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Monday, June 24, 2024

LeBron James Changed Basketball Forever. His Hometown Is Next.

  • The LeBron James Family Foundation is on a mission to revitalize the community of Akron, Ohio — the basketball star’s hometown.
  • What began with one-off programs and a school has evolved to include housing, a job training facility, and health services.
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Akron, Ohio was founded in 1825 by Simon Perkins — a general of the Ohio militia who defended part of the state from British offenses in the War of 1812 — and Paul Williams, a westward settler from Connecticut.

Since then, the city has quietly been the site of several landmark events in American history.

The Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company was founded there in 1898. Abolitionist orator and feminist Sojourner Truth gave her “Ain’t I A Woman?” speech in Akron in 1851. The Akron School Law of 1847 played a major role in establishing unified school districts across the U.S.  — although Black children were excluded from that pioneering idea’s vision of public education as a right.

One hundred thirty-seven years later, LeBron Raymone James was born at Akron’s general hospital to a 16-year-old Gloria Maria James.

The arc from there is one of the world’s greatest success stories. You’ve likely heard it before.

Teenage basketball phenomenon rises up against impossible odds, goes straight from St. Vincent-St. Mary High School to the NBA, signs a $90 million endorsement deal with Nike at 18 years old, delivers on the hype and becomes the league’s all-time leading scorer 20 years later, earning four MVP awards and four titles along the way.

He’s an investor in Beats by Dre, Lobos 1707 tequila, and Blaze Pizza. He has ownership stakes in the Boston Red Sox, Pittsburgh Penguins, Liverpool FC, and AC Milan. Nobody will be surprised if he winds up owning the NBA’s first Las Vegas franchise, as he’s said he wants to.

But before any of that, he was just a kid from Akron.

Anytown, USA

LeBron James Family Foundation

Akron is what America really looks like. We have the Empire State Building and the California mountains, but the 190,000-person town’s main thoroughfare Market Street, with its sprawling strip malls and gas stations, dry cleaners and fast food restaurants, is a true emblem of this country.

In a car on the way to the LeBron James Family Foundation office one morning in late March, the driver brings up the area’s most famous native apropos of nothing.

“People think I’m crazy for saying this,” he starts. “I’m not a big fan of LeBron. He runs his mouth too much. If he just stuck to playing and kept quiet, he’d be better.”

“You feel that way even with him being from around here?” I ask.

“Even more so. He doesn’t know when to shut up.”

LeBron has been facing this type of rhetoric for years. In February 2018, Fox News host Laura Ingraham, in response to comments James made during an ESPN interview that were critical of President Donald Trump, told viewers “it’s always unwise to seek political advice from someone who gets paid $100 million a year to bounce a ball.”

Then the infamous line: “Shut up and dribble.”

LeBron wore a pair of Air Force 1s with “MORE THAN AN ATHLETE” written on the side to an All-Star Weekend press conference days later. “We will definitely not shut up and dribble,” he told reporters. “I mean too much to society, too much to the youth, too much to so many kids who feel like they don’t have a way out.”

He opened the I Promise School in Akron five months later.

More Than A School

LeBron James Family Foundation

“The school is based around making sure the students have opportunities that LeBron didn’t,” says Victoria McGee, director of the Family Resource Center at the I Promise School, her passion for the facilities and empathy for her students palpable in every interaction in the hallway.

Five years after opening, the school has become a catalyst for more development across Akron. Each successive I Promise project is aimed at addressing issues that a school alone can’t.

I Promise Village offers free transitional housing to families in the program who need it. I Promise Institute is an always-on resources center for I Promise students who earn scholarships to the University of Akron. I Promise Too help parents without a high school diploma earn their GED. Fifty units of affordable housing and a health center are under construction. The essential locations in this ecosystem are by design in close proximity to each other, in many cases walking distance.

“It’s about growth. People come in broken and leave in a better place,” Shannon Shippe tells me on the front steps of the I Promise Village apartments. As its residential and community director, she works closely with incoming families from their intake meeting until they move out, ideally with stable employment and longer-term housing on the other end of their stay.

Shippe says that the average family stays in the village for one year.

LeBron and his foundation’s ambitious plans can create challenges. Take the I Promise school for example — second graders whose reading scores are within the lowest 25% in Akron are added to a lottery process that can place them into the I Promise School from third grade until eighth grade.

Around 550 students are currently enrolled. Amenities range from a food pantry and laundry room to a high-tech media center where kids can learn how broadcasting works. Yet, low test scores are a problem at I Promise. But the commitment to helping students reimagine their educational path in a more positive light never wavers.

Speaking with several team members at the foundation, there’s an understanding that enacting meaningful change takes time. Outsiders are often skeptical about billionaire altruism, but Akron is a forever project for James and his team. It was only 12 years ago — when James felt disconnected from the area after his move from the Cleveland Cavaliers to the Miami Heat and decided to ramp up his community efforts — that the foundation’s focus shifted to today’s model.

The bet is that in another 12 years, Akron not only feels like a different city, and that students are dramatically more successful in the classroom, but also that the collective, long-running process of attempting to change the city for the better measures up to anything James has done commercially or athletically.

Training Day

LeBron James Family Foundation

“Listen and respond” is a phrase you hear no matter who you’re talking to at the LeBron James Family Foundation. The team still has a lot to learn and they prioritize action based on the most urgent feedback from students and parents throughout the I Promise program.

The multi-use House Three Thirty space (a nod to Akron’s 330 area code) is their latest endeavor.

Right now, the building — a former, now renovated, nightlife destination — is only using a portion of its facilities. There’s a Chase Bank where people can get advice that emphasizes financial literacy. And the location’s current centerpiece is a first-of-its-kind community model Starbucks, which employs parents, students, and others who are paid an hourly wage and earn credits toward job training certificates.

Inside House Three Thirty, seemingly everything is physically ready. There’s a taco restaurant, pizzeria, retail store, an ice cream shop, a sports bar, and room for large-scale events like concerts and weddings, but unlike the Starbucks, those areas are not staffed and running yet.

“We’re taking the whole year of 2023,” says Michele Campbell, executive director of the LeBron James Family Foundation. “It’s a training year for all of us.”

When team members feel that they’ve mastered the Starbucks and its lessons in hospitality, they’ll move on to operating the rest of the businesses in the building.

Now this all sounds good, but how is success measured?

Campbell says the foundation’s model can be applied in different cities and organizations. Public school officials from McKeesport, a town of 17,000 in Pennsylvania, have met with her about implementing a similar structure in their community. It’s small, but it’s a start.

On the ride back to airport, the driver asked for my impression of Akron. I shared some of what I’d seen.

“I love what LeBron is doing for Akron,” he said. “He’s changed this place in every way you can imagine.”

For more on LeBron’s plans for Akron, listen to Ernest Baker’s conversation with senior writer Owen Poindexter on our Front Office Sports Today podcast.

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