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LeBron and his school know about winning

By Rob Stearns

LeBron James is praying. He will be the first pick in the NBA's draft today. Anointed one of the best basketball players on the planet, he recently received a $90 million offer to wear Nike sneakers. He is 18 years old. On this balmy spring morning in Akron, Ohio, zephyrs and daydreams and a tender tenor solo of Climb Every Mountain waft through LeBron's high school gym. He stands at center court amid classmates and family, heads bowed, attending Mass.

I witness this simple and decent ceremony because I arrive at St. Vincent-St. Mary early for my interview. I'm curious. What does a high school superstar think about how our culture defines and rewards winning?

I started asking questions like this while critically examining my own stomach-churning debacles and recoveries. And for added perspective, I spent a year speaking with a diverse sample of Americans about how they feel and think about victory and defeat. These discussions revealed patterns of thought and behavior that transcend geography, income, age, ethnicity and occupation. The patterns are at the heart of why I believe that individuals enhance their chances of winning -- personally and professionally -- when they adopt specific standards of thought and behavior, essentially a winner's code of conduct.

I'm eager to test my findings with a winner at St. Vincent-St. Mary. We sit on metal chairs with gray plastic seats, across from each other at a cafeteria table. He is affable, attentive, neatly attired in jeans and a collared shirt.

''Did you expect to be selected first?'' I ask.

''Yes,'' he replied, smiling, proud but not boastful. ''I worked hard my freshman and sophomore years. I knew I could do it. But I worked even harder my junior and senior years because I wanted to make sure that no one caught me.''

Change a couple of words, and you could be listening to Michael Jordan. Or, LeBron James. But I'm actually chatting with R.B. Brownfield, the valedictorian in LeBron's high school class. At the top of his game, mathematics, R.B. thinks about winning very similarly to his more celebrated classmate. ''I don't equate dollars with winning,'' Brownfield says. ''To me, winning is doing my personal best. I may never get paid $90 million, but I still think I'm a winner.''

Winners set stretch goals, then work incrementally and relentlessly toward them. Winners abound at St. Vincent-St. Mary, starting with Headmaster David Rathz. Twenty years' worth of awards attesting to his commitment to academic excellence and community service decorate his spartan office. Modest, soft-spoken, driven, Rathz leads by example.

''I set objectives, keep score and reward performance,'' he says. ''I'm results-oriented.''

The alumni network at St. Vincent-St. Mary is loyal and generous; the computer lab is modern; the faculty and staff work effectively. Fortified by more than $3 million in scholarships, 111 of LeBron's 115 classmates are heading to college next fall. Winners hold their measurement standards sacred and do not conveniently change them.

Seven National Merit Scholars and four finalists round out St. Vincent-St. Mary's academic varsity team. As we talk around the cafeteria table, I am struck by their articulate introspections. Although the students have not discussed the phenomena of losing and winning before our meeting, they quickly hone in on a common theme. Each regards winning, ultimately, as an individual accomplishment. Each takes ownership -- accepts individual responsibility -- for achieving a victory.

Listen to this Honor Roll trash talk from LeBron's classmate, Ainslee Johnson: ''I really wanted to get into Duke. Getting turned down made me so mad that I framed the rejection letter and hung it in my bedroom. Every day, I look at it and work harder to prove those people wrong.''

Winners use loss as motivation.

Recent headlines tempt you to believe that Americans enjoy toppling their winners. Consider the recent bashing of Martha Stewart, Sammy Sosa, and Gray Davis. But my discussions across the country reveal just the opposite. Americans resent arrogance and ingratitude. But, in general, we love winners. We root for underdogs because we want to see surprise wins. We applaud our neighbors' successes and rarely begrudge the good luck that often converges with their hard work. Our strength derives from our implicit belief that we can create an infinite number of wins for our citizens without demanding an offsetting number of losses. We are the antithesis of a ''zero-sum'' society. Our view of winning nourishes our generosity and our optimism.

So, it's no surprise that the academic winners at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School identify with LeBron's success and wish him well.

And, while several do wonder whether shooting three-pointers trumps teaching or firefighting, most concur with the sentiments of their Notre Dame-bound senior class president, Pat Vassel.

''We should celebrate LeBron's win. He's a good person. Now he can take care of his family and do good things with his money.''

And that's what we all pray for.

Rob Stearns is the author of the new book, Winning Smart After Losing Big.