AKRON, Ohio — LeBron James has won multiple NBA titles, MVP trophies and Olympic gold medals.
But the day before his foundation’s elementary school — the I Promise School — opened its doors in his hometown Akron, Ohio, James tweeted that this would be “one of the greatest moments (if not the greatest) of my life.”
James, who was born in Akron 33 years ago, has dedicated much of his adult life to bettering his home city.
And the I Promise School will be King James’ crown jewel.
The 240-person population of third- and fourth-graders is made up of students “identified by Akron Public Schools as behind in critical academic areas and other factors.” James insisted that his institution be a public school, as he could relate to the pitfalls that Akron youth must face.
The NBA superstar missed 82 days of school back when he was in fourth grade, saying that year was filled with lots of “empty days” that led to a “no-future thought process.”
“My mom didn’t have a car and we didn’t have stability day-to-day where I didn’t know where I’d be living,” James said. “So there was no way I could even get there. It was a surprise to me when I woke up and I was actually going to school.”
James, of course, defied the odds and went on to become one of the greatest athletes of his generation and an international icon.
But he remains a true son of Akron, beaming as his mom, Gloria, raised the school flag on the first day of classes, and laughing about how the nearby McDonald’s “was like a Disneyland for us as kids” when it opened across the street from where I Promise School now stands.
“When people ask me, ‘Why a school?’ that’s part of the reason why,” James said. “Because I know exactly what these 240 kids are going through. I know the streets that they walk. I know the trials and tribulations that they go through. I know the ups, the downs.
“I know everything that they dream about. I know all the nightmares that they have, because I’ve been there. I know exactly what they’re going through.”
But thanks to James, the students at his school will be offered opportunities that he couldn’t have even hoped for as a kid.
Sure, there are plenty of eye-catching features, including a two-story lobby with 114 pairs of LeBron’s sneakers on the walls. And not every school is christened with a performance by pop star Tori Kelly.
But I Promise School provides even more substance than style.
It boasts a 20-to-1 student-teacher ratio, year-round programming and a 9-to-5 school day to keep its children engaged.
Understanding the challenges that come with being underprivileged in Akron, the I Promise School also provides all of its students free breakfast, lunch and snack. Bussing is provided for kids who live within two miles, and every child receives a free bike — something that James said helped kept him out of trouble growing up.
Perhaps most impressively, James has teamed with the University of Akron to guarantee that all eligible I Promise School students will be provided free, four-year college scholarships.
“A lot of the gratitude goes to our hometown hero, LeBron James,” Akron mayor Daniel Horrigan said. “I can think of no better gift that LeBron can give to the next generation of Akron than a solid education, a supportive network of teachers and mentors.”
“Generational change” was a phrase often used to describe the impact that I Promise School expects to have on the Akron community.
For James, this included providing services for the students’ parents, including an on-site food bank and programs that give them the opportunity to earn their GEDs.
“Us as the adults, we have a responsibility to not let these kids down,” he said. “… These kids are our future. And they have dreams that are bigger and greater than the city of Akron, than the state of Ohio, than the United States of America.”
So, on a sweltering Ohio afternoon, James took his place behind a podium and addressed a crowd filled with family and friends.
It has been 15 years since James first left Akron after turning St. Vincent-St. Mary High School into a national name.
He departed as a teenager soaring straight into the top basketball league in the world. He returned as the greatest player in the world.
And while the Lakers faithful can’t wait for James to bring his dominance to the City of Angels, his hometown will forever have a piece of LeBron thanks to the I Promise School.
“No matter if I’m playing in Los Angeles or not, Akron, Ohio, is always home for me,” he said. “Always.”