Editor’s note: Tuesday was opening day at The Undefeated, a new ESPN website that explores the intersections of race, sports and culture. In an introductory letter, Kevin Merida, its editor-in-chief, says the site won’t shrink from covering challenging subjects with a mix of original reporting, innovative storytelling, provocative commentary, must-see video, narratives and investigations. At FiveThirtyEight, we’re so excited at having a new sibling that we’ll be running several of The Undefeated’s articles on our site this week — including the one that follows here — and we have big plans for partnerships in the future.
On the north side of Akron, Ohio, inside the cafeteria of crumbling Firestone High School, Theresa Magee sits impassively at a small table. The infectious “Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae)” bounces off the drab tile walls, but she doesn’t move. The aroma of sweet barbecue wafts through the air, but she doesn’t eat. Magee, a mother of six and grandmother of 13, is about her business tonight. She’s checking on LeBron James’ promise.
LeBron is not in the building — his Cavaliers are headed to Detroit this January night to beat the Pistons — yet his presence looms large.
Arena-sized cutouts of his face lean against chairs on a stage. Two practice-worn pairs of his size 15 Nikes rest among a table full of gifts. His initials adorn rubber bracelets worn by many of the 200 children, parents and educators gathered here by the LeBron James Family Foundation. Tonight’s session is one small piece of James’ multiyear effort to help the city’s most academically challenged students qualify for a free college education.
The origins of that effort go back a couple of years. When James announced his return from the Miami Heat to the Cleveland Cavaliers in July 2014, he told fans in an essay in Sports Illustrated, “I’m not promising a championship.”
Instead, he said, “I feel my calling here goes above basketball.”
One month later, he rebranded his Wheels for Education charitable program — which had grown from 250 to 1,000 kids, and from offering free bikes to free college — with the additional name I PROMISE.
Keeping that promise may be even more difficult than breaking Cleveland’s championship drought, which extends back to 1964 when the Browns finished atop the pre-Super Bowl NFL. He’s promising to push kids — some of whom can hardly read — all the way to college, to defeat a societal problem more devastating than any Steph Curry jump shot.
Can James keep his promise to Akron?
Magee’s family may hold the answer.
Her daughter Krystle, 32, who never finished high school, is taking free GED classes paid for by James’ foundation. Krystle’s 10-year-old daughter, Arieonna Maxwell, is in the Wheels for Education/I PROMISE program, which is reserved for kids with low reading scores. The children receive a constant stream of recorded phone calls, letters and website messages from James; after-school tutoring; and trips to places such as the symphony, a TV station, a toy design firm, an amusement park, and Cavs games.
“He’s moving people in the right direction,” said Magee, a supermarket clerk at Giant Eagle. She said her daughter is finally focused on her GED classes, and her granddaughter’s grades have improved. “LeBron has goals, and he had rules you need to go by, which I think is great. This is a great opportunity that not a lot of children have.”
College is still a long way off for Arieonna, who is finishing fourth grade. And the Akron school system has significant problems of its own. Its after-school tutoring sessions — the primary academic component of James’ program — lost a $1 million state grant in September 2015, a third of its annual budget. The city’s four-year graduation rate is 74 percent, which earned a grade of F from the Ohio Department of Education.
“He’s got a lot to go up against,” Magee said. “There’s a lot of obstacles these kids have to manage to go through. These families, some of them got it bad. He’s fighting poverty.”
She watches as Arieonna joins about 20 elementary-age kids on stage to recite the program’s pledge:
“I promise,” the children say in unison, “to go to school, to do all my homework, to listen to my teachers, because they will help me learn.
“To ask questions, and to find answers. To never give up, no matter what.
“To always try my best, to be helpful and respectful to others, to live a healthy life by eating right and being active.
“To make good choices for myself. To have fun.
“And above all else, to finish school!”
James’ promise, meanwhile, is printed on placards at this meeting, stamped in huge silver letters on the wall of his office across town, displayed throughout his old high school gym, and hashtagged across his social media:
“I PROMISE to never forget where I came from.”
