Most players who move from high school to Division I ball have to give up stardom and learn to be part of a supporting cast. Not Akron sophomores Dru Joyce and Romeo Travis. As teammates of Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James at St. Vincent--St. Mary High in Akron, Joyce and Travis knew nothing but complementary roles. "When you play with LeBron, he does so much that you don't have to do as much for your team to be successful," says Travis, a 6'7", 220-pound forward, "so some people wonder if you can really play."
No one should wonder any longer. Thanks in large part to Joyce, a 6-foot point guard who dishes out 4.6 assists a game, and Travis, who stepped into the starting lineup for injured Jeremiah Wood in early January and is the team's second-leading scorer (11.5) and rebounder (7.5 per game), the Zips (17--8 overall, 10--6 in the MAC) are enjoying their first winning season in five years. Picked to finish fifth in the MAC East, they are in a four-way tie for second place and have a good chance of making the postseason for the first time since 1989, when Bob Huggins led them to the NIT. ( Akron's last trip to the NCAAs was in 1986.)
James has attended three Zips games this season, and Joyce and Travis talk to him on the phone several times a week. They also visit his house whenever he is back in town. "We're definitely close," says Travis. "We follow him, and he follows us."
Learning to play with guys who are mere mortals wasn't easy for Joyce and Travis. "I had a lot of lazy habits when I first got here," says Joyce, who boasts a solid 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. "When LeBron was on your team, you could just throw the ball up there, and you knew he was going to get it because nobody could outjump him. I can't do that in college."
Not everything about the college game has been a big adjustment. Joyce and Travis still play their home games at Rhodes Arena, where St. Vincent-- St. Mary played during the duo's final two years in high school. And they are very familiar with Akron coach Keith Dambrot, whom they and James got to know in middle school when they attended the dollar clinics he ran at the local Jewish community center. Dambrot later coached St. V-M to the first two of the three state championships the school won with James and Joyce (Travis transferred in as a sophomore, a year after the first of those titles), before becoming an assistant at Akron in June 2001.
"Those guys lost, what, five games in high school?" says Dambrot. "They are used to winning; they expect it. A lot of that attitude has rubbed off on our other guys, and that's a key to why we are winning now."