CLEVELAND - Bill Walton recalled a high school game he played in more than 30 years ago in San Diego. It received lots of hype and was televised locally. After all, Walton was considered the best high school basketball player in the country.
"But it wasn't anything like this," Walton said, shaking his head and looking around the Cleveland Convocation Center.
Then again, as good as Walton was back then, he wasn't LeBron James.
James, the 17-year-old phenom from nearby Akron, was the reason Walton asked to work for ESPN2 during last night's nationally televised game between St. Vincent-St. Mary and perennial power Oak Hill (Va.) Academy, the nation's No. 1 high school team.
St. Vincent-St. Mary upset Oak Hill, 65-45.
James, who is expected to be the first player chosen in next year's NBA draft, was the reason 10 NBA scouts, including Scott Howard of the Washington Wizards, were here to see a 6-foot-8, 240-pound forward who has been compared to everyone from Magic Johnson to Michael Jordan.
James, who was dubbed "The Chosen One" in a headline for a cover story in Sports Illustrated last year, was the reason a crowd of 11,523 jammed into a building that normally draws a fraction of that for Cleveland State University home games. There were more media covering last night's game than for Jordan's first trip here as a Wizard.
With all the hoopla that accompanied him into this game - as it does every game he plays - the player nicknamed "King James" lived up to the billing. He had 31 points, 13 rebounds and six assists in the victory.
"It's not about putting on a show," James said. "I'm just happy with the way we played and the way I played. I got the troops rolling."
It took James a while to get rolling. After missing his first three shots and 10 of the 16 he took in the first half, James was dazzling in the second half.
Even more jaw-dropping than some of his shots were the passes he made to wide-open teammates. When his jumper started falling, so did Oak Hill. James made two three-pointers in a 19-2 run that helped his team overcome a 42-41 deficit.
"I thought we did a great job on him in the first half," said Oak Hill coach Steve Smith, whose team had beaten St. Vincent-St. Mary the past two years. "I figured he would play better in the second half. He makes players out of non-players."
For James, it's not a case of making believers out of skeptics. David McDay and Hardy Johnson have been following high school basketball in Ohio and around the country for the past 45 years, and they say James is the best player they have seen.
"We've seen Jerry Lucas. We went to Philly to see Kobe Bryant. We've never seen one like this," said Johnson, who played on the same high school team in Akron with former NBA stars Nate Thurmond and Gus Johnson of the Baltimore Bullets.
Last night was the first time that James showed his extraordinary talents on a national stage. It marked the first time in 13 years that ESPN chose to show a regular-season high school basketball game.
NOTE: James' surrogate father, Eddie Jackson Jr., was sentenced yesterday in Summit County court here to three years in prison for state racketeering, money laundering and forgery. Jackson, who isn't expected to begin his prison sentence until 2003, attended last night's game.