Ask natives to describe Akron, and they all say, “small-town.”
“It’s not like Cleveland or Columbus or Cincinnati, it’s a home feel. It’s a family environment feel,” said Audley McGill from behind his desk at the Summit Lake Community Center, where he coached James’ first biddy-league basketball team. “For instance, ’Bron doesn’t need security in Akron, so that should give you an idea of how it is here.”
Forty miles south of Cleveland, Akron is a city of almost 200,000 residents, 32 percent black and 62 percent white. Rubber and tire companies — Goodrich, Firestone, Goodyear — brought prosperity until the 1970s, when the decline of American manufacturing reduced it to another notch in the blighted Rust Belt.
Today, 27 percent of Akron residents live in poverty. In several black neighborhoods, infant mortality is double the national rate. Poor children are overrepresented in the public schools, with 86 percent of students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch.
“He’s doing this because he was one of these kids,” said Maverick Carter, James’ childhood friend and current business manager. “He sees a lot of himself in them.”
Born to a 16-year-old single mother, James moved from apartment to apartment and couch to couch as a young boy. In the fourth grade, he missed almost 100 days of school. That’s when Frankie and Pam Walker embraced him, providing an attention and discipline that changed his life.
Frankie Walker, who knew James from the youth football league he ran, worked at the Akron Metropolitan Housing Authority. Pam Walker worked for a local congressman. In their three-bedroom home in a middle-class neighborhood, James shared a room with one of their three children and was absorbed into the family’s emphasis on school, chores, sports, homework, punctuality and responsibility — the kind of values James’ kids recite in their promise.
“When I was growing up, I had people that looked after me and taught me those kind of positive things,” said Frankie Walker. “And in return, when it was my turn, I stepped up to the plate.”
“Black men got to help black men be black men,” Walker stated.
After the Walkers enrolled James at Portage Path Elementary, he didn’t miss a day of fifth grade. Other coaches and mentors helped him as well. His mother got back on her feet and found a stable apartment for herself and her only child. James graduated from a Catholic high school, St. Vincent-St. Mary, as the most hyped schoolboy basketball player ever. After he jumped from high school to the Cavaliers as the No. 1 draft pick, Pam Walker told him that he was obligated to give back.
“She just said that I have a responsibility to this city, a responsibility to the kids because I am a role model, and they look up to me,” James said in an interview. “So my responsibility, it wasn’t about money, giving back, it was more about understanding the position that you’re in and understanding that you are [an] inspiration to everyone that comes up in this city that wants to have a greater future. That always stuck with me.”
James earned $65 million in 2015, making him one of the highest-paid people in professional sports, according to Forbes. The LeBron James Family Foundation’s biggest expenditure in 2013, the most recent year for which tax forms are available, was $903,170 for Wheels for Education. Another $358,333 went to St. Vincent-St. Mary, and $171,443 was given to various other organizations, including James’ Akron-based AAU basketball program, the local school district, and a memorial fund established after the 2012 Newtown, Conn., school shooting.
James often gets his corporate partners, such as Beats, Samsung, Coca-Cola or JP Morgan Chase & Co., to contribute expertise, products, time or money to his charity projects. The foundation declined to disclose a dollar figure, but described projects such as home renovations, laptop and tablet donations, and community service projects that included James’ corporate “family.”
The foundation’s biggest single donation over the past six years was $2 million to the Boys and Girls Clubs of America in 2010. That was James’ share of the proceeds from ad sales during his disastrous televised “Decision,” when he announced his departure for Miami live on ESPN.
Other athletes have made more dramatic donations. Golden State Warrior forward Draymond Green recently gave $3 million to Michigan State, his alma mater, for example, and hockey star P.K. Subban of the Montreal Canadiens pledged $10 million to a Montreal children’s hospital.
It’s the focus on small-town Akron that distinguishes James’ philanthropy. The city helped one kid who became a global superstar. Now this superstar — who never attended college himself — is trying to encourage, cajole, educate and uplift a thousand hometown kids.
