And then the actual idea for the tournament came during my son’s first college basketball game in November/December 2003, the University of Akron — where he was a scholarship player — went to play the University of Cincinnati, in Cincinnati. And I looked at the Cincinnati roster and there were four kids from Texas on the roster and no one from Ohio. And I’m like, how could that be? We had just, with the high school teams, played all around the country, and I just felt like Ohio basketball was underrepresented. God steered this whole thing and you can just see his work. People who I thought I met for one reason turned out to be for another reason, and we were able to get the support of the state governing body and put on this tournament, and from that point it grew to where it’s at today. And God really showed his hand in it last year when the NCAA, for whatever reason, decided that they would no longer allow their coaches to come out to tournaments in April. So both tournaments were about half the size they had been, but our tournament, we were down maybe 20 teams. We still had over 500 teams last year, which really just shows how God has blessed what we were doing.
BH: You talk about faith in the film. They show you in church and with your pastor, and your team practices at the Salvation Army early on. During LeBron’s career in high school, the national spotlight starts getting really intense — by senior year he’s all over ESPN, nationally televised high school games etc. It’s really something we haven’t seen in decades for a high school basketball player. That’s got to be a very difficult experience for a 17- to 18-year-old kid and for that matter, his teammates. How did that affect all of you and the way you talked to the team about faith?
CJ: What we talked about at that point was the fact that you’re only as strong as the number 13 and 14 on the bench, because basketball is a team sport. It’s not about an individual. LeBron never won a game by himself. He’s always needed the complement of teammates, and one thing that they recognize is that for the team to be great all of them had to sacrifice. LeBron could have gone to another high school and scored 50 points every game. He didn’t. And my son and Romeo could have been at a different high school and scored 25 or 30 points a game, and they didn’t. But they all recognized that they were going to sacrifice some of their own talent and some of their own desires or maybe some of their own abilities for the good of the team and accept a different role, maybe. And that’s what they did. And we talked about that a lot, that one of the key principles in life is sacrifice, and you’re gonna need to understand and be able to sacrifice some of yourself to get some things done.
BH: The movie really describes well how you go through a transformation in your own life and approach to coaching where you say, “I’m not really about making basketball players; my goal is to help young men grow up and show them how to be men of character.” What was that like, being in the front seat for that white-hot media storm in the last couple of years of LeBron’s career in high school? What was that like to see that amount of celebrity and that crush of fans, and how did it affect you, and for that matter, how did you see LeBron change?
CJ: Well, you know, how it affected me is, [laughs] honestly, as this thing grew, the cover of the Sports Illustrated and the people wanting to just come — 30, 40, 50 people wanting to just come — sit in a practice; and, you know, the media wanted to build him up and some people who would want to try to find out any negative thing that they could find out; and honestly there was just really no one I could ask, no one I could really turn to, so I just really relied on the people around me, my family, my church family, to pray, and to really try to get some guidance and some semblance of how to manage all this. And me being a first year coach, it was way beyond what most guys experience in that first year of coaching. So the challenge for me was to be able to manage it and yet try to keep them focused on the winning and not allow the success to go to their heads.
We were successful to some degree but we weren’t successful in the sense that the arrogance of celebrity — not just for LeBron but for all of them — it caught up with us and we lost that state championship game their junior year which was one of the kind of defeats that you don’t ever want to have. But if there was ever an opportune time to lose, to get a point across to some young men, that was it. And through that loss they rededicated themselves to the game. I had to be honest with myself, that I wasn’t so concerned about winning and losing that I really forgot why God placed me there. And that was to help them grow into men and into men of God, to be men of character. I made it my business that from that point forward everything we did was going to speak to character and how character was going to take them a whole lot further than basketball was ever going to take them.
BH: You’ve known LeBron since he was 11 and now he’s one of the most famous personalities in the world. After all this time and all that has happened, is there anything about LeBron that you still see in him that people might not know about?
CJ: The one thing that really always stands out with LeBron is his loyalty to his friends. I mean, they’re friends to this day. He doesn’t act — he doesn’t try to put on airs will all the success he’s had. He’s still the same person with them; he recognizes that without those guys he may not be where he is today. So he shows a lot of loyalty to them, and that’s just a quality that he’s shown all the way through. A loyalty to me when people will try to pull him away to a different high school, and a loyalty to his friends throughout the whole process. And now that he’s in the NBA he continues to show that same loyalty that he had as a young man.