Oak Hill's basketball players gathered in the gym for a pick-up game. After making sure they were on opposite teams, Robinson pointed at Carmelo and boldly said, "I've got him."

On the game's first possession, Carmelo sank a pull-up jumper over Robinson's outstretched hands. Robinson shook it off and thought to himself, "That's cute. Anybody can do that."

Moments later, Carmelo got Robinson to bite on a pump fake, blew by him and dunked. This time Robinson shook his head and mumbled to himself, "Whoah, I ain't ever seen that move before."

By the time Carmelo scored his fourth straight basket, Robinson understood what he was up against.

"Coach Smith was sitting in the corner with a smile on his face like, ‘I told you,’” Robinson told Yahoo Sports. "I politely went over to coach after that and said, 'Yeah, Coach, I think I'll move to power forward.' "

If Robinson was at all embarrassed after that initial pick-up game, he surely felt better once the season got under way. Carmelo gave buckets to everyone and immediately emerged as the top threat on a loaded team with nine future Division I recruits.

The distraction-free environment at Oak Hill benefited Carmelo, as did the school's culture of structure and discipline. The Syracuse-bound forward bolstered his previously sinking grades and worked harder than he ever had during workouts and in the weight room just as his future college coaches hoped when they encouraged him to transfer for his senior year.

The most trouble Carmelo got in at Oak Hill came when school administrators searched his dorm room and found “contraband.” Before he left for class that morning, Carmelo had forgotten to open the cabinet and hide the TV that he and roommate Justin Gray had smuggled in against school rules.

"My guy got lazy on us and they gave us detention," Gray told Yahoo Sports with a chuckle. "We were shoveling horse poop because my man was running late and forgot to put the TV up."

All of Carmelo's hard work set the stage for a scintillating February showdown between nationally ranked teams. On one side was perennial juggernaut Oak Hill, headlined by the No. 1 prospect in the senior class. On the other side was upstart St. Vincent-St. Mary, headlined by the No. 1 prospect in the junior class.

It had all the makings of a bitter grudge match ... except LeBron and Carmelo always viewed themselves as friends first and rivals second.

LeBron and ’Melo face off

LeBron and Carmelo first crossed paths more than six months before their lone high school showdown. They introduced themselves and exchanged phone numbers during the summer of 2001 at a USA Basketball camp in Colorado Springs they both attended.

The mutual admiration was evident a few months later when LeBron’s high school coach told him St. Vincent-St. Mary had scheduled a rematch with Oak Hill.

“The first thing out of his mouth was that he had a lot of respect for Carmelo,” Dru Joyce II told Yahoo Sports. “LeBron said he's very, very good, and he didn't talk about players being good flippantly. When he said someone was good, trust me, he was good.”

Oak Hill might have underestimated LeBron and his supporting cast the previous season, but Smith wasn’t about to allow that to happen a second time.

The week of the game, Smith reminded his team over and over that St. Vincent-St. Mary brought back almost everyone from the previous year. Smith even kicked his players out of the gym halfway through a lethargic practice, screaming at them that LeBron would blow them out by 20 if they gave an effort like that on game night.

“Lebron had 33 on us last year as a sophomore and we only won by one point,” Smith bellowed. “Don't go into this game thinking he doesn't have a chip on his shoulder.”

The respect between LeBron and Carmelo, and between St. Vincent-St. Mary and Oak Hill didn’t diminish the pregame hype. Promoter Jeff Hewitson had set up the matchup to try to sell tickets and generate buzz, and, to say the least, it worked.

More than 11,000 fans showed up at Sovereign Bank Arena in Trenton, New Jersey, for a high school game between two out-of-state teams. Danny Ainge sat courtside. So did Kobe Bryant’s father, Joe “Jellybean” Bryant. Also in the stands were about 150 credentialed media members, several of whom came from as far as China.

