AKRON, Ohio -- Loyalty in the NBA was said to be in short supply earlier this month, when a few of the league’s offseason transactions looked and felt particularly bloodless.
And yet, there it was Monday, alive and well and pulsing through the streets of the “Bottom,” a rough neighborhood on the north side of an already tough city.
LeBron James helped to turn a gray and grim area he knew all too well into an oasis of music, balloons, streamers and hope, not just for the afternoon but ideally for years to come. All thanks to that noble quality that the cynics like to say is dead.
“I remember these streets,” James said during and after the dedication of the I Promise School, a new entry in the Akron Public Schools for some of the city’s most disadvantaged students and their families.
James’ charitable entity, the LeBron James Family Foundation, conceived and built the school in conjunction with APS and a slew of private partners chipping in time, labor and ultimately millions of dollars as they strive for a new approach to urban education. The plan had been put in motion years ago, but the actual hands-on, physical transformation of the building came in the past seven weeks.
The curriculum will focus on science, technology, engineering and math [STEM] but the school will go well beyond, providing “wraparound services” for the families that include career, academic and emotional support.
An inaugural class of 240 third- and fourth-graders were on site for the first day of classes Monday, with the I Promise School to be populated from first to eighth grade by 2022. The academic year will run longer (July 30 to May 17) and so will the hours each day (9 a.m. to 5 p.m.) in an effort to thwart idle time that doesn’t get filled productively and often leads to a “summer slide” in students’ learning and progression.
The school “is everything I needed when I was growing up in Akron,” James said. “Any worry or hardship I ever had, the people and the programs built into this school would have helped.”
The front of the IPS off West Market St. was turned into a party, with bleachers, recorded and live musical perfomances, and the city’s ubiquitous “Goodyear” blimp circling overhead. Older students who already were a part of James’ I Promise program that has them working toward free tuition at the University of Akron made an appearance.
Most of the recorded music was pitched to the youthful crowd. But when James and his mother Gloria raised the U.S. and IPS flags near the end of the ceremony, the Hall & Oates hit “You Make My Dreams” boomed from the sound system.
“A lot of emotions,” James said, sharing the moments as he drove through familiar streets to the school. No, he said, he hadn’t needed directions.
“I used to walk this street. I used to walk North. I used to walk Silver Street right down the street. ... I remember exactly when that McDonald’s right there next door first opened. It was like a Disneyland for us as kids, having a McDonald’s come and open up.”
With the kids on hand, in the middle of summer in a non-NBA city, the scene Monday was a dramatic update on, yet reminiscent of, that evening eight years ago in Connecticut. James, much younger and far less self-assured, sat across from announcer Jim Gray on national TV, fidgety and uncomfortable while the children of the Greenwich Boys & Girls Club provided an awkward backdrop on a clumsy night.
The NBA superstar announced his stunning Decision then to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers to pursue championships with the Miami Heat, and the league -- particularly the corner of it in northeast Ohio -- went a little crazy.
This time, his decision to again leave Cleveland already was three weeks old. This time, James’ presence at the IPS celebration really was about the kids. And frankly, the reality that he soon will be playing his basketball for the Los Angeles Lakers seemed, OK, not quite trivial but way less important and hardly traumatic, weighed against the reason for Monday’s gathering.
This was, notably, the first opportunity for James to publicly discuss his decision to end his 2014 homecoming after four seasons and head to L.A. He had avoided interviews previously and did not participate in the Team USA minicamp in Las Vegas last week.
It’s kind of a bittersweet moment for myself because, on the one hand, you’ve got the school, where I would love to be here every single day. Then on the other hand, I’m starting a new journey in my life where I’m on the other coast.”
So in a media session after the final bell Monday, James spoke first about this recent stint, helping the Cavs to four Finals appearances and the 2016 NBA title.
“I can sit here in two seconds and say it was a heckuva run, obviously,” he said. “My first year when I came [back] here, I didn’t believe we could even compete for a championship. And we took the Warriors to Game 6, losing our All-Star point guard [Kyrie Irving] and our All-Star power forward [Kevin Love] in the same playoff run.
“Then to come back the following year and winning, to break ... the drought -- the 50-plus year drought that this city had endured -- and to add two more championship runs to it. It was more than we imagined.”
And now, in what he called “the next step in my journey?”
“It’s always tough to make a decision where you have to uproot, no matter if you’re doing it by yourself or with your family,” said James, who already owned two mansions in southern California, spending offseason time there in the past with his wife Savannah and their three children.
“It’s kind of a bittersweet moment for myself because, on the one hand, you’ve got the school, where I would love to be here every single day. Then on the other hand, I’m starting a new journey in my life where I’m on the other coast.”
As for choosing the Lakers, a proud franchise that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2013 and finished 12 games under .500 last season, James said he did his “due diligence” in comparing all they offered to other suitors including the Philadelphia 76ers, Houston Rockets and incumbent Cavs.
His expectations for 2018-19?
“We don’t have any right now,” James said. “But we definitely want to do better than we were the previous year. We want to have championship habits -- that doesn’t mean we’re winning a championship, but it means we practice excellence every day. I expect that not only from myself but from my teammates.
“That’s what [team owner] Jeanie [Buss], that’s what [team president] Magic [Johnson], that’s what [general manager] Rob [Pelinka] would want,” he said. “That’s what [coach] Luke [Walton] is gonna want, and we shouldn’t sell ourselves short of that. There’s gonna be months when we’re really good. There’s gonna be months when we’re not so good.”
All of which paled to the hard times James recalled Monday, growing up on Moon Street on Akron’s West Side while ostensibly attending Harris Elementary on North Hill miles away. “My mom didn’t have a car, and we didn’t have stability day to day, where I didn’t know where I would be living,” James said. “So there was no way I could even get there.”
As a fourth-grader, James -- the only child of a single mother -- missed 83 days of school. “School didn’t mean anything to me,” he said. “I just felt like every day I was waking up and I had a bunch of time of nothing. ... There were a lot of empty days, empty nights. It was just kind of a 'no-future' thought process.”
I want these kids to know they still have the same opportunity as everyone else. ... And no matter if I ‘m playing in Los Angeles or not, Akron, Ohio is always home for me. Always.”
James did have a strong group of friends who made up for siblings. He rode his bike throughout the city, developing another sense of loyalty to Akron’s neighborhoods. In time, he had sports and specifically basketball, which wound up lifting him and those boyhood pals out of a possible dead-end existence.
To see him now at age 33, polished and relaxed with a microphone on stage, is to see someone who has left all the childhood turmoil behind. But someone, too, who will never forget.
“For kids – young kids, ages seven, eight, nine, 10 – the most important things we can give them is structure,” James said. “And a sense of ... they just want someone to feel like 'We care.' They have the dreams, they have the aspirations, they have everything that they can actually get to in life, they just want to know that someone cares.
“I want these kids to know they still have the same opportunity as everyone else. So as adults, we have a responsibility to not let these kids down.
“And no matter if I ‘m playing in Los Angeles or not, Akron, Ohio is always home for me. Always.”
A lot of cities, every four summers or so, hope and dream that James will decide to play basketball there.
A lot more should wish he’d been born and raised there.
* * *
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.