As the final seconds ticked off the clock at Oracle Arena in Oakland, and we watched Golden State Warriors’ forward Mareese Speights chuck one last failed three-pointer, LeBron James and all of northeast Ohio were finally able to exhale.
James, the Akron-born savior of the Cleveland Cavaliers, was rushed by teammates Kevin Love and J.R. Smith under the basket as tears started streaming down his face, releasing the emotions pent up inside of everyone in Cleveland after more than a half-century of failure. No one could have imagined this in back 2010.
That’s when James, with a giddy smile on his face, infamously announced on ESPN during “The Decision” that he was bailing on the Cavs after seven seasons and “taking his talents to South Beach” to play for the Miami Heat.It left Cleveland fans heartbroken and infuriated.Who can forget the scene in Cleveland as angry fans burned James’ No. 23 jerseys in the streets? James’ exodus left the Cavaliers back in their customary space as a laughingstock while the Heat went on to win four straight Eastern Conference championships and a pair of NBA Titles in 2012 and 2013.
Remember Dan Gilbert’s ‘letter’ to LeBron James, accusing the star forward of ‘cowardly’ betraying his city?
Well – today, all is forgiven. A
It’s hard to believe that LeBron first jumped onto the world’s stage 14 years ago as a junior at St. Vincent-St. Mary’s Academy in Akron. At 6-foot-7, 225 lbs. and just 17-years-old, he was kicking it with Michael Jordan, hanging out with Jay-Z, and gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated with the words “The Chosen One” under his then baby face.
James’ mother, Gloria, gave birth to him at age 16. The ‘King’ grew up without a father and still does not have a relationship with him to this day.
Late in the fourth grade, LeBron moved in with the family of his youth basketball coach Frankie Walker, which James has often credited with changing his attitude and reshaping his life. Today, James, 31, has made giving back to the community, particularly children in Akron, a priority.
James has done that with his LeBron James Family Foundation, where he – among other things – developed a mentoring program called Wheels For Education. The program helps kids who are seen as at risk for dropping out beginning in the third grade and the program runs all the way through their graduation from high school.
That first class is set to graduate in 2021 and when they do, the foundation will sponsor full scholarships at the University of Akron for all 1,100 kids currently in the program. James keeps up with the kids in the program personally through social media, trying to give to these kids what his father did not.
The foundation’s other projects have included home restorations in Akron; providing new athletic uniforms at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School; and working with the Boys & Girls Club in each city that hosts the NBA All-Star Game that particular year.
It was the Boys & Girls Club that coincidentally benefitted from LeBron’s dubious “Decision.” In 2010, LeBron James was more hated in Ohio than anyone representing the two Big Ten schools in the state of Michigan.
It was the only year his foundation did not raise more than $300,000. Today, however, all is forgiven.
James’ return immediately resurrected the Cavs on and off the floor. The team, owned by Detroit business mogul Dan Gilbert, was worth $380 million in 2007 – the year James and the Cavs were swept in the NBA Finals.
Today, according to Forbes, the franchise is worth $1.1 billion thanks largely to James and that stands to increase with this championship.
LeBron’s 2014 return was as stunning as his 2010 exit and he made it his stated goal to bring a championship to Cleveland. But while his victory over the Golden State Warriors was final destination on his road to redemption, James said last week that chasing his third championship, and Cleveland’s first since the passage of the Civil Rights Act, his work off the court also drove him to abandon South Beach for Akron.
“I’m able to do so many things there, hands on with my foundation,” James during a press conference prior to Game 5. “I’m able to uplift the youth in my community. Even though you’re able to do it from afar, if you’re actually there, I think it’s even more meaningful to kids that look up to you for inspiration.”
Jay Scott Smith is a writer and broadcaster who also hosts his own podcast – JSC Radio. Follow him on Twitter @JayScottSmith