As he writes in his book’s introduction, Tony Meale has a lot in common with LeBron James: Both are Ohio natives who graduated from Catholic high schools in 2003. Beyond that? “I’m only 5-9,” Meale laughs. While he and LeBron were peers of a sort, Meale, like most Ohio high school students at the time, was watching the young king’s exploits as an awestruck fan.
As a Cincinnati kid, Meale took a bit more interest in 2002, when LeBron’s St. Vincent-St. Mary squad made it to the state final against Cinci’s Roger Bacon HS. LeBron was two-for-two in state title games at that point, and St. V hadn’t lost to an in-state foe in his three years with the program—a run that included a nine-point win over Bacon the previous December. There was little reason to think this time would be any different.
But it was.
The story of the Roger Bacon squad that upset St. V that day in Columbus is told in a new book, The Chosen Ones: The Team That Beat LeBron. It’s Meale’s first book, and one he quit his job as a newspaper sportswriter to complete. Reading it, you get a sense of how passionate he was to tell the story of a coach and a bunch of kids he didn’t even know, but whose historic victory he felt deserve a broader telling. We talked with Meale recently to find out how the project came together.
SLAM: So what is your connection to this story?
Tony Meale: Well, I went to one of Roger Bacon’s rival schools, St. Xavier, and one thing that struck me about them was that, even though they were a smaller school, they always played our school really tough. So I was always impressed by them, and then LeBron being my age, I knew of him when he was this state-wide wonder. Going into that season, ‘01-02, I knew Roger Baron was going to do well, but I never gave them a chance to win that game. When I read in the paper the next day that they’d won, I was stunned.
SLAM: You weren’t the only one. But why, 10 years later, did this story justify a book?
TM: I was always kind of enamored with Roger Bacon, and a few things kind of led to this. Last March, I came across this newspaper story in Pennsylvania on the 15th anniversary of this team, Cathedral Prep, that almost beat Kobe Bryant’s team for a state title in 1996. Reading that, I thought of Bacon, and I found myself researching that game. I wondered whatever happened to those players. Eventually, I came across a story USA Today did on Bacon in 2007, and I thought, The 10-year anniversary is coming up. If anybody’s going to do it… Almost literally, one day last March, I went from killing time on Facebook to deciding I was going to quit my job and do this book.
SLAM: You talked to everybody you could from that team. How’d you pull all that together?
TM: The first step was contacting some of the people, like Roger Bacon’s current coach Brian Neal, who was an assistant with the 2002 team—he knew me from covering local sports. I was like, I’m working on this project… I was kind of vague about it, in case it didn’t work out for some reason. I didn’t want to let people down.
Then I contacted some other writers and authors to get their opinion, and I got the same message from everyone: If you can write it halfway decent, this will be something people will care about. Then instead of trying to get a book deal, I started my own company, Press Box Publishing. Writing the book was not easy by any means, but it was the easiest thing I did in the past year. Hiring web designers, lawyers, it was like, What am I doing? But my goal from day one was to write something that people would care about, and that the Roger Bacon community would be proud of.
SLAM: The foundation of this story in a lot of ways is Bill Brewer, the coach who built Roger Bacon into a great program, then died five years ago of a heart attack at just 42. Why do you choose to build the book around him?
TM: From what I gathered from the players and other coaches, Bill was a very tough coach—the kind of coach who had the power to make his players hate the sport. But with maybe one exception, they were very glad that they did play for Bill. Once they graduated and got some perspective, they realized how special he was. There’s certainly some sadness for a lot of the guys, now that they see Bill in a different light, that he’s not around to share in all this.
SLAM: Beyond being a great motivator, you write that he also had the foresight to schedule a regular-season game with St. V during that season—he knew Bacon might be good enough to get to the state final, and even though they lost, that experience was huge for them. What can you tell us about that Roger Bacon team?
TM: Their best player was probably Josh Hausfeld (who went onto play at Miami, OH). They had a lot of seniors on that team. I think a lot of the players were kind of quiet and unassuming, just good basketball players who talked no trash. I think the two guys who gave that team that aura, that moxie, were Beckham Wyrick (UNC-Wilmington) and Frank Phillips. They would both talk trash—they’d initiate the trash talk. But all five starters ended up playing a sport in college.
SLAM: One thing you do in the book is recreate, in really impressive detail, both of the St. V-Roger Bacon games that season.
TM: Originally I only intended to do it for the state final, but I really wanted to give people a sense of what happened in the first game. LeBron didn’t even jump for the opening tip, and Bacon got called for a lot of fouls, so there was a lot of motivation for them after that game.
And that state final game, I had to watch tape of that probably nine or 10 times. I just wanted to make sure I captured all the key plays, and decided which quotes to use from the commentators. But I truly enjoyed it. Every time I watch it, I’m blown away by the fearlessness of those players. They kind of knew if they stuck together, they could pull it off.
SLAM: The book’s release obviously coincides with LeBron’s third trip to the NBA Finals. Everybody knows the narrative around him not having won a title yet, and there’s a key play late in the state title game where he passes instead of shooting. What did you learn about him from all these interviews and watching these old game tapes?
TM: Knowing what happened in that state final game in detail, knowing some of the reflections those guys had on LeBron, I certainly think his pro career to date makes a lot of sense. One thing I discovered in reading a lot of the books on him, there were a lot of times in his AAU career when was asked to take the game-winning shot, and had a lot of misses. Maybe that explains why he passed.
SLAM: You write that a couple of the Bacon players ran into LeBron a few years later.
TM: Yeah, they said he was very cordial, very polite. I don’t think LeBron’s a bad person at all. People might assume this is an anti-LeBron book, but I don’t feel I wrote this book with any bias for or against him. Some people were just like, “You should reach out to Skip Bayless and Scott Raab for endorsements.” I wish LeBron would’ve stayed in Cleveland, and I didn’t like the way he left per se, but I don’t have anything against him. I think this book is going to appeal to people regardless of what side of the LeBron argument you’re on. Once people read the book, I think they’re going to see a guy who was probably a little too cocky for his own good, but given what he’s said about that game, and how tough that loss was, I think he’s a more humble person. I think it really has changed the way he looks at basketball.
SLAM: I’m sure a lot of people are going to see this book in the mold of Hoosiers. What’s your take on that?
TM: I think there probably is a Hoosiers feel to this, but I didn’t realize until I talked to the Roger Bacon guys, they didn’t feel it was an upset. That’s why I say in the preface, Hoosiers is not a bad analogy, but it’s not perfect, either. Personally, and I know I’m biased being from Cincinnati, but if you look at the national schedule St. V played while LeBron was there, and only losing six games—one by forfeit, and four to nationally ranked teams from out of state—I truly feel this is one of the great underdog stories in sports.
You can order The Chosen Ones here.