“It’s tough to get out of the bed in the morning when it’s cold and dark,” James wrote to his kids in January. “Sometimes, all I want to do is stay in bed and watch cartoons, so I know how it feels. No matter what, we have to get out of bed and go to work. Understood?
“I hope you guys have an incredible week. You’ll be on my mind, I PROMISE.”
What is the value of James’ college promise?
Officials at his foundation say they plan to keep adopting third-graders and send at least 2,300 kids to the University of Akron. Tuition and fees at UA, which has 21,000 undergraduates, currently total $10,977 per year. That’s a potential total sticker price of almost $101 million in today’s dollars.
But James is not promising to personally pay this huge sum. Almost all his students are from low-income families and will qualify for federal aid. To make up the difference, the university will raise money and use its normal financial aid, said UA president Scott Scarborough.
Locals say that kind of calculation misses the point, anyway. Even though he’s one of the best athletes in the world, a one-name celebrity, they’re thrilled he’s present, here in unpretentious Akron, in ways both large and small.
That’s delivering on a different piece of his promise — to care, to remember, to lead.
“It’s more than just anything that you can put your hands around,” said Mayor Daniel Horrigan. “It’s more the emotion, the general feeling that he’s here.”
Anecdotes about James’ presence in Akron are easy to find. In July 2013, two weeks after James won his second championship with the Heat, McGill, the community center coach, was parking his car at the annual Young Black Professionals Coalition charity kickball tournament. “ ’Bron pulls up on the side of me. He gets out, ‘What’s up, Gill?’ gives some dap, gave my grandson some dap, and he went out there and played kickball.”
Over at the Regal Theater, two young women behind the concession stand recall James bringing his two sons (he also has a baby daughter) to see “Minions” last summer, waiting in line for snacks like any other customer. The next week, he returned to host the world premiere of “Trainwreck,” in which he co-starred.
“He’s just, present,” said theater manager Katie Casida. “It’s not uncommon to hear, ‘I just saw LeBron at Friendly’s.’ ”
Or on the sidelines of a St. Vincent-St. Mary football game, hollering at players from the sideline like an assistant coach. Or at a Swenson’s burger drive-thru, ordering the Galley Boy and a banana shake.
Or at a particular chain restaurant in Akron, where James and his family ate breakfast the morning after the Cavs beat the Warriors, in Oakland, Calif., in Game 2 of the 2015 NBA Finals.
“People don’t bother him because it’s not uncommon. He comes in here four or five times a year,” the manager said. He asked that he and the restaurant not be identified, to preserve James’ tranquility.
This protective impulse demonstrates the two-way nature of the relationship between James and Akron. It seems to nourish both — especially after he was vilified for signing with Miami.
In April 2012, the year after James went to the Heat, he moved his business office from Cleveland to an unremarkable, three-story office building on the west side of Akron that also houses medical, legal and financial offices. James’ home is in neighboring Bath Township, 30,000 feet on seven fenced-in acres, which he never sold after the Miami move.
The important of those connections came out on the podium after he won his second NBA championship with Miami in 2013, when James was asked how he deals with all the scrutiny. “I can’t worry about what everybody say about me. I’m LeBron James from Akron, Ohio, from the inner city. I’m not even supposed to be here. That’s enough,” he replied.
Soon afterward, he got a new tattoo across his right collarbone. The tall, scripted letters read: “Akron.” Today, his Twitter bio starts with “EST. AKRON” and ends with “#IPROMISE.”
“It’s who I am, it’s the streets that I walked, it’s what built me,” James said in the interview. “I’ve always felt that no matter where I go in life, no matter what road that I go, or cross, or take, that Akron will always be kind of that mold where I can always go back to and know that they’re the reason I am who I am today.”
Ask people here how they felt when James took his talents to South Beach in Miami, and those from outside of Akron often use the word “betrayed.” People in Akron, especially those who came up rough like James, don’t deny their disappointment. But they say they understood.
