LeBron James

The Point: A Look Inside LeBron’s School Reveals A Lot More About Him

by Kevin Ding
Senior Writer

The words themselves are powerful. To speak the words to someone—“I promise”—calls for meaningful concurrent eye contact and can form the basis for marital vows.

The words becoming even more powerful these days is a testament to what LeBron James has done with them.

It can be difficult to keep track of all the elements associated with the I PROMISE umbrella created by the LeBron James Family Foundation. When it was revealed two months ago that Kent State University was guaranteeing four years of free college tuition to the first class in the I PROMISE Program (alongside a similar offer from the University of Akron), most media outlets misreported it as a grant for James’ recently opened and widely heralded I PROMISE School. That school currently has only third- through fifth-graders and is planned to expand only to eighth-graders.

Kent State was making this offer to kids already in 11th grade. That’s how old the inaugural third-graders in James’ I PROMISE Program are. Without having set up an actual school back in 2011, James began fully supporting and shepherding at-risk Akron public-school third-graders toward college as well as he knew how then.

He has been at this for that long, trying to address societal shortcomings he knows through personal experience and pain.

The I PROMISE School (IPS), opened in 2018, is the culmination of all that James learned along the way—and its initial tribulations and triumphs are now being chronicled in a new way.

A documentary series of the school’s first year is part of the Monday launch for Quibi, a quick-bite streaming site for mobile. The first three of 15 short-form episodes (each shorter than 10 minutes) about the school were released Monday and will be followed by one new episode each weekday. (Anthony Davis can also be found on Quibi through Jennifer Lopez’s new “Thanks a Million” show in which 10 celebrities each gift $100,000 to someone who impacted his or her life.)

At a time when James’ most familiar method of inspiration is missing with no NBA basketball because of COVID-19, the kids and staff at his school offer a vehicle to viewers to find a different sort of uplift.

James’ mother, Gloria, says in the first episode: “LeBron, I see him in these kids in a sense. An initial, maybe, lack of hope in their future.” However, when kids are propped up—and sometimes they physically need to be after they melt down at school—transformations can begin.

James is keeping his promises to give back to his community, support kids in an array of ways and be a positive role model for them. He still wears the I PROMISE bands on both wrists every game to show his kids he is symbolically side by side with them.

In exchange, James asks the kids and their parents to make promises about school—such as “I promise to always try my best” or “I promise to ask questions and find answers” or “I promise to listen to my child”—thereby positioning the children to collect the college scholarships and create favorable futures.

Note the verbiage James specifically used in his 2014 Sports Illustrated announcement about returning to play in Cleveland: “I’m not promising a championship.” He understood the power in both those key words, and he would not overstep on that front.

What he did add was: “I feel my calling here goes above basketball.”

And that’s when he renamed his Wheels for Education project to be the I PROMISE Program.

Spoiler alert: At the end of its first year, IPS received an A grade from the Ohio Department of Education in the “Progress” category that reflects the growth of all students based on their past performances.

The documentary shows the sometimes agonizing process of that progress—which of course needs to continue to validate James’ efforts more fully. IPS principal Brandi Davis says on camera to tearful teachers after a first month of minimal instruction while occupied by massive behavior modification and relationship building: “We are creating change. It’s not going to be comfortable. It is going to keep you up at night. Because if it doesn’t, then why are you here?”

The heads all around Davis in that faculty meeting nod at her assessment, and they forge on.

The invitations to IPS come through a lottery of the lowest-performing students in the school district.

“The reason that we pick at-risk and struggling readers is because LeBron wants students who are just like him,” Davis says. “LeBron was that struggling student, academically and with attendance.”

James got help as a youth and recognizes now how much he needed it. He missed 83 days of school in fourth grade as his mother moved from place to place. Frankie and Pam Walker knew James from youth football and wound up becoming his benefactors.

Frankie’s simple wish to give back to his community has—after Pam encouraged a not-yet-superstar LeBron to keep his eye on his humanitarian goal, too—spawned this absolutely exponential level of giving back from James, named the 2018 Sports Philanthropist of the Year by Inside Philanthropy.

The documentary is a glimpse into the real lives being nudged forward by these dominos falling. It’s an opportunity from afar during this COVID-19 downtime to open our eyes, ears and arms to what others experience. That openness is what connects and advances society, especially during more difficult times.

We wrote about James’ basketball work last week in this space—how strong of an MVP candidate he is in his 17th season because of his career-high assists, the Lakers’ team success and how James continues to hold dearly to his growth mindset: “The reason why I’m the person I am today is because I went through those tough times when I was younger.”

Among us, some are leaders, some are followers—and that’s OK. Some might drive through rougher neighborhoods and gain a little perspective; some will volunteer in those neighborhoods and make a difference. Some live there and do the most good. Very few go back and build everything up, but James is trying.

“The goal of the I PROMISE School,” Davis says, “is to be a nationally recognized model of urban- and public-school excellence.”

Bold words. But at the school, Davis and the teachers can’t shrink from words. Consider the words they hear from their young students confiding truths about their families. As the documentary shares, those words can go quietly like this from one boy: “It made me feel sad because my little brother died. He got shot.” Or matter-of-factly like this from another boy: “My dad, he was with his friend, and his friend set him up. They stabbed him. They shot him. Ran him over. They stabbed him in his throat.”

Trauma. That’s the catch-all word used internally at the school to appreciate how affected at-risk kids are by stressful home life. “Trauma” is the kind of word that is difficult to spin in any different positive direction.

Most words and situations can be shaped by perspective when some effort. It applies even to the current pandemic. Look at Los Angeles County’s carefully chosen “Safer at Home” terminology. As hard as it is to resist dwelling on the negatives of unchosen circumstances, we can try.

You might be feeling “trapped” … but what if you replace that terminology with a sense of being “grounded”? A healthier, more optimistic outlook can result. No, we’re not able to leave the house as normally we would, but we can choose to brood over the idea of being “isolated” … or we can replace it with a feeling of being “protected.”

James is trying to redeem the negatives in kids’ lives—with words and actions. The production company behind this documentary is SpringHill Entertainment, created by James and childhood friend Maverick Carter. The Spring Hill apartment complex in Akron was James’ heaven in a sense. It was the place he and his mother finally settled down, and he found his sanctuary with his own room. Now SpringHill Entertainment is one of the hottest names in Hollywood for the rich, cross-cultural content it is creating.

Words mean more when they get solidified, when they stand for something time after time. That’s what’s happening with I PROMISE, which is standing for more and more.

There’s I PROMISE Too (parents earning their GEDs at the school and being professionally mentored for their next steps) and the I PROMISE Institute (a resource center at the University of Akron to facilitate student transition to college life). The I PROMISE Village is coming this summer, offering transitional housing for needy families and bolstering the school’s parent-focused support system in a unique way. Also on the way: I PROMISE children’s books authored by James—one picture book to be published in August, a middle-grade novel coming next year.

It goes to the same end. All of it.

There’s one bottom line when it comes to promise.

It’s amazing to see it fulfilled in a child.

* * *

Kevin Ding is an independent sports writer, and the statements and views expressed by him do not necessarily represent the views of the Los Angeles Lakers.

To catch up on all of Kevin Ding's in-depth Lakers stories, visit The Point home page.

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