Here he was the day before another game against a nationally-ranked opponent in an 8,500-seat arena, and Steve Smith saw something out of place.
Upon descending a flight of stairs to the lobby of the Bucks County Sheraton Hotel in Langhorne, Pa. on Feb. 9, 2002, the Oak Hill Academy (Mouth of Wilson, Va.) coach eyed one of his players, senior forward Carmelo Anthony, laughing and getting along famously with the next day's opponent, junior guard LeBron James of St. Vincent-St. Mary's (Akron, Ohio).
"Don't get me wrong, I'm not against my players becoming friends with kids from other schools," Smith says. "It was a Final Four atmosphere with all the people in that lobby, but I said, 'I know y'all are friends, but you have a game to play tomorrow.' I told him not to feel as though he had to outscore LeBron individually, not to go for 40 because we had a better team. 'Melo was established at that point. LeBron's name was still rising."
What Smith witnessed the next day at the PrimeTime Shootout in Trenton, N.J.'s Sovereign Bank Arena was the birth of a rivalry. Just as their careers would run parallel, their stat lines mirrored each other's on this day. James scored 36 points on 12 of 27 shooting, grabbed eight rebounds, dished out five assists, and had six steals. Anthony answered with 34 points on 14 of 25 shooting, 11 rebounds, and two assists to lead Oak Hill to a 72-66 win.
"It was one of those games that really puts the No. 1 team with the No. 1 senior against a team that boasts the No. 1 junior," Smith says. "I had never seen the crowd stand in unison at the end of the game and just start clapping in appreciation of what they just saw."
In the crowd was the PrimeTime Shootout's founder and current selection coordinator, Jeff Hewitson, who started running the tournament back in 1976-77. Having grown from a four-game event solely featuring New Jersey teams, Hewitson's brain child now was being aired live on the YES television network, drawing teams from across the country, and attracting the top players.
"The LeBron years were something else," Hewitson says. "The hairs are a little grayer from that."
Having refereed games in New Jersey since 1971, Hewitson maintained relationships with hoopheads across the region. One was Ben Kricks, a bus driver from Premiere Tour and Travel, who had been driving teams to Hewitson's tournament from Western Pennsylvania and Ohio for years. Having seen James play as a freshman and a sophomore, Kricks called Hewitson. "He tells me he's not a name yet, but I gotta trust him," Hewitson says. "We had his team under contract before his big blow up at ABCD. The game itself was remarkable. They went tit for tat. If one dunked the other came down and did the same thing."
Contrary to popular belief, James and Anthony were not the founding brothers of PrimeTime. Matchups featuring 100-point scorer Dajuan Wagner from Camden (N.J.) High versus fellow future NBA player Julius Hodge of St. Raymond's (Bronx, N.Y.) and straight-to-the-NBA high school players such as Al Harrington of St. Patrick (Elizabeth, N.J.) and Tyson Chandler of Dominguez (Compton, Calif.) helped grow the field of teams and reputation for talent. In all, 23 players who have gone on to the NBA have played in the PrimeTime. Seven of which played in 2004, including Lincoln (Brooklyn, N.Y.) point guard Sebastian Telfair.
Now in its 31st year, what began as the Eastern States Invitational Classic and became the PrimeTime Shootout in 1992 has become the PrimeTime Tour. By popular demand, Hewitson and organizers took their showcase on the road for the first time this year, traveling to Atlanta, Dallas, Philadelphia, and finishing this weekend in Trenton, N.J.
"There's only so many times that you can travel in a season, and with so many talented teams in the area, you have to be able to play quality teams in your area, and this is a great opportunity," St. Patrick (Elizabeth, N.J.) coach Kevin Boyle says.
On Friday night, four games will be played at Villanova University as a precursor to Saturday's nine-game lineup followed Sunday by nine more. Seven of the top 25 in the RISE/SI.com boys' national rankings, including three of the top six teams, will be featured in the event. No. 1 Oak Hill will play on consecutive nights, first against Prep Charter (Philadelphia) and then on Saturday night against American Christian (Astor, Pa.), which boasts the nation's No. 1 junior, Tyreke Evans. No. 2 St. Patrick will play Chester (Pa.) on Friday and faces Lincoln (Brooklyn, N.Y.), which features star sophomore Lance Stephenson, on Saturday.
"We're always willing to play anyone, anywhere," Smith says. "We played in all the PrimeTime sites this year except Atlanta, and we think anytime that there is a group of the top talent in the country it's a win for the college recruiters, fans, and especially the kids to see the best out there."
Once a tournament carrying the tradition of Trenton basketball, Hewitson's creation is no longer the only high school show during the season, but it continues to be the top event.
"I would tell you that I have seen the best," Hewitson says. "But I said that with Wagner and Hodge, and I have seen Carmelo and LeBron. I'm not saying it anymore."