MIAMI — The first trophy LeBron James won was in football, not basketball. It sits in his mother’s house in Akron, Ohio.
Well, it better still be there. James knows it has been in the news that Kobe Bryant is trying to stop his mother from auctioning off memorabilia from his youth.
“I’ll get my mom on the phone after I leave here,’’ the Miami Heat star joked after practice Saturday about making sure Gloria James has no Pamela Bryant-like thoughts.
James, 28, officially will be named the winner of his fourth NBA MVP trophy Sunday. All of these awards he’s been getting started 19 years ago when he was growing up in Akron.
“I played Little League football and we won the city championship, and I was awarded the MVP,’’ James said. “I was 9. I had 24 touchdowns in six games. It’s a true story. I played for the East Dragons. You can ask anyone that grew up with me.’’
The story checks out. Frank Walker, then an assistant coach for the Dragons, thought James back then was a better football than basketball player.
“That was an incredible season,’’ Walker said by phone from Akron about the 1994 campaign. “He would have scored a lot more touchdowns, but I couldn’t play him the whole game. He played running back and defensive end. He ran like (Hall of Famer) Eric Dickerson. He ran straight ahead. He was like Dickerson except without the goggles.’’
Walker also played a role in the first basketball trophy James got. But there’s a twist to that story.
After James completed the football season, he played organized basketball for the first time. Walker was head coach of the Summit Lake Community Center Hornets during the 1994-95 season, when James was 9 and then turned 10. Walker didn’t want to award one player the MVP.
“We won the championship,’’ James said. “Frank Walker gave the whole team the MVP because no individual is bigger than the team.’’
Walker said he wanted to teach his players the value of teamwork. He also didn’t want to give James, who was clearly the best player on the team, a “big head.’’
“I wanted to keep (James) grounded, so I wanted everybody to be MVP, which was good for the team,’’ Walker said. “I think that opened LeBron’s mind to the importance of teamwork.’’
It sure did. James long has been regarded as a very unselfish player.
Walker said James’ first basketball trophy, like those the other Hornets players received, was about 2 ½-feet tall. He said the trophies were paid for by money made from selling concessions.
Walker, who now does custodial work for the Akron Urban League, has played a big role in James’ life. When there were some difficulties at the single-parent home he shared with his mother, James lived with Walker and his wife, Pam, for a year and parts of others between the ages of 9 and 11.
“He helped me grow, not only as a basketball player but as a young man,’’ James said. “When I moved in with him, me and my mother were having little struggles. He taught me responsibility and he gave me chores around the house. He taught me how important education is. Not only Frank Walker, but also Pam Walker. They taught me a lot. He taught me how to make a left-handed layup. Now, I use my left hand every single day on the basketball floor.’’
After James hit a game-winning left-handed layup in a 97-96 March win over Orlando, James credited Walker. James has mentioned Walker in previous MVP-acceptance speeches, and he might again Sunday.
“Right now, we are seeing history in front of our very eyes,’’ Walker said about James winning his fourth NBA MVP. “But we were witnesses to it all back then (when James was Pee Wee player).
“He was a very good basketball player. But, at first, we were just giving him something to do after football season. I thought his future was going to be in football. I thought he would be an All-American in college.’’
Dru Joyce II, who would become James’ basketball coach in AAU and for his last two years at Akron’s St. Vincent-St. Mary High School, actually saw James for the first time when he was playing football. He went to watch his son, Dru Joyce III, play for the West Griffins against James’ Dragons.
“There was this kid who ran for a touchdown every time he touched the ball,’’ Joyce II said.
That kid would go on to help St. Vincent-St. Mary win three Ohio state basketball championships, one when Joyce II coached James. Interestingly, Joyce II said the school didn’t hand out a basketball MVP award, saying James’ “MVPs were state championships.’’
So when it comes to MVP trophies, James must be content with those from the NBA and from his Pee Wee days. The latter ones are on display in Akron.
“My mom … has all my Little League trophies,’’ James said. “She won’t give them to me.’’
As long as she isn’t planning to sell any, James seems OK with that.