With the NBA Finals tipping off this very evening, LeBron James will once again try to win the highly-coveted prize which has found a way to escape his annual grasp. This past Sunday, author Tony Meale released his chronicles of the 2002 basketball team from Cincinnati’s Roger Bacon, the state championship team which topped Akron’s St. Vincent-St. Mary — led by one LeBron James.
The Chosen Ones relives the path of the team touted as the only Ohio prep team to topple the King James. Far surpassing any game-to-game analysis or a retrospective glimpse at box scores of old, Meale engages in countless interviews, reviews innumerable recaps, and constructs a beautiful and passionate story about a group of teenage kids, led by an amazing man, who have since been shotgunned throughout the world, many of whom no longer lace-up their basketball shoes on the regular, all of whom miss their recently deceased head coach ever so dearly.
Meale, a 2003 graduate of St. Xavier high school, recalls the process through which he decided to chase this story, the one that not only took place right in his back yard, but one which he felt included a slew of unknown information that needed to be shared.
Technically speaking, LeBron, not even six months my senior, is my peer. But it never felt that way. Cliché as it sounds, LeBron always seemed larger than life to me—and not just because he’s a foot taller. When LeBron was a junior in high school, he was well on his way to becoming a national obsession; when I was a junior in high school, I was well on my way to the prom. While I daydreamed of writing for Sports Illustrated, LeBron was on the cover. He could dunk seemingly from the free-throw line, whereas I could barely touch net. Things that seemed impossible for me seemed effortless for LeBron.
Maybe that’s where the fascination came from.
High school sports are a big deal in Ohio, especially Cincinnati. In Cincinnati, they are a religion. They are something by which people identify themselves—and each other. Where you went to high school is as much a part of you as who you marry and what you do for a living. Good or bad, for better or for worse, that’s the deal. No one questions it. Not locals, anyway.
By the time I was a junior in 2001-02, I had come to expect this from Bacon. I wasn’t surprised when the Spartans beat us that year, nor was I surprised when they kept advancing in the postseason tournament. But all along I knew what awaited them: LeBron James and Akron St. Vincent–St. Mary. And that’s exactly what happened. I read a game preview the day of the state final, fully expecting a slaughter. Rooting for Bacon to win never even crossed my mind; I was simply hoping for a close game.
And then I went on with my Saturday.
The next day—March 24, 2002—I opened the Sunday edition of the Cincinnati Enquirer (for this was a time when people still learned of news via newspaper) and discovered that Bacon, somehow, had won. I read the coverage, stunned, scores of thoughts meandering my mind.
Colossal misprint? Joke? Hoax?
But the 16-year-old in me realized those explanations were as unlikely as Bacon’s victory, and soon I kept thinking the same four words over and over again.
They actually did it.
Certainly, the actual game plays a substantial role in the story. There’s LeBron and Romeo Travis and Dru Joyce, the faces of 2008′s More Than a Game. But the group which was a collective protagonist in Kristopher Belman’s documentary becomes the antagonist of sorts in Meale’s narration which also includes all of the aspects of underdoggery one could imagine — the carpooling and benchings, the heroics and heartbreak, the players who were on the brink of walking out on the entire thing due to a demanding head coach, and the deep sorrow and regret of those who did. Meale was not in attendance for Bacon’s startling 71-63 victory; this was not a recount of one fan’s experience. It’s a story constructed from the eyes, ears, mouths and hearts of every person touched by the 2002 Spartans.
John Erardi of the Cincinnati Enquirer dubbed this story as “Hoosiers” crossing paths with “Remember the Titans.” Cinncinnati is understandably a completely different market than that of Cleveland, but to say that high school sports near the lake are any less intense would be a complete fallacy. If the LeBron James-St. Vincent-St. Mary angle isn’t enough to draw you in, the collective hope, passion and family-like attributes of the Roger Bacon story should finish the job. It’s a story about basketball, sure. But it’s one that any sports fan can relate to — it’s about loss, about gain, about togetherness, motivation, and, most importantly, about triumph against all odds.
The fact the story takes place just a few hours south on Interstate-71 makes it all the better.