AKRON — LeBron James stood on a stage near one of the streets he walked as a troubled kid and looked out at thousands of faces. He felt connected to every one of them.
While his 3-year-old daughter, Zhuri, played at his feet, James watched as his mother, Gloria, raised a flag in front of a school that is perhaps his greatest triumph.
His incredible life. Full circle.
Before leaving for Los Angeles, James gave his hometown quite a gift.
James, who ended his second stint with Cleveland earlier this month by signing with the Los Angeles Lakers, on Monday opened his I Promise School, a year-around learning center devoted to some of the city’s most challenged youngsters — ones just like him.
For James, who recalled missing 82 days of school as a fourth-grader while he and his mom “looked for stability,” the opening culminated years of planning by his family foundation.
“This means everything,” James told The Associated Press in an interview before the public event. “I think this is the greatest accomplishment for me because it’s not just me. A championship is for a team, that’s for an organization and a city. But these kids, this is for generation after generation after generation and it’s for these kids, so it means everything.”
It was an emotional day for James, who also made his first comments since signing the $154 million deal with the Lakers — a move still causing tremors across the NBA.
James recalled beating the odds of his youth when life was a daily struggle for him and his mom. Nothing was easy as the pair constantly moved and it was only with the help of others that James found structure.
Now, he’s giving kids with the same problems a path.
“There is no way I could have imagined this,” he said. “I remember our foundation having a bike-a-thon, and I never thought a 5-mile bike ride would turn into a school. This is something I’m at a loss of words for.”
As far as basketball, the 33-year-old superstar said the decision to leave Cleveland again was difficult, but he didn’t rule out a second homecoming with the Cavaliers.
“Listen, I don’t close the chapter on anything or close the book on anything,” James said when asked if he would return to Cleveland to end his career. “But hopefully I can sit there one day and watch my jersey go up into the rafters, that’s for sure.”
When James announced July 1 that he was leaving the Cavs, Cleveland owner Dan Gilbert, who famously ripped him when he left the first time, said the franchise would retire “the famous 23 Cavs jersey one day down the line.”
James was unaware of Gilbert’s pledge.
“I didn’t hear that,” he said. “I haven’t been in the news. That’s awesome.”
James led the Cavs to an NBA title in 2016, ending Cleveland’s 52-year championship drought, and to four straight Finals — a run he admitted he didn’t think was even possible when he returned in 2014 after four seasons in Miami.
James didn’t offer many details about what prompted him to sign with the Lakers, but the lure of playing for one of the most successful franchises in all of sports was more than intriguing.
“There’s no reason you should become a Laker, became 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,” James said. “That’s what the history is all about.”
James has his work cut out for him in Los Angeles. He’ll join a young team that added some interesting pieces — Lance Stephenson, Rajon Rondo, Michael Beasley and JaVale McGee — during the offseason but a squad that has a long way to go before it can challenge the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors.
“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. 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 going to come from familiarity.”
Unlike his previous forays into free agency, James didn’t waste any time making a decision. Once his eighth straight appearance in the Finals ended with a sweep against Golden State, James met with his family and agent before agreeing with the Lakers on the first day.
“I did my due diligence after the season on the pros and cons of a lot of different teams, including the Cavs, including Philadelphia, including Houston and Los Angeles,” James said. “It wasn’t as quick as it may seem. It just wasn’t as July 9 as it was before. After talking to my family more than anybody, I felt this was the next step in my journey.”
This trip will take him thousands of miles from home. But as James reminded students, family and friends in the closing moments of his remarks, he’ll never be far away.
“No matter if I’m playing in Los Angles or not, Akron, Ohio, is always home for me,” he told the crowd.
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