LeBron James and the 2001 Oakland Soldiers
This week's feature story, "Swoosh Dreams," describes how the Oakland Soldiers became one of the best travel basketball teams in the country. The program's co-founder, Calvin Andrews, believes that the Soldiers' rise can be charted along three turning points.
LeBron James, the most famous Soldiers alum.
The first was when Izzy Washington, the founder of well-known summer league basketball program LA Slam 'N Jam, endorsed Andrews and co-founder Hashim Alauddeen, and sent them money and gear. That gave the Soldiers credibility.
The second was when Sonny Vaccaro, the first man to bring shoe company money to the travel team level, befriended the pair and hooked them up with an Adidas sponsorship. That pulled the Soldiers into the ranks of the elite teams.
The third was when LeBron James put on a Soldiers uniform. That would propel the Soldiers into national prominence.
But how did James, a resident of Akron, Ohio, end up on the Oakland Soldiers?
That story begins with Mark Olivier, who was the Soldiers' coach at the time and is now the program's executive director. In the late '90s, a friend of Olivier's moved from the East Bay to Akron. That friend, who used to attend most of the Soldiers' local games, volunteered as a coach for a middle-school-aged travel team in Akron, according to Olivier. James played on his team.
That friend would eventually put James and Olivier in contact with each other. The Soldiers were already elite, and more competitive than any squad in James' area. James, Olivier says, trusted the middle school coach and the coach trusted Olivier. So he recommended the Soldiers to James.
And James took his talents to Oakland.
James played two summers with the team -- 2001 and 2002 -- alongside Oakland Tech star Leon Powe, Vallejo High School guard DeMarcus Nelson, Oakland High School guard Ayinde Ubaka, and, for one tournament in 2001, Kendrick Perkins -- the best high school center in Texas.
While James hadn't yet become a household name in May 2001, he had developed a solid following among basketball fans. After all, he had just become the first sophomore to be named Ohio's Mr. Basketball. An All-USA Today first team selection, he had led St. Vincent-St. Mary's High School to its second consecutive state title.
So the 2001 Soldiers were as popular and dominant as you would expect. Olivier says they were like the Beatles, sending fans into autograph-seeking frenzies whenever they entered a gym.
The team's most legendary performance was a 40-point destruction of the Atlanta Celtics, a comparably star-studded team featuring Dwight Howard, Josh Smith, Randolph Morris, and Javaris Crittendon (worth mentioning: the Celtics' stars were a year younger than the Soldiers' stars).
Ubaka went on to become an All-Pac-10 player at UC Berkeley. Nelson went to Duke and has had stints on the Golden State Warriors and Chicago Bulls. Powe, despite four knee surgeries that sapped his explosiveness, earned Second Team All-America honors at Cal, and then won an NBA Championship with the Boston Celtics in 2008. Kendrick Perkins, who jumped straight from high school to the pros, was also on that championship team. He plays for the Oklahoma City Thunder now, and is currently battling in the NBA Finals against ... LeBron James and the Miami Heat.
James, of course, lived up to all the expectations people were setting for him back when he was throwing alley-oops to Leon Powe in 2001. He was named the NBA's Most Valuable Player this year -- the third time in the last four seasons.
Before some games, observant fans might notice James salute his teammates or the crowd, a toast to his old team.