CLEVELAND – The subject matter struck an emotional chord with the 105 seventh-grade students that listened attentively. And why wouldn’t it, considering the topic centered on LeBron James?
This time, though, the conversation had nothing to do with James as a home-town generational star that has collected four NBA championships, four Finals and regular-season Kia MVPs as well as countless statistical milestones. It had everything to do with how James’ mother, Gloria, related to the attentive students by sharing her story as a single mother growing up in poverty in Akron.
“It was an emotional conversation about owning who you are and her life growing up with LeBron and she shared some insight into that as a mom,” said Michele Campbell, the executive director of the LeBron James Family Foundation, to NBA.com. “The biggest message she hit home with our kids is not to be ashamed to ask for help.”
Fitting that Gloria delivered that message. She spoke those words on Thursday at an event that Ruffles and the LeBron James Family Foundation hosted for seventh graders of the I Promise School, a program James’ foundation and Akron Public Schools opened in 2018 as a partnership to help at-risk youth with education and financial resources. On Sunday, James will make his 18th All-Star appearance — in Cleveland, where he played for two separate stints (2003-10, ’14-18), the second including the Cavaliers winning their first NBA title, among four Finals appearances.
When Cleveland last hosted NBA All-Star weekend in 1997, James could have been one of those students in an I Promise-type program. Then, James recalled he and his friends wished they had the means to attend All-Star weekend so they could see a generational talent dominate (Michael Jordan) and a young rookie win the league’s dunk contest (Kobe Bryant).
“Just wishing that we could come up here and see any one of those guys as a youngster,” James said. “So to be here 25 years later is a remarkable thing. It’s pretty cool.”
It sure is. James’ return here captures his longevity.
With this 18th All-Star appearance, James has the chance to tie Bryant and Bob Pettit for most All-Star MVPs (four). Even if the Lakers (27-31) have labored in ninth place in the Western Conference amid overlapping injuries and inconsistent chemistry among James, Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook, James has averaged 29.1 points on 52.2% percent shooting along with 7.9 rebounds and 6.5 assists. This marks James’ highest scoring season since he played with the Cavaliers in the 2009-10 season (29.7 ppg).
“LeBron is having an MVP season,” Lakers assistant coach Phil Handy told NBA.com. “Our overall team struggles doesn’t really give people the opportunity to see the way he’s playing right now. But he’s playing some of the best basketball that I’ve ever seen him play.”
And this return showcases James’ community impact after growing up in nearby Akron, which James estimated to be “about 35 minutes” south of here.”
James practiced on Saturday in front of 30 students representing the first class of third graders in the I Promise program. Those students graduated high school last year and have since joined the work force, military or college after the I Promise program granted them financial and training assistance. Campbell estimated that at least 50 I Promise students will attend Sunday’s All-Star Game (8 ET, TNT).
The Kent State I Promise Scholars Program will receive charitable donations regardless of the outcome. They will receive a $150,000 donation before tipoff. Then, “Team LeBron” and “Team Durant” will compete in the first three quarters for their beneficiary to receive an additional $100,000 per quarter. But “Team LeBron” has an additional motive to win. If “Team LeBron” reaches the target score in the fourth quarter, the Kent State I Promise Scholars Program will receive another $150,000. The NBA and State Farm also plan to donate $1,900 for every assist made during the game with the total amount benefitting the Kent State I Promise Scholars Program and the Greater Cleveland Food Bank. Those funds will help with various education expenses, including books, supplies as well as room and board.
“We’ve built this awesome family here in Akron,” Campbell said. “We’re all in this together, and we all go through rough times.”
How James has maintained longevity
It would not be surprising if the Kent State I Promise Scholars program receives the most financial assistance possible following Sunday’s All-Star game. “Team LeBron” has gone 4-0 ever since James has served as an All-Star captain.
Given James’ body of work this season, don’t be surprised if he collects that fourth All-Star MVP trophy. As Handy noted, “he looks at those challenges and different opportunities to chase greatness.”
For someone who has remained flexible on playing the game as a scorer or passer, James expressed uncertainty on if he will try to make history or just save himself for the second half of the NBA season.
“I have no idea,” James said. “I’ve taken different approaches, just depending how my body was feeling or how the season was going at that point in time. If I needed more rest, then I’m not trying to burn out during the All-Star Game. But at the same time, I’m going to give the fans a little bit of something because this is what it’s all about. Just being smart about it. I definitely want to be smart about my minutes and things that I play. It’s the only time and only game throughout the season where I’m okay talking about my minutes.”
Otherwise, James has had no choice but to maintain a heavy workload. He entered this 19th season in hopes that the opposite would happen: the Lakers expected Davis to open the year fully healthy and replicate the chemistry he forged with James to win an NBA title two years ago; the Lakers also believed Westbrook could relieve some of the scoring and play-making workload.
Neither of those scenarios played out as hoped, and that reality has also coincided with other developments. The Lakers have had players miss a combined 174 games to injuries, including James sitting out 15 because of various ailments to his right ankle, left knee and abdominal muscle. The Lakers also had players miss an additional 39 games due to COVID-19 protocols, including James missing one game after an inconclusive test result.
No wonder James described this as “the strangest season I’ve been a part of so far.” It was also telling that James called Oklahoma City Thunder GM Sam Presti “the real MVP” in response to a question about rookie Josh Giddey after Lakers GM Rob Pelinka failed to make any changes before the trade deadline.
