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Dru Joyce, LeBron’s high school coach, is building his own legacy in Akron

His annual basketball classic has grown into a premier event

Just days before “The Shot” by LeBron James, the dramatic game-winner on Wednesday that lifted the Cleveland Cavaliers over the Indiana Pacers, Dru Joyce II, who coached the 14-time NBA All-Star in high school, was asked whether he could have predicted the athletic success of the world’s best player.

“After his freshman year I knew he would play big-time college basketball, and by his junior year I figured he would go straight to the NBA,” Joyce said. “But what he’s doing right now? A couple of weeks ago I sent him a text saying, ‘You never cease to amaze me.’ ”

The Cavaliers will look to clinch their tough first-round series on Friday in Indianapolis, and under normal circumstances, Joyce would be in front of the television. But he won’t get that chance this weekend, as he’ll be hosting the 15th year of the Dru Joyce Basketball Classic, which begins Friday and runs through Sunday.

Joyce launched the tournament in Akron because he felt Ohio kids were being under-recruited. The year after coaching the St. Vincent-St. Mary high school team that featured James and his son, Dru Joyce III, to the 2003 national championship, Joyce went to a University of Akron game to see his son play against Cincinnati.

“The Cincinnati roster had four players from Texas and just one player from Ohio,” Joyce said. “We had just traveled around the country and beat everybody, and I’m thinking why does one of the main college teams from Ohio get its players from Texas?”

What Joyce learned was that the Texas high school governing body allowed sanctioned travel tournaments that college coaches could attend, so Joyce decided to create a similar event in Ohio. He pitched his vision to government officials in Akron in January 2004, and the city threw its support behind Joyce.

He envisioned 200 teams playing in his first tournament in 2004, which was called the LeBron James Shooting Stars Classic. But 318 teams registered (grades four to 11), playing games on 45 gym floors throughout Akron and Kent, Ohio.

“We didn’t have any full-time staff, just a bunch of volunteers, and we were scrambling,” Joyce said. “We learned a hard lesson that year.”

Yet the college coaches showed up, thus creating a premier amateur basketball event in Ohio. The event grew for five straight years — until the NCAA imposed restrictions that kept the college coaches away for three years.

Joyce was concerned that the tournament would falter without the college coaches, but the teams kept coming to the tournament, which now includes players from second to 11th grade.

“We had grown so much with the younger ages that it continued to be successful,” Joyce said. “It got to the point where we weren’t just showcasing Ohio talent, but players from all over came to Akron to play. Just look at the NBA rosters; there are quite a few players who have come through our tournament.”

That long list includes Kemba Walker (Charlotte Hornets), Tyreke Evans (Memphis Grizzlies), Brandon Knight (Phoenix Suns), Terry Rozier (Boston Celtics), Greg Monroe (Celtics) and C.J. McCollum (Portland Trail Blazers).

“It was just a great experience for me to play in front of a lot of college coaches in an environment like that,” said McCollum, a native of Canton, Ohio, who played in the tournament in 2008. “I appreciate Coach Joyce for creating something that brought the best players in the nation to Ohio.”

Those top players gave the tournament credibility, and in the event’s second year, crowds were there anticipating seeing Derrick Rose, who came into the 2006 tournament as the No. 8-ranked high school player in the nation.

At the time of its scheduled game, Rose’s team was watching another team play in a different facility. The referees forfeited the game, leaving hundreds of fans unhappy.

“I had to stand by my referees, but that was a hard lesson to learn,” Joyce said. “After that, I let everyone know that no game gets forfeited unless I call it.”

The tournament expanded to include Nashville (that event was held last weekend) and ultimately changed its name from the LeBron James Shooting Stars Classic to The Dru Joyce Classic.

“LeBron’s legacy is so big that it doesn’t need any help from me,” said Joyce, whose St. Vincent-St. Mary team celebrated its eighth state championship in March. “I decided that I have two sons and I can grow this into something where we can build our own legacy.”

That doesn’t mean that James is detached. Last May, he took a break from the playoffs to watch his son, LeBron James Jr., lead his sixth-grade team to the championship of its division.

“I’m so busy with making sure everything is going smoothly that I don’t get a chance to watch the games,” Joyce said. “But LeBron’s son was playing at the University of Akron where we have our war room, and to see LeBron there watching his son play in the tournament was special.”

James might be too busy this weekend to catch any of the games in the Dru Joyce Classic. Joyce will be busy as well, but he’ll be encouraging all the kids he encounters to take lessons from his most famous player.

“I tell the kids all the time that they see the finished product, but what they don’t see is the work that he continues to put in,” Joyce said. “There are no shortcuts. And with LeBron, all these kids can learn from the fact that great things can happen if you put in the effort.”

Jerry Bembry is a senior writer at Andscape. His bucket list items include being serenaded by Lizz Wright and watching the Knicks play a MEANINGFUL NBA game in June.