Anyone in the arena that day didn’t go home disappointed. Oak Hill rotated a few defenders onto LeBron to give him different looks and to protect Carmelo from fatigue or foul trouble, but for brief stretches, both coaches gave the fans the 1-on-1 matchup that they wanted to see. In return, LeBron and Carmelo delivered an individual battle for the ages, dazzling the crowd and even their peers with behind-the-back passes, soaring blocks and video game-worthy dunks.

“’Melo was the biggest, most skilled player I’ve ever seen,” former St. Vincent-St. Mary’s forward Romeo Travis told Yahoo Sports. “Normally in high school back then, if you were 6-8, you had your back to the basket and you were playing in the post. He was bringing the ball up, dribbling between his legs and shooting from distance. Sometimes you catch yourself in awe of how skilled these guys were.”

Wearing American flag-themed Kobe Bryant basketball shoes hand-delivered that weekend by the Lakers star himself, LeBron torched Oak Hill for 36 points, eight rebounds, five assists and six steals. He kept St. Vincent-St. Mary in striking distance during the second half with several off-balance jumpers.

Carmelo played his friend to a virtual draw, tallying 34 points and 11 rebounds. He reeled off 13 straight Oak Hill points during one second-half stretch, matching LeBron bucket for bucket and never allowing St. Vincent-St. Mary to mount a serious charge.

“Being on the court, there were times I’d even catch myself watching these guys,” Gray said. “I’d throw the ball to ’Melo and he’d have that look in his eye like he was not passing. And that was fine with us. We wanted ’Melo to get that shine.”

In the final seconds of the game, with Oak Hill’s 72-66 victory already sealed, Joyce removed LeBron from the game to allow him to receive a well-deserved ovation. Smith responded by doing the same for Carmelo, who also drew raucous applause.

“I think our bench stood up to clap for those guys and the coaches too,” Smith said. “It was one of those games you were glad you were part of.”

LeBron finally gets his

For LeBron and his giant-slaying St. Vincent-St. Mary teammates, the third swing at mighty Oak Hill was the blow that finally landed.

In December 2002, with ESPN’s Dick Vitale and Bill Walton behind the microphone, a national TV audience watched the boys from Akron pull away from another top-ranked Oak Hill team with talented players from across the country. The 65-45 rout avenged St. Vincent-St. Mary’s two previous narrow losses and served notice that it had arrived as a legitimate national power.

“USA Today ranked us 23rd coming into that season and we took it personally,” Joyce said. “We felt a little disrespected. To be able to beat Oak Hill early that year, that put us on the path to where we wanted to go. We wanted to win that mythical national championship, and to beat Oak Hill was a big step forward.”

The rest of that season was a coronation for King James and his teammates. Playing in front of celebrity fans, standing room-only crowds and pay-per-view TV audiences, St. Vincent-St. Mary stormed to a third state title in four seasons and also whipped a Top 10-ranked Mater Dei team in Los Angeles.

At the end of that school year, LeBron left for the NBA having cemented himself as one of the greatest high school basketball players in history. Carmelo became the first one-and-done college player to lead his team to an NCAA championship and then joined LeBron in the 2003 NBA draft, where they went Nos. 1 and 3, respectively.

While LeBron and Carmelo ascended to new levels of fame in the NBA, many of their former teammates were left to marvel at what they had just experienced playing alongside them during high school.

“The abnormal became normal,” Travis said. “Shaq came to a game. So did Allen Iverson. We used to get mad when we didn’t have police escorts or a pregame meal.

“When I went to college, I had to really reset my mind. It was regression in a lot of ways. For example, in high school, we flew everywhere. At the University of Akron, we took the bus.”

In 2007, Robinson earned an invitation to play for the Atlanta Hawks during training camp. The Oak Hill product lasted long enough to play in a handful of preseason games, one of which happened to be a victory over LeBron’s Cleveland Cavaliers.

At the end of that game, Robinson approached LeBron and pounced on a rare chance to trash talk an all-time great.

“I said, 'Still, haven't lost to you,'” Robinson recalled with a laugh. “He looked at me like, ‘Man, get outta here.’ ”

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