LeBron James is headlining the Palestra’s most star-studded event in recent memory on Sunday, but it won’t be the first time the King has held court at the Cathedral.
On Dec. 22, 2002, a 17-year-old James, who at that point was still described by The Philadelphia Inquirer as a “boy wonder,” led St. Vincent-St. Mary High School of Akron, Ohio, to an 85-47 victory over Strawberry Mansion High School.
The sold-out crowd of 8,722, which included then-76er Allen Iverson, watched James fill up the stat sheet with 26 points, eight rebounds, five assists and seven steals.
The game capped the first day of high-school basketball hosted by Penn in four years after gunmen killed a fan outside the Palestra following the 1998 Public League final.
The St. Vincent-St. Mary Irish played at several prominent basketball venues during James’s high-school career, but after hearing about the Palestra from a Philadelphia promoter, Irish coach Dru Joyce had to include the game on his team’s schedule.
Joyce is entering his 11th year as head man and still vividly remembers that Dec. 22 game.
“Honestly, the Palestra was the most fun place to play,” he said.
“It was packed. The fans were three feet from the court,” he recalled. “It was so loud that after the first half, the players couldn’t hear anything I was screaming or hollering.”
“It was the kind of situation you want to play in. You appreciate that atmosphere.”
The game was virtually over midway through the second quarter. And with the final result no longer in doubt, James spent the fourth quarter matching up one-on-one against Mansion’s Maureece Rice, who broke Wilt Chamberlain’s Philadelphia high-school scoring record that season.
“The fans loved it,” Joyce said. “Streetball at its best was those few moments.”
That night gave not just James but the whole Irish team a chance to showcase their talent.
“At the time, the major cities just didn’t respect Ohio basketball,” Joyce said. “[Strawberry Mansion players] were caught by surprise by how good our team was, how good LeBron was.”
But Joyce knew James was destined for great things. The experience had even more meaning for the star’s teammates.
“I knew LeBron would play in some of those [historic] buildings around the country,” Joyce said. “But as far as some of the other players on the team, they might maybe never see outside of Akron.”
“I thought it was a great situation to try and give those kids an opportunity to play in another great venue that had such rich basketball history.”
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