By Jonathan X. Simmons
As millions watch, awestruck, LeBron James effortlessly performs highlights that seem impossible to many. With career statistics that are almost unparalleled in NBA history, it is safe to say James is one of the greatest basketball players to ever set foot on a court. His career accolades only speak to his athletic greatness, and he has proven time and time again why players like him only come around once every few generations.
The 18-year-old standout entered the NBA directly from St. Vincent St. Mary High School in 2003 and since has steamrolled his way to being an unquestioned first ballot Basketball Hall of Famer. But before LeBron James became a global sports and business icon, he was just a kid from Akron, Ohio.
Months before he was drafted into the NBA, during LeBron’s senior year of high school, I moved to Akron. I was only in kindergarten so the Sports Illustrated covers and constant headlines about him did not mean much to me. But the whole community was ecstatic when the Cleveland Cavaliers won the luck of the draw and selected the high-school phenomenon, who grew up just a half hour down the road from me, as the first overall pick in the draft.
My family became Cavs season-ticket holders for the seven seasons LeBron initially played in Cleveland. I remember waking up on a Sunday and sitting in our C106 club seats while the Cavs struggled with Steve Nash and the Suns on January 28, 2007. I remember being a part of the sold out 20,000+ crowd on Snuggie Night that broke the world record for the “largest gathering of people wearing fleece blankets.” I still have the Snuggie and the magnet to prove it. When I turned 10 years old my parents treated me to a party with all of my friends in a suite at the game. I will never forget when Moondog stepped through the door and handed me a mini basketball that he had personally autographed. Eight years later, the ball is still sitting on top of the dresser in my room. A birthday greeting, “Happy 10th Birthday, Jonathan” was flashed across the Jumbotron, and Cavalier girls stopped by the suite and took pictures with us. I remember my parents letting me stay up way past my bedtime to watch my favorite team, led by my favorite player, as the Cavs grinded out win after win. I grew up with LeBron.
While he was a superstar on the court, LeBron was a regular guy in the town where we both live. It was not unusual to see a playful LeBron stopped at a red light on his white Spyder motorcycle, buying sunglasses in Target, or picking up CDs in Best Buy. While you knew who he was and that he was a big deal, it did not really affect how you went about your day. Everyone gave him his space.
Each summer my family would participate in the LeBron James Bike-a-Thon, a ritual that would take us across Akron’s famous Y-Bridge near where LeBron grew up; he would bring basketball celebrities like Dwyane Wade to town. The money raised was used to support special programs for Akron kids such as the Boys and Girls Club and the Akron Food Bank. LeBron would host movie nights for struggling families and he would give away turkeys at Thanksgiving. He donated money, built basketball courts in community parks, and was an all-around good guy.
When his children became old enough to attend school, LeBron and his wife Savannah enrolled LeBron Jr. and Bryce at my elementary school, Old Trail School. Old Trail is a private school in Bath, Ohio. The day before school began at the annual open house, when I was in seventh grade, everyone was catching up and talking about how their summer went when our principal turned the corner with LeBron by his side. LeBron wanted to see the new gym the school had just built. Never one to miss an opportunity, some of us middle schoolers got to play against him. He did not care if we were kids. He did not cut us any slack. After our game, LeBron talked to us in the hall. He asked us how things were going, and told us to do well in school. He was treated like any other parent. Sometimes he would be out playing with his sons on the lower school playground, and he was the same size as the slides and basketball equipment nearby. Savannah was always on campus volunteering and regularly served lunch to students in the cafeteria.
It definitely hurt a little when LeBron decided to take his talents to South Beach. I felt like part of his extended Akron family. But as much as it hurt to watch him go, I knew he was carrying a team and an entire city on his back. And as much as I hate to admit it, the team around him was not good enough to bring a title to Northeast Ohio. If he wanted to win championships, going to Miami was the best move for him. I respected his decision to leave, but I wished he handled it differently. A regular announcement like any other high-profile free agent would have been much better than a media extravaganza where he dragged it out before finally saying those words that ripped out the heart of every Cleveland fan.
Despite the superficial coverage of the national media, people in Akron still supported LeBron while he played for the Heat. The Akron-based LeBron James Grandmothers traveled to other cities to cheer him on and vowed to give him a parade no matter where he won his rings. Neighbors put signs of support in their yards so he would see them when he came back to his first home. His right to leave was debated in barber shops. And contrary to national television footage, most people – especially black people – did not burn their jersey, which is why so many No. 23 jerseys appeared four years later when LeBron returned. We were still Cavs supporters and season-ticket holders after he left, but it was hard to love the team that had lost its heart and soul.
When LeBron announced his decision to come home in July 2014, I was working at Baker Boulevard. The bakery was selected to deliver 70 dozen cupcakes to LeBron’s neighbors to apologize for the media chaos his announcement created. I scrambled to put together boxes for the cupcakes, handle media inquiries and run the social media accounts. There was immediate excitement about the possibility the Cavs had to finally win a championship and end Cleveland’s 50 plus-years sports championship drought. But for the people of Akron, there was even more celebration because LeBron chose home. He stated that he was coming back to the community he calls home because to him the people of Northeast Ohio are who matter most to him.
The biggest thing people who are not from here do not realize is how much LeBron really loves where he is from. They might see the videos that people have made with old highlights from his first go-round with the Cavs put to Diddy’s “I’m Coming Home” song. But they do not realize how much he has given back to the community. They do not know about the LeBron James Family Foundation’s partnership with Habitat for Humanity, or that he has refurbished parks across Northeast Ohio that serve as a safe haven for kids, or how he promised to spend $41.8 million to put 1,100 kids from the Akron area through college. Even his decision to leave raised over $3 million for the Boys and Girls clubs. Not to mention the countless tweets, Facebook posts, Instagram pictures, and snapchat stories that everyone in Northeast Ohio has seen countless times thanks to his return.
LeBron has proven over and over again that the friendships he developed as a child, the relationships he cultivated as a teenager, and the community that has always supported him is where his heart is. So while Northeast Ohio is ecstatic about the NBA championship he brought us, no matter how challenging it was, we are even more satisfied with and proud of the commitment LeBron James has made to our community. In a place where it sometimes seems like no one has your back, you are seen as a mistake or a loser, and you somehow always end up being the world’s joke, it is nice to know that a kid from Akron, Ohio, cares and is always looking out for you, just like his city did for him.
Jonathan Simmons is a freshman journalism student at Morehouse College. If you’d like to follow-up with him, e-mail him here.
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