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LeBron’s love for Akron shows promises kept, lives he’s changed

Even when he left for Miami Heat, his heart was still in Ohio

When LeBron James announced his plans to join the Miami Heat in July 2010, national media focused the narrative on angry Cleveland Cavaliers fans burning jerseys in downtown Cleveland. But that was only a piece of the story. A half-hour south of Quicken Loans Arena in Bath, Ohio, where LeBron resides, a neighbor on the corner of LeBron’s street posted a hard-to-miss sign in the front yard declaring support for LeBron to let him know his Akron family was still ride or die.

LeBron changed basketball teams but he never actually left Akron — and Akron never left him. The LeBron James Grandmothers’ Fan Club pledged to give him a parade no matter where he won his NBA championship rings. Local couples took trips to Miami to watch him play. Then-Akron mayor Don Plusquellic celebrated him for his many contributions to the city. Local kids replaced their N0. 23 Cavs jerseys with No. 6 Heat jerseys.

Akron has had a love affair with LeBron James since I arrived 13 years ago to be editor of his hometown newspaper. I oversaw coverage of his St. Vincent-St. Mary High School state basketball championship. I watched his friends and family cheer when the Cavaliers selected him as the top pick in the 2003 NBA draft. Like so many others, I was a Cavs season ticket holder for the seven years of LeBron’s first Cleveland tour. By the time LeBron decided to take his talents to South Beach, I was the managing editor at the Cleveland Plain Dealer and signed off on the now-famous “Gone” page created by the talented designers on my staff. I am a witness not only to LeBron’s athletic greatness — which has shaped my two sons’ sports world view — but to the bond between LeBron and the community that he says raised him. The relationship transcends basketball. And it extends beyond the significant civic and philanthropic contributions he has made to improve the quality of life and open doors for other Akron kids.

No matter how bright LeBron’s star shined, he made it clear he was one of us. LeBron would invite his closest NBA friends to ride in his annual August bike-a-thon, an event that raised funds to support youth programs for organizations such as the Akron Urban League. For one weekend a year, LeBron turned Akron into a cool place to be. LeBron had made it big and he wanted to take Akron along for the ride. But he wasn’t too big. It was not unusual to see LeBron looking at video games at our neighborhood Best Buy and it was common to see his now-wife Savannah walking through Summit Mall. St. Vincent-St. Mary remained one of his favorite places to work out during the offseason, a low-key respite from the national spotlight. He would be there along with kids in summer soccer camps and football players lifting weights.

So when LeBron decided to head to Miami, it stung. Akron knew LeBron earned the right to spread his wings even if the television announcement was infuriating. He deserved the four years away from home that parents of college students embrace. The mother in me wished for a more gracious exit. But even in the moment when he was announcing his departure, LeBron made sure the local Boys & Girls Clubs of the Western Reserve received a significant portion of the proceeds from the ESPN television production of The Decision. Akron was hurt. But they were still Team LeBron. Like in families, people in Akron talked about LeBron among themselves but they defended him fiercely when others disparaged him.

Weeks after The Decision was made, it was clear LeBron intended to remain the first son of Akron. On the day before school started at the Bath private school where both our children attended — LeBron was heading to Miami but his boys initially would go to school here — LeBron played basketball with the seventh- and eighth-grade boys in the school’s new gym. Later, he stopped my two sons in a hallway and asked them if they were ready for the school year to begin. He gave them a pep talk to get them geared up and urged them to do well in school. LeBron could see people giving him the side eye, but he was not deterred. He had a laser-focus on the students. My sons, several years older than LeBron’s but still pretty young at the time, were confused. They had been disappointed because they thought LeBron was leaving. My newspaper said he was gone.

LeBron’s community engagement after the decision to leave was an early indicator that LeBron was changing teams but Akron would always be home. He kept doing what people here do. He went thrill-riding on roller coasters at Cedar Point Amusement Park in Sandusky. He ate at Fleming’s Restaurant around the corner from his house. He reminded everyone that he was still just a local kid at heart.

LeBron’s teen fans in Akron were the first to accept The Decision. My oldest son, who had a No. 6 Team USA jersey, was an early adopter. He and his friends still supported the Cavs, but they proudly pulled for the Heat. They were crushed when LeBron and his teammates were unable to deliver a title his first year in Miami. Both the LeBron James Grandmothers’ Fan Club and St. Vincent-St. Mary High School celebrated his Miami championships. He supported the school with a million-dollar gym renovation and surprised the football team with new uniforms that he unveiled himself in dramatic fashion.

Even as LeBron was being skewered in the national media, there was a strong current of local support. Chris Connor, former CEO of Sherwin Williams and an Akron-area native who had attended a rival high school, told me he was rooting for LeBron to win it all in Miami to get the monkey off his back, show that he could win and to silence his critics. The LeBron James Family Foundation increased efforts to support hundreds of school children and became even more active locally. When my husband turned 50, I surprised him with a weekend in Miami and (almost) floor seats at a Heat vs. Memphis Grizzlies game. We noticed Savannah looked happy enough, sitting alone at the game, but it appeared Miami was no place like home.