“I didn’t burn my Cavs jersey. I put mine in the closet,” said Cyril Clayton, who works for a moving company and has a 9-year-old son in I PROMISE. “LeBron struggled to get what he got. I respect that.”
“We became Heat fans,” said Quincy Iverson, a police officer who coached James in youth football. “I was happy for him, but I was hurt.”
While in Miami, James spent $1 million to renovate the St. Vincent-St. Mary high school gym he had played in, selecting NBA-caliber whirlpools and the proper ice machine himself. There’s a permanent locker in the training room for his workout gear.
Some people urge him to address issues such as gun violence or the police killing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland. James’ attention remains focused on Akron.
“To us,” said Patty Burdon, a St. Vincent-St. Mary administrator since James was a student, “he never left.”
The fate of James’ college promise largely rests with the Akron Public Schools. “LeBron cannot do it himself, and that’s the beauty of the whole thing,” said the district superintendent, David James.
He described how some Akron children enter kindergarten not only unable to read, but not knowing the alphabet or primary colors. When they reach third grade, the district steers about 200 low-performing students — about 12 percent of the entire grade — into James’ program.
So far, the foundation hasn’t specified what students must do to qualify for the college scholarships except to say it will require some community service.
Until five years ago, UA had an open admissions policy, meaning anyone could attend. Then it began requiring a minimum ACT score of 16, which is in the 24th percentile of all students taking the test, according to 2014 figures. The average 2014 ACT score for Akron Public Schools students was 17.9. Since James is working with the kids who are the furthest behind, a 16 on their ACTs is a big number.
For academic help, James’ program relies almost entirely on the district’s after-school tutoring program, which runs two hours per day, four days per week. From 30 minutes to an hour of that time is spent on academics, depending on grade level; the rest is fun activities.
After the program lost a third of its funding, some of James’ students were unable to participate. His foundation has secured a contribution from a corporate partner to ensure that all of the I PROMISE kids get tutoring.
Representatives from James’ foundation and the Akron school district declined to provide any data on the academic progress of students in the I PROMISE program, the oldest of who are now in seventh grade. They also declined to share a report on the program that was submitted to the foundation in February by researchers from the University of Akron and its newly named LeBron James Family Foundation School of Education.
But public data show little, if any, progress in reading scores for all Akron Public School students now in the seventh grade.
James’ current seventh-graders entered his program as third-graders, in the 2011-2012 school year. That year, according to Ohio Department of Education statistics, 32.3 percent of all Akron third-graders did not achieve a “proficient” score on the state reading exam. Of that total, 17.5 percent scored “basic” and 14.8 percent scored the lowest grade of “limited.”
Fast-forward four years, to 2014-2015, the most recent year for which statistics are available, when James’ first class of kids was in the sixth grade. Of all Akron sixth-graders that year, 37.6 percent did not score “proficient” on the reading test. That included 25.7 percent who scored “basic” and 11.9 percent “limited,” which may indicate slight improvement among some of the most struggling students.
Michele Campbell, chief operating officer of James’ LRMR Management Co. and the person in charge of his foundation, said the February report showed some improvement in test scores, but the children are still behind their peer group. The foundation is working with the university to identify and implement needed changes, she said.
“I was a little bit bummed that our children aren’t caught up. Then I refocused on how can they catch up,” Campbell said.
“LeBron’s expectation is that we will make a difference,” she said. “What do we need to do it, what resources do we need?”
Asked about the need for the kids in his program to do better, James said, “We put no pressure on our kids. That’s the most important, we don’t want them to feel like if they’re not able to accomplish what we set out for them, that they’re a failure, because they’re not. None of our kids are failures, and I think that’s how we get the most out of our kids, because everyone is a winner. Everyone is a winner because, you know, we started a lot of our kids in third grade, and the fact that they’re still in the program today lets us know that they want to better themselves, no matter what the end result is.”
Dr. Robert Balfanz, who has studied high-poverty schools for 20 years as director of the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University, said James’ program could use more focused academic interventions during the regular school day.
