AKRON, Ohio — LeBron James stood before his city one more time, gray suit and white shirt gleaming, thick beard groomed just right. He peered through black-rimmed glasses and gripped a microphone as he spoke. It looked like a pencil in his big, basketball hands.
“In closing, thank you so much,” James said.
“We love you!” the crowd shouted.
“I love you, too,” he replied. “I really do. I really do.”
And when the cheers softened, The Kid From Akron ended a day in which he strengthened his commitment to his hometown by doing something seemingly contradictory. He said goodbye.
“And know, no matter if I’m playing in Los Angeles or not, Akron, Ohio, is always home for me,” James said. “Always.”
James called Monday perhaps the greatest day of his life. He celebrated the opening of the I Promise School, the offspring of an enterprising partnership between his foundation and Akron Public Schools that intends to change the lives of some of the city’s most underprivileged children. But this was also his first public appearance since he left the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Los Angeles Lakers in early July. And so if this was the greatest day of his life, he also admitted it was bittersweet.
“On one hand, I’m opening up a school where I would love to be here every single day when my schedule permits,” James said late Monday afternoon, standing in a classroom in the stunning facility. “And then on the other hand, I’m starting a new journey in my life where I’m on the other coast. But when you have the support system and you have the people around you that’s helped you along the way, you know you never travel alone. So it makes the transition easier.”
James is moving away. And he is staying forever. In his world, this is neither contradictory nor unorthodox. He doesn’t feel the need to choose. He can be King James and The Kid from Akron. He can live in just one place, but his impact can be ubiquitous. He can satisfy his worldly curiosity while keeping his promise to uplift his home region. As James’s two passions clashed on this day, it was also clear what allows them to operate jointly: ambition. Whatever the persona or pursuit, it is ambition that makes James the quintessential American sports superstar. In everything he does, he refuses to settle, and he dreams a little differently. So it figures he would be the fish that wants to swim in the small and big pond simultaneously.
On Monday, he made history at home and fantasized about adding to the tradition of the Lakers, one of the NBA’s historic superpowers.
“There’s no reason you should become a Laker, become a Yankee, become part of Man U, become part of some franchise or clubs like that, and you don’t think about winning championships or winning at the highest level,” James said. “That’s what the history is all about.”
But for the most part, James kept his reasoning for signing with the Lakers understated. He talked a little about it to appease the media, which he thanked for coming to Akron to cover the school opening. But he was adamant about focusing on the I Promise School.
When James returned to the Cavaliers four years ago, he was intent on fulfilling a promise. He wanted to deliver a championship, which he did in the most dramatic manner possible in 2016, upsetting the 73-win Golden State Warriors after falling behind 3-1 in the NBA Finals. But he also wanted to make more of a difference at home.
A few years ago, James was brainstorming with Michele Campbell, the executive director of the LeBron James Family Foundation. They were talking about making an even greater impact. In 2011, the foundation established its I Promise program, taking on a class of third graders and giving them the resources, incentives and support — academically and emotionally — to thrive. Campbell’s idea for a school was the extension of that concept. She thought she was just thinking out loud — couldn’t we help more kids and families with an entire school? — but James reacted seriously.
“Well, why aren’t you doing that then?” James said, according to Campbell.
The I Promise School has begun with 240 students, 120 each in the third and fourth grades. The plan is to expand gradually and serve students from kindergarten to eighth grade by 2022. The students being served have dire academic and emotional needs. They are some of the lowest-performing students in the district. The mission is to turn around the children’s academic lives by changing the lives of everyone in their families. The school provides services to assist children dealing with trauma and to support and educate parents trying to survive poverty. At the school, there are opportunities for parents who didn’t graduate high school to study for their GEDs. There is a pantry with donations from a food bank, and parents can pick up groceries to take home and prepare meals. They call this approach “family wraparound support.”
“I think the missing link in public education is that family wraparound support,” Principal Brandi Davis said. “Because our students come to school, and they’re worried about things at home. It could be a wealth of issues going on at home. Just to know when I drop my child off at school I can go down the hallway to the family resource center and get the support I need, that just takes so much off of a parent, so much off of a child. And that’s what that trauma-informed support is all about. We want to create that safe, that secure and that caring and loving environment for our families and our students so that our kids can focus on education. And that’s what we’re all about.”
This is James’s vision, right down to having 240 bicycles available so that every student has a free bike to ride. As a child, James found freedom on his bike. It helped him flee his dangerous neighborhood and venture to the parts of the city where he could play basketball, engage in productive activities and allow the community to help him.
The thoughtfulness of James and his mother, Gloria, is evident in the school. They were able to turn their past pain into a crystallized understanding of what impoverished families need. James can recall missing 83 days of school as a fourth grader and being in danger of becoming “a statistic” before members of the community helped him.
“School didn’t mean anything, obviously, back then,” James said of himself. “It was a surprise to me when I woke up and I was actually going to school. A lot of empty days, a lot of empty nights.”
Look at him now. He’s a superstar of superstars. He knows he’s special, but he also thinks he’s lucky. He encountered people who cared, and they put him on the right path. Then basketball took his life to another level.
“That’s what kids want to know, ‘Do you care about me?’ ” James said. “And we do here.”
The goal for the I Promise School is the same as the rest of James’s goals: Be great. The challenge is tremendous, but with one tour of the school, you can see clearly that the investment is serious. From the moment you walk in and see 114 of James’s game-worn shoes hanging from the walls in decorative fashion, you think about what dreamers can do with proper support.
“Limitation is not in my vocabulary,” Davis said. “There’s always a way to get around. Working with the LeBron James Family Foundation, they have truly removed all barriers in more ways than one.”
As James departs for Los Angeles, perhaps for good, he leaves behind a legacy that will outlast him. Monday was incredible — and bittersweet. But if this school lives up to its promise, time will erase any conflicted feelings.
King James is moving away. The spirit of The Kid from Akron is staying forever.