Akron and the rest of northeast Ohio tried to maintain support for the Cleveland Cavaliers after LeBron left the team. The first year wasn’t so bad because many season ticket holders were committed before it was clear that LeBron was leaving. But the team’s abysmal performance and sadness about its demise made it hard to even give away Cavs tickets, especially during the winter.

Word that LeBron might return spread across Akron like wildfire in the summer of 2014. LeBron’s friends and acquaintances said it was happening. Bath police learned that cruisers would be needed in the neighborhood. LeBron’s Sports Illustrated announcement in July that he was coming home was emotional. He said bringing one NBA trophy home to northeast Ohio would be the crowning achievement of his career. People danced in the streets. They camped out in front of his house. They cried tears of joy and of validation. The chosen one had chosen us. The feeling of many had been that LeBron didn’t think Ohio was good enough. But on this day, much was forgiven. Northeast Ohio dared to dream again.

Miami Heat basketball player LeBron James speaks to the crowd before the start of the LeBron James Family Foundation, King for Kids Bike-a-thon, in Akron, Ohio, Saturday, Aug. 7, 2010. James grew up in Akron and played for the Cleveland Cavaliers before signing to play with the Heat as a free agent.

Miami Heat basketball player LeBron James speaks to the crowd before the start of the LeBron James Family Foundation, King for Kids Bike-a-thon, in Akron, Ohio, Saturday, Aug. 7, 2010. James grew up in Akron and played for the Cleveland Cavaliers before signing to play with the Heat as a free agent.

AP Photo/Phil Long

My then 16-year-old son worked at the bakery, Baker Blvd. in Fairlawn, that baked, packaged and delivered 70 dozen cupcakes to LeBron’s neighbors to apologize for the media frenzy his latest announcement created. The neighbors were giddy. They didn’t love the traffic jam but were thrilled that LeBron was indeed coming home.

The prodigal son returned home to a welcome party at the University of Akron football stadium in a celebration highlighted by Skylar Grey’s customized rendition of I’m Coming Home. The crowd was euphoric as LeBron pledged his love to his hometown. He planned to make good on his draft promise to “light up the city like Las Vegas.” The Cavaliers might finally win a championship. LeBron’s giant loyalty tattoo meant something after all.

In 2015, Akron and Cleveland were teased when LeBron took the region to the brink of the NBA championship only to fall short in Game 6. But by 2016, there was an unwavering belief that the moment of truth was now. Nearly 13 years after LeBron James began his career in the NBA, his hometown was poised for a championship. It wasn’t surprising on Sunday night when St. Vincent-St. Mary hosted its own watch party for Game 7 of the NBA Finals in the gym that LeBron built in an unpretentious corner of the city where he grew up. Away from the glitz and glare of Quicken Loans Arena, nearly 1,400 people gathered to cheer on the class of 2003 graduate who put their school and their city on the map.

Yes, they wanted the Cavaliers to bring home a championship, but not so much to reverse Cleveland’s championship drought. They wanted the win as much for LeBron as for themselves. They wanted the win to bring him the accolades he richly deserves. They wanted to win to validate the idea that a kid from Akron could become king of the professional basketball universe.

Here in Akron, LeBron’s value is not measured in the number of rings he collects but in his commitment to the region. He’s built recreation centers, refurbished parks and upgraded basketball courts. He’s partnered with the University of Akron to put more than 1,100 students through college tuition-free. Just as important, he’s made Akron a destination. Last summer, our neighborhood movie theater was abuzz because LeBron arranged to host the premiere of movie Trainwreck, which he starred in with Amy Schumer, just down the street from his home. LeBron could have gone to Los Angeles or New York. Instead, he brought the cast and the red carpet to Copley, Ohio. LeBron used the premiere to give his co-stars a tour of his city. People were surprised when they pulled up at Akron’s most famous drive-in hamburger joint, Swenson’s, to find LeBron and Schumer along with Bill Hader and Judd Apatow sitting in the parking lot. LeBron was once again welcoming his star-studded friends to his hometown and inviting Akron along for the ride.

LeBron has been a living example of the impact a high-profile professional athlete can have on children. My oldest son was in kindergarten during LeBron’s rookie season. Two weeks ago, he graduated from high school. He was in a panic Sunday night when the television he and others gathered around in a dorm at Morehouse College in Atlanta died during the first quarter of Game 7 of the NBA Finals. He could watch the game on his computer, but it had no sound. Eventually the young men at Morehouse found a way to watch the game. And even though my son had to watch the entire Finals series with a large fan base of the opposing team, he is among LeBron’s most ardent fans.

LeBron has given all of our sons a life lesson on professional excellence, embracing who you are and where you’re from, loving family, keeping promises and upholding commitments. Today, nearly six years after LeBron decided to leave home for a few collegelike years and 13 years after his professional journey began, his hometown is standing tall as we celebrate the man he’s become. Large crowds returned to Idlebrook Drive on Monday to salute him on a job well done. And because of LeBron, my own son is just a little bit more proud to be a kid from Akron.

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.