LeBron James has made hundreds of millions of dollars and achieved international fame beyond his wildest imagination. But in his heart, he will always be “just a kid from Akron.”
For that, all of Northeast Ohio should forever be grateful.
“The King” has devoted his non-basketball life to giving back to the community — and giving underprivileged youths the ability to dream — as part of his LeBron James Family Foundation.
“I understand that I’m a role model to these kids and I take that very seriously,” James said Friday at InfoCision Stadium. “To these kids, I’m a superhero, father, brother, whatever they want me to be.
“Basketball has given me a vehicle to give them hope and inspiration. To be able to do that, it’s an incredible feeling.”
It’s also quite reciprocal, as approximately 25,000 fans traveled to the University of Akron to celebrate James’ return to the Cavaliers after a four-year stay with the Miami Heat.
Officially, the event was billed as the “I Promise Family Reunion and Welcome Home LeBron Celebration.”
In reality, though, it was far more about the former than the latter to the man himself.
James insisted that no advertising be visible in the football stadium, instead decorating it with inspirational banners intended for the elementary and middle school students in his Wheels for Education program.
All the seats on the field were also reserved for those youths, who were made to feel like VIPs from the moment they arrived on campus. It was the kind of experience that James never had as the only child of a single mother living in poverty.
“Everything was earned and nothing was given to my mother, and I watched all of her struggles,” James recalled. “That’s why today is not about me, it’s not about Akron — it’s about the kids.
“Even the last four years when I was away, this event has always shown me what was important. It meant so much to me to come back.”
While James’ focus was on the kids, the focus of the sports world was on the best basketball player on the planet. National television crews flocked to the evening event, while untold millions watched it live on the Internet.
The magnitude of the moment — and James’ realization that he was indeed where he belonged — sunk in late in the two-hour event when Skylar Grey performed “I’m Coming Home.”
The song became the unofficial theme of the summer as soon as “The Chosen One” announced his return to Cleveland in a first-person essay written for Sports Illustrated.
“It’s almost like she knew I was coming home before I knew I was coming home,” James said, his voice breaking. “This is amazing. I want to thank everyone for being here. Oh, my God.”
The four-time NBA MVP wiped away tears as he took the stage to a rousing ovation, accompanied by his mother Gloria, pregnant wife Savannah and sons LeBron Jr. and Bryce.
James slowly spun around to soak in the moment, repeatedly bowed to the crowd and thanked them for sharing the special occasion.
“I swear I missed you all,” he said. “Those four years, I missed you all. I missed this home cooking.”
The St. Vincent-St. Mary High graduate later recited both versions of “The Promise” that represents the core values of his foundation, then delivered a sincere message of hope to the youths on hand.
And in true superstar fashion, James whipped the fans into a frenzy as the post-celebration fireworks began exploding above him.
“People told me that I had to do what made LeBron happy,” James said, his voice dripping with emotion. “But I said I’m going to do what makes my city and my state happy, and that’s why I came back. I love you. I’m back.”
Contact Brian Dulik at firstname.lastname@example.org.