AKRON, Ohio — Back on the streets he used to walk when he was a troubled kid, celebrating the opening of his I Promise School on West Market Street, just a few blocks away from his alma mater St. Vincent-St. Mary, LeBron James punctuated one of the greatest days of his life with a special message to the adoring fans gathered around the front entrance of his new public school.
“No matter if I’m playing in Los Angeles or not, Akron, Ohio is always home for me,” James said.
Then his mother, Gloria, raised the I Promise School flag before confetti cannons fired toward the sun splashed Akron sky and party streamers landed on the blacktop.
One last thunderous delivery from the hometown hero.
After four years with the Cleveland Cavaliers, bringing his total to 11, James has a new basketball home, opting to leave Cleveland for a second time to join the Lakers — a decision he made quickly at the start of free agency.
Now at a stage in his career and personal life where he knows exactly what he wants, James didn’t need a made-for-TV special. A heartfelt letter wasn’t fitting this time around.
He pondered four options — the Lakers, Rockets, 76ers and Cavaliers — before choosing Los Angeles. In his own words, that’s the team that meets the two requirements he laid out following a Game 4 loss to the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals: Family and basketball.
“It was both,” James said Monday afternoon. “My family played a huge part in this but to be able to play for a historic franchise like the Lakers even though we’re not where we want to be right now, the organization is nowhere near where it wants to be right now, but we’re going in the right direction and I’m still playing at a high level so I’m looking forward to the challenge. I’m all about challenges and I’m looking forward to it.
“After talking to my family more than anybody, I felt this was the next step in my journey.”
On the surface, James’ decision to join the Lakers may seem perplexing. After all, he’s leaving behind a battle-tested roster that made four straight trips to the NBA Finals for a team shrouded in mystery.
The Lakers finished 35-47 last season, 12 games out of the final Western Conference playoff spot. They haven’t made the playoffs since 2013. Apart from new additions Lance Stephenson, Rajon Rondo, JaVale McGee and Michael Beasley, the Los Angeles roster is dotted with would-be-playoff neophytes.
That’s a challenge James met when he signed with the Cavs in 2014. And he relishes the chance to duplicate that success, bringing the Lakers back to prominence.
“What my expectations are for the team, we don’t have any right now,” James said. “But we’re definitely going to be better than we were the previous year. We want to have, you guys know me, when it comes to championship habits, that doesn’t mean you’re bringing a championship but you practice those habits every day and I expect that not only from myself, but from my teammates. That’s what Jeanie (Buss), that’s what Magic (Johnson), that’s what Rob (Pelinka) wants. That’s what Luke (Walton) is going to want. We shouldn’t sell ourselves short of that. I think there’s going to be months where we’re really good, there’s going to be months where we’re not so good and that’s just to come from familiarity.
“We’re all new to each other besides (Lonzo) Ball, (Brandon) Ingram, Kuz (Kyle Kuzma), (Josh) Hart, (Ivica) Zubac. But as far as us, there’s no reason you should become a Laker, become a Yankee, become part of Man U (Manchester United), become part of some franchise or clubs and you don’t think about winning championships or winning at the highest level. That’s what the history is all about. I like the challenge of being able to help a team get to some place they haven’t been in quite a while.”
Joining Los Angeles means leaving behind countless memories. But as is customary, James hasn’t yet stopped to reflect.
“You guys know me. I haven’t had time to go back. I can sit here and say it was a heck of a run,” he said. “My first year when I came here I can’t even … I didn’t believe that we could compete for a championship and we took the Warriors to Game 6 in my first year here and losing an All-Star point guard and an All-Star power forward in the same playoff run and then being able to come back the following year and winning and breaking the, I won’t call it a streak, but the drought, break the 50-plus year drought in this city and throughout the history of sports and then to get two more championship runs to it in four years, I think was more than I think we all could imagine.
“It was my goal, my goal was to come back and win a championship because I felt like I had a book left unturned but to say that I would knew we would go to four straight Finals with all the turnover we had, I couldn’t have imagined that.”
That’s only part of James’ incredible legacy. The other part was evident on Monday, when the doors to his school opened for the first time.
The I Promise School is a gorgeous and newly-renovated year-round learning center devoted to some of the city’s most challenged youngsters — ones just like him.
“I was talking to a couple of my friends today and it’s kind of a bittersweet moment for myself because on one hand I’m opening up a school where I would love to be here every single day when my schedule permits and then on the other hand I’m starting a new journey in my life where I’m on the other coast,” James said. “When you have the support system and so many people around you that has helped you along the way you know you don’t have to ever travel alone. That makes the transition a lot easier.”
James got emotional driving to the school Monday. He chose not to take a tour in the days leading up to its official opening because he wanted to share the genuine excitement of the 240 students at the same time. He has fond memories of the McDonald’s next door, which he once called his “Disney Land” while growing up. He talked about all of those things with friends and family in the hours leading up to his special day.
Forget the three NBA championships, including the 2016 title with the Cavaliers. Forget the countless shattered records. Forget all that on-court acclaim. It’s always been about more than basketball.
For James, this day was years in the making. He wasn’t a Laker. He was just a kid from Akron building on a foundation that will impact generations of kids in his own hometown.
“Just to know the journey that me and my mom has been on in my 33 years and for it to all come to fruition today,” James said. “For her to raise the flag along the street where we struggled a lot when I was growing up — I grew up in what was called “The Bottom” right there on Hickory Street, not too far from here. I used to walk this street. I used to walk Silver Street, right down the street. I went to Crosby for a few years so I know everything that goes on in this part of town.
“It means everything.”
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