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Walk into the recently renovated Ohio State men’s basketball team’s locker room and you’ll immediately notice the players’ upgraded lockers, featuring the names, numbers and hometowns for the likes of Aaron Craft, Lenzelle Smith Jr., and LeBron James.
Sure, the reigning NBA most valuable player and two-time champion never played a second of basketball for the Buckeyes -- or at the college level, period, for that matter -- but the Akron native remains an integral part of the OSU program. After all, it is James’ Nike logo that’s been adorning Buckeyes basketball gear since the 2007 postseason, when Ohio State appeared in its first Final Four under head coach Thad Matta.
“We always want to pay our respect towards what he’s done for us in terms of we were the first LeBron school and obviously get tremendous product from him,” Matta said.
The James locker, complete with his Miami Heat uniform No. 6 and hometown listing, sits at the center of the team locker room and is filled Nike gear baring his logo when prospective recruits tour the Schottenstein Center’s newly renovated facilities. Asked if that’s something that catches prospective Buckeyes’ eyes, Matta responded, “There’s no question about that,” before adding, “The fact that we wear his gear, that’s important for us.”
While James clearly has a fan in Columbus in Matta, feelings toward the two-time Olympic gold medal winner remain mixed around Ohio because of his public breakup with the Cleveland Cavaliers in the summer of 2010. James was booed by Buckeye fans as he took his courtside seat for a 2011 game between Ohio State and Duke despite his public pledges of support for the university that he never actually attended.
Considering James’ status as an honorary Buckeye, OSU athletics director Gene Smith would like to see fans embrace the nine-time All-Star, whose influence plays a prominent role in the school’s pitch to prospective recruits.
“I feel sorry that our fans won’t rally around LeBron because of the way he did his things, because for us, he’s been unbelievable. When his apparel came out, we were the first school he contacted,” Smith said. “He’s always kept us at the top of his thoughts when he’s doing things. That’s been really helpful. I wish he was actually in that locker.”
And inside of the walls of the arena, Smith isn’t alone in thinking that.
“I always said that if I could’ve coached him, I probably would’ve been a lot better coach early on,” Matta said with a laugh. “I know he’s very proud of what he does for us.”