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Just a kid from Akron

LeBron was put on a pedestal for carrying this city and its people as he climbs

A banner was unveiled, a street was renamed and thousands in the village that raised this child came out to celebrate his accomplishments.

LeBron James emerged on a downtown Akron, Ohio, concert stage pumping the Larry O’Brien Trophy in the air as Skylar Grey’s I’m Coming Home played in the background. Like a happy kid showing off his biggest prize to his closest friends, James let out a primal shriek as he soaked in the moment. Many in the crowd blinked back tears. If ever there was a doubt about whether winning the NBA championship would mean more in northern Ohio, the question was buried Thursday.

“Akron is home,” James said. “I see my friends and family in the crowd. I thank you!”

There is no place like home. Unlike Wednesday’s Cleveland parade that caused Savannah James to bristle as overzealous fans grabbed the Rolls-Royce her family was riding in, she was resplendent at the Akron homecoming. She rocked a black baseball cap with 330 – Akron’s area code – embroidered across the front. While much has been made of the Cavaliers’ All In 216 theme based on Cleveland’s area code, the James family was effusive about being “back in the 330.”

Before James walked off the stage, he told the crowd: “The Cleveland drought from the last championship was 50-some odd years ago. Guess what? It took a kid from Akron to end it.”

James talked this week about “the family” that shielded, mentored and molded him. He said he would have become nothing without them. Among that family is Frankie Walker, the youth football coach who put a basketball in his hands at age 9. James lived with Frankie and his wife Pam during a stretch of his childhood. Another, Brenda Weems, who died in 2006, treated James like her own son. He considers her son Brandon his brother. Thursday was James ‘ opportunity to cheer with his village – old teammates and classmates, teachers and coaches, cousins, second mothers and family friends.

James’ route to a championship began as a child. Dru Joyce Jr., who began coaching James at the age of 10 and now is the basketball coach at his high school, described his commitment to hard work as a young boy. In all his years of coaching James, Joyce said, he missed only one practice. Joyce praised James’ tenacity and determination. He said James put the Cavaliers and city on his shoulders last year but came up a little short. He encouraged the young children who were featured guests to follow his example of tenacity and grit.

Keith Dambrot, James’ other high school coach who now coaches the University of Akron men’s basketball team, told the crowd that James is in northeast Ohio because of their loyalty and commitment to him. “He won the championship for you and himself.”

Joyce also talked about James’ devotion. To his mother. To his friends. To Akron.

“I’m just hoping his example will live on in your hearts,” Joyce said. James’ devotion to making life better for Akron kids was a key part of the celebration. The LeBron James Family Foundation I Promise kids sat on stage. They took a pledge to work hard in school. The crowd cheered at the announcement of James’ expanded commitment to provide 2,300 full scholarships for local kids to attend the University of Akron. James is on a mission to show these children, as well as his own, that there is no better place to grow up.

Akron’s appreciation rally, formally called the We are Family celebration, honored the homegrown hero for his extensive civic agenda as much as his fresh championship. It included the usual local dignitaries – the mayor, school superintendent, dean of the LeBron James Family Foundation College of Education at the University of Akron. He was put on a pedestal for carrying as he climbs. A portion of South Main Street was renamed King James Way.

The city of Akron planned the celebration at Lock 3, an outdoor concert venue in the center of the city that accommodates up to about 10,000. Once that venue was filled, Canal Park, the nearby stadium for Akron’s minor league baseball team, the Akron Rubber Ducks, was opened for the overflow crowd. Many had been among the more than 1 million-plus who descended on downtown Cleveland to be part of the city’s first victory parade Wednesday.

But for so many, Thursday was the after-party. The festivities were hardly “lit,” but there was a sense of community. The Goodyear Blimp, Akron’s other most famous icon, floated above the parks. Restaurants were packed, bars were standing room only. Several establishments blasted the NBA draft on TV. A local deli showed off its LeBron James sandwich. Street vendors hawked counterfeit T-shirts and championship flags. It was definitely quirky.

Many who drove from other parts of the region – area codes 216 and 440 – looking for championship parade 2.0 didn’t really get it. The party was subdued, but it was clear this was the celebration James had been waiting for his whole life. The night was James’ opportunity to hoist a championship trophy and say thank you to 25,000 of his closest friends. None of the anger about what’s been said was referenced. There was none of the profanity that peppered his speech the day before. All of the weight of carrying a region on his back was lifted as his village welcomed him into its collective arms. James seemed to be one with his theme song, Grey’s Coming Home. “I know my kingdom awaits. And they’ve forgiven my mistakes. I’m coming home, I’m coming home. Tell the world I’m coming home.”

Who says you can’t go home again? James reminds us that there is no place like home and no people like family. He was elated during his short, poignant Akron speech. He gave a shout-out to the people on rooftop parking decks and others who found unlikely places to get a better view.

“No way I could’ve accomplished all that I have without you.”

Debra Adams Simmons was both the editor of LeBron James' hometown newspaper, The Akron Beacon Journal, and the editor of The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer. She lives in walking distance to LeBron James.