EAST LIVERPOOL - Dru Joyce II said it was "surreal" walking through the doors of his boyhood church on Sunday.
Joyce, under whose tutelage LeBron James blossomed into the world-class player he is today, was the guest speaker for an "empowerment service" at Sheridan African Methodist Episcopal Church, 301 W. Ninth St., East Liverpool, on Sunday.
"It's been almost 40 years since I walked through those doors," he told congregants, several of whom he hugged prior to the service. He was introduced by his aunt, Florence Martin.
East Liverpool native Dru Joyce II speaks at Sheridan African Methodist Episcopal Church on Sunday while the Rev. Brenda L. Johnson listens. Joyce, LeBron James’ coach in high school, attended the church as a youngster. (Photo by Stephen Huba)
Although he was the guest of honor, selected to give the "words of empowerment," Joyce disabused the congregation of any notion that he was a minister.
"I'm a believer - not a preacher," the soft-spoken Joyce said in a talk punctuated by emotion.
Joyce, a 1973 graduate of East Liverpool High School, grew up attending Sheridan AME and attributes the man he is today to the training and teaching he received there.
"It really began as a small boy, on that first pew, hearing those great stories of our God," he said. "The God-consciousness that began here was enough that, in a very dark time in my life, I knew where to turn," he said to several amens.
Joyce said his mother saw to it that he attended services at Sheridan AME. "I was here every Sunday. I was here through high school, sitting in those back rows," he said. Between Sunday school and Sunday worship, he and his friends would go to a neighborhood Dairy Queen that is no longer open.
Joyce has now been coach at Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary High School for 12 years. During that time, he has led the high school to three state titles, including the one in 2003 that followed on the heels of a storied, undefeated season with the "Fab Five" - James, Dru Joyce III, Willie McGee, Sian Cotton and Romeo Travis.
"I've had more success coaching basketball than some men have had in their whole career," he said. "That's only because of God's favor."
In a March 2012 interview, Joyce told The Review that he has fond memories of growing up in East Liverpool. "I lived on the West End," he said. "We had a close family there with a lot of cousins living in the same neighborhood. I enjoyed my time there."
After high school, he spent a year at Ashland College (now Ashland University) before transferring and finishing his degree in business administration at Ohio University in Athens. Joyce spent 25 years in the corporate world, working in sales for food giant ConAgra.
Joyce got his start in coaching helping his son in church leagues. "I was just a dad who helped out. I just got involved," he said on Sunday.
Soon, he began coaching travel basketball with the Amateur Athletic Union, and things took off from there. "We had a very good group of kids," Joyce said. "That happened to include my son and a guy named LeBron James. I was working under Keith Dambrot (current coach at the University of Akron) at St. Vincent-St. Mary, and he decided to go back to coach college. He thought I was doing a good job with the travel team, so I took over when he left. Coaching was always something I wanted to do."
Joyce also has made a name for himself leading the King James Shooting Stars travel team tournament in Akron, which had 530 participants in last year's event.
As for LeBron James, Joyce said he remains in regular contact.
"He helps our program out tremendously," he said. "I'm also the director of his youth camp, and we still communicate. My son is still one of his closest friends."
Joyce said he would welcome James back to northeast Ohio, to the Cleveland Cavaliers, if he chose to do that.
"Well, I'm an Ohio guy, so I'd love to have him back," Joyce said. "But I recognize why he left, and I think it was a great decision for him. It's the nature of professional sports that your legacy is championships, and they couldn't get it done here. But if he comes back, it would be great. And with as much as Cleveland fans say about him, they'd love to have him back too."
(Review sports writer Paul Edgar contributed to this story.)