The path of LeBron James‘ foundation has, in some ways, mirrored the path of his career.
Always a potential powerhouse because of James’ wealth and influence, the operation was somewhat unfocused early on. For example, for several years its major annual event — a city-wide bike-a-thon for kids in his hometown of Akron, Ohio — ended up losing money and straining the city’s budget.
But as James was finding his footing as a superstar and a leader during his time in Miami, his foundation was doing the same back in Ohio, as it became focused specifically on at-risk children and their education. They’ve both been on a roll ever since.
Many times over the past decade, James has said, “I’m just a kid from Akron” and “I’m not supposed to be here, I’m supposed to be a statistic.” It can sound like a slogan, but to him, it isn’t. As is well known, he faced poverty, lack of stability and periods of homelessness when he was a child. His small family was directly impacted by drugs and violent crime, and things crashed down on him to the point that he’d stopped attending school regularly by the time he was in fourth grade.
The circumstances pointed toward James’ life not having a good outcome, on the verge of being lost before he knew where basketball could take him. These are the statistics he’s trying to fight with his money and ability to rally huge corporations and schools to a cause.
Over the past four years, as he played again for the Cleveland Cavaliers, James’ career became fully mature. It culminated in both the 2016 NBA championship, and this past season, when he played in every game and had one of the best playoff performances in NBA history as he pulled his underdog team to one more Finals appearance.
The same could be said for his foundation, which reaches a milestone more than a decade in the making on Monday when it launches its own school in coordination with the Akron Public Schools. It will eventually draw hundreds of at-risk children, kids who are walking in the same shoes James was in at elementary school age. The new school has a longer school day and a longer school year, and its educators will be tasked with trying to overcome historic disadvantages the attendees face.
If the children follow the program the foundation has worked to mold, James has arranged for them to have free college tuition at the University of Akron. Along the way, the foundation has set up a program to also help the parents earn their high school diplomas and other continuing education.
It’s a brave experiment. Instead of disadvantaged children being mainstreamed, James’ school will group the at-risk students from across his hometown together to try to streamline the support system. If it works, James and his foundation’s leaders dream, it could change the way cities and school systems view these challenges. It could spread to other cities in Ohio that need help. And then, who knows?
So here is James’ legacy to northeast Ohio, at least the way he sees it.
He followed through on a pledge and helped deliver the area’s first pro sports championship in 52 years. There was a reason when James said goodbye to Cleveland after signing with the Los Angeles Lakers earlier this month that he paired it with a photo of the parade that brought more than a million people to downtown. To many who turned that day into a generational family event, the symbolism of the parade was just as meaningful as the act of winning the championship itself. James enjoying the view from the backseat of a convertible with people climbing street lamps and hanging out of parking decks to watch is just as iconic in Cleveland as his blocking Andre Iguodala‘s shot in Game 7.
While that is his lasting mark on Cleveland, the I Promise School, as the LeBron James Family Foundation has named it, is his legacy to his hometown. Eventually, the goal is for thousands to pass through its doors and up the ladder. For a city like Akron, population 200,000, trying to improve the outlook of this segment of children is how James has decided to attempt to foster generational change.
What James wants in 20 years is a meaningful change in the city’s adult-literacy rates. And its crime rate. And its median income. These are the statistics James wants to be a part of.
But this is where things get a little jagged.
Relocating to Los Angeles, James is now operating through the last act of a one-of-a-kind career. He lives in a world where his daily performance is graded concurrently with his legacy. It’s something he embraced by wearing the same number as Michael Jordan. Now he has joined the same franchise as Kobe Bryant, knowing it’s probably going to be challenging — if not impossible — to ever be held in the same regard by the Lakers’ passionate fan base.
James is a student of the game’s history who seeks perspective. As he has moved through the past eight years of playing for titles and of multiple free agencies, he has done so knowing the long-term context of his performance and decisions. While he’s secure in his accomplishments, he’s also aware he’s going to exist in a gray area for many.
On one hand, James doesn’t much care about how his path is perceived. After a tough first season in Miami, James posted in his locker a guiding quote from a Theodore Roosevelt speech in Paris in 1910. The “Man in the Arena” passage refers to rising above critics. James often will write “Man in the Arena” on his shoes for games as another reminder to himself.
On the other hand, James is sensitive to how he will be remembered. The reason he needs to constantly remind himself to ignore criticism is the same reason he watches playoff games on mute on his off nights. He doesn’t want to hear what he knows is going on: people picking at him.
In the end, James played 11 seasons in Cleveland and left with that single title. Jordan played 13 seasons for the Chicago Bulls and won six titles. Bryant was with the Lakers for 20 years and won five. Tim Duncan got five rings in 19 seasons with the San Antonio Spurs. Magic Johnson won five in just 12 years with the Lakers. Larry Bird won three in 13 seasons with the Boston Celtics.
Were James to deliver a title to the Lakers, he might gain elite-athlete status in L.A. But it will still be the franchise’s 17th banner. It’s probably not going to be enough to get him a statue outside Staples. In Ohio, his one title has left multiple groups organizing attempts to build statues now, while he’s still playing.
On Monday afternoon, James is scheduled to speak publicly for the first time since signing with the Lakers. It was designed to be a moment of celebration for his foundation. Because of the circumstances, it will also be a time for explanation.
Since fumbling over his lines at the Boys and Girls Club in Connecticut in 2010, James has become an expert at these moments. He has a way of commanding any room no matter the consequence and has shown an ability to handle delicate matters smoothly.
What he says and how his says it will probably be replayed for years. That’s how these things have always gone. But it’s not a time to analyze words. As James leaves Akron and Cleveland behind, his actions are in place.
He’s not interested in the debate over whether they were enough.