“It’s just been very challenging, very physically and emotionally draining at times, but that’s the NBA season,” James said. “If you are not having your mindset on that happening, then you’re setting yourself up for failure. I’ve always kind of known that’s going to happen at some point throughout the season.”
After all, James experienced plenty of adversity regarding team dynamics, roster turnover and injuries during his time with Cleveland, Miami and the Lakers. And still won four NBA titles in 10 Finals appearances.
“We had some challenging seasons in Cleveland with guys hurt and Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving got hurt in the playoffs,” said Handy, who also worked with James during his second stint in Cleveland. “We had a season where we had a bunch of guys come in that didn’t necessarily fit. But his approach has always been about, ‘Let me embrace the guys that are around me and how can we figure out ways to win? How can we figure out ways to get better?’ He’s always been a guy that is all in with whoever is in uniform with him.”
That partly explains James’ optimism for the Lakers’ second half of the season. He believed team chemistry has fostered with a healthier lineup no longer worried about the trade deadline. He also became encouraged with the team’s play following a close loss to Golden State and a come-from-behind win over Utah.
“I hope we can continue that same energy and that same connectivity,” James said. “As a leader of the team, obviously, it starts and ends with me.”
Few in NBA circles believe in the Lakers’ chances. Plenty in NBA circles, however, refuse to bet against James.
“He’s just like fine wine,” said Clippers coach Tyronn Lue, who coached James in Cleveland. “He gets better with age.”
What has James accomplished at 37 years old?
James has scored at least 25 points in 23 consecutive games. That surpassed James’ streak in the 2007-08 season when he logged at least 25 points in 22 consecutive games. James’ latest streak matches Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid for the longest NBA scoring streak this season. James surpassed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for most combined regular-season and postseason points (44,157). With 36,599 regular-season points, James appears close toward eclipsing Karl Malone (36,628) this season and Abdul-Jabbar (38,387) as the NBA’s all-time leading scorer sometime late next season. No wonder James led all players in All-Star voting for the sixth consecutive year.
“He’ll play at this level for as long as he chooses to,” said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, who coached James to two NBA titles out of four NBA Finals appearances. “He’s that committed to everything behind the scenes and taking care of his body and the science and the rest. He’s redefining what the possibilities are for human performance. He should be very inspiring for the young generation coming up that they can easily play 20 years and at a high level.”
Moments before, Celtics forward Jayson Tatum detailed just how James has inspired other NBA stars.
“It gives everyone else a whole new perspective,” James said. “If it’s taught us anything, especially players around my age, how important it is to take care of your body. If everybody wants to play 10, 15, 20 years, I think he is the standard of how to get there.”
No wonder James said he has shared unspecified tidbits with recent players. But during All-Star weekend, James’ admitted no one really has time amid the busy itinerary. They can at least read the transcript of James’ post-practice interview for some insight.
“I work on my craft,” James said. “You guys have seen me when you come to practice, and I’m working on my game or before the games or off days. I’m trying to see ways that I can continue to stay in great rhythm and see ways I can continue to get better. Even at my age. I’m never satisfied.”
How I Promise has made a difference in Akron
James has kept that same mindset with his efforts with the I Promise program.
After James formed his foundation in 2004 and conceptualized the I Promise program in 2011, he and his partners outlined a specific mission statement.
“We said we’d help you through, especially during the rough times,” Campbell said. “We’ll celebrate the good times together. But we’re going to help you break down any barriers.”
So in 2018, James launched the I Promise school with new initiatives that have grown almost by the year. It has entered its fourth year with students attending third through seventh grade, and will add an eighth-grade program next school year. The program provides more than just educational resources: It also has a Family Resource Center that gives students and families access to medical care, legal aid, financial literacy programming, mental health support, eye care and a pantry filled with food and household essentials.
In 2019, the I Promise Village opened to offer transitional housing for students and families experiencing traumatic experiences, including evictions and domestic violence.
“Families have shared their deepest and darkest secrets and shared the things they celebrate the most,” Campbell said. “When you do that and ask somebody to tell you what are the barriers and what can we help you with and they tell you and they listen, you must respond. If you don’t respond, you lose trust.”
So even with schools closing at the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, the program’s Family Resource Center stayed open to assist students and families. The I Promise Village by Graduate Hotels then opened in July 2020 for additional transitional housing for families who are homeless, living in shelters or bunked up with other friends and families. They received recent-free housing and access to various classes, involving cooking, piano and academic tutoring.
In December 2020, James’ family foundation launched a “House Three Thirty” initiative that will serve as a community resource and job training center slated for an opening in January 2023. In October 2021, James’ family foundation launched “I Promise Housing” which offered 50 units of affordable housing in East Akron.
“It didn’t matter if he’s playing in L.A. or wherever he is,” Campbell said. “It doesn’t matter if there’s a pandemic. People still need family. People still need help. That’s what we did. I will say as a family unit, I believe the pandemic made us stronger. During that time when a lot of people were scared of shutting doors, we were the family that our families called. We rallied together and served. It’s all about honoring your word. When people you make promises to people, we have to deliver.”
That explains why James’ foundation and Ruffles held a private event on Thursday for Gloria and the I Promise 7th graders. That way, they could talk candidly in a safe space.
“She just really hit home about leaning on your family and to ask for help,” Campbell said. “There were times it was hard for her to do that. It was a very powerful event and just what we needed for our 7th graders.”
Mark Medina is a senior writer/analyst for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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