Research has shown that out-of-school activities are helpful, he said. But it must be combined with changes to the curriculum, better training for teachers, and one-on-one monitoring of students’ attendance and participation.
“There’s not a lot of evidence that said 30 minutes of good tutoring after school is going to make up if you’re multiple grade levels behind,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of good going on” in James’ program. “It just needs to be more intense.”
In the 2015 Finals, James had more points, rebounds and assists than any other player — and the Cavs still lost in six games. In Akron, all his phone calls, messages, trips, summer cookouts and free goodies won’t succeed without teachers, administrators, parents and students raising their games in unison.
It’s a much larger task than Frankie and Pam Walker providing focus and discipline for one lost schoolboy.
James is 31 years old now, with flecks of gray visible in his beard, no longer the unanimous choice for best player in the world. For the first time in his basketball life, there is a slight sense of the underdog about him.
This season has been bumpy. An anti-inflammatory injection in his lower back sidelined him for most of the preseason. Chemistry issues festered with fellow Cavaliers Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving. In the Christmas Day showcase, the defending champion Warriors dealt the Cavs an embarrassing 34-point home loss. Head coach David Blatt got fired soon after, and some thought James swung the ax. Then James’ jumper deserted him. He has shot a brickish 31 percent on 3-pointers this season, his lowest percentage since his rookie year and a steep drop from 40 percent during his 2012-13 MVP season.
Now in his 13th NBA season, having played almost as many minutes as Michael Jordan did in his entire career, James’ every shot, drive and rebound is scrutinized for signs of decline. Last season, he looked relatively earthbound and took two weeks off to rejuvenate. His bounce is back this year, evidenced by a dunking spree this spring — slamming an errant alley-oop on the Lakers; vicious reverses against Milwaukee and Brooklyn; catching a body in Madison Square Garden; doing a “Jumpman” in Atlanta — that made him “feel like I’m in my 20s again.”
Yet young stars in their actual 20s are vying for King James’ basketball throne. Oklahoma’s Russell Westbrook is more explosive, his teammate Kevin Durant a purer scorer, the Spurs’ Kawhi Leonard a tougher two-way player. The prince Steph Curry just grabbed his second straight MVP, which James did in 2012 and 2013. But Curry was the unanimous choice this year, something James never achieved. And Curry’s Warriors look like a budding dynasty, while James’ Cavs, despite sweeping their first two playoff series in the weak Eastern Conference, have yet to consistently coalesce.
James may not have promised Cleveland a title, but history will judge him harshly if he doesn’t deliver, and his championship window is slowly but inexorably closing.
Unlike basketball, however, education is not a zero-sum game.
“Are we going to be 100 percent successful? No,” said James, the Akron school superintendent. “We’re always going to have kids drop off, but we don’t give up on them, we try to give them the chance to be successful in life and to move forward, because that’s what’s best for our entire community.”
Basketball is defined by measurements, from height to assists to rings. How to measure James’ assists for Akron? Five years in, has his program really uplifted the city’s poorest kids?
“I got a high-five from LeBron once!” Magee’s granddaughter Arieonna said when asked about her experience. “I want to keep the promise, to do my homework, read 15 minutes a day.”
“If you’re doing something good, he might message you, call your phone or something,” said Reggie Boyer, 11. “Like a voicemail. I feel like it’s kind of cool to hear LeBron’s voice.”
“LeBron’s like pushing us to get better grades,” said 8-year-old Alannah Washington. “It’s making me accomplish more things than I ever did.”
Alannah’s mother, Casandra Morrow, cried when she heard about the college scholarship. “I knew I couldn’t and her father couldn’t provide that. You know, in 10 years things may change, But to know in the comfort of my heart that she’ll have a future, it’s a blessing. And he is a blessing.”
Magee isn’t quite as effusive. “I don’t see no immediate difference, not a big difference,” she said at the community meeting.
Then, looking out over the cafeteria filled with young faces, she adds, “But nothing like that happens overnight.”
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