By Arnie Leshin
LeBron James was born in Akron, a neighboring town south of Cleveland known for its production of tires and the National Soap Box Derby for youngsters. The Derby is not as renowned as it once was. The course is still there, they’re still racing, but when you reach the area, it’s the smell of Goodyear, Goodrich, Michelin, Firestone, and the others that greets you.
Make a right turn into the city limits and a huge sign greets you — This is the hometown of LeBron James. No explanation needed, it’s where the elite basketball player, now 35, was born, where he led his high school to three state basketball championships and won 106 of 113 times. Despite his mother’s disapproval of attending St. Vincent/St. Mary’s, a public school in town with a 90 percent white enrollment, young James had grown up on the playground courts with three friends and it was this quartet that put the Irish on the map.
It didn’t just win, each year it’s schedule was tougher and it stunned top-ranked, undefeated Oak Hill Academy of Virginia 65-45, the junior season of James and friends. That’s when he first met Carmelo Anthony, a Oak Hill Academy All-America now playing his freshmen season at Syracuse University, and who attended this game in order to see the heralded James, then won the national championship.
In the national tournament played in Los Angeles, the Irish turned back California’s No. 1 team and 3rd ranked Mater Dei, in overtime, 73-71. As seniors, St. Vincent/St. Mary’s lost twice in overtime, and was first in the nation.
James’ mom, Gloria Marie, gave birth on Dec. 30, 1984, to LeBron Raymond at age 16 and she became his biggest fan. No father in the mix, though, for Anthony McClellan James had a list of criminal charges, left Akron and was never heard from again. But despite LeBron’s going against his mother’s wishes to attend the neighborhood high school, she now had thoughts derived from others that it was college time for the No. 1 schoolboy in the land.
But it was no go. It was more the fault of those recruiting him. They brought him gifts, opened up bank accounts, gave him costly illegal tours of their respective colleges, introduced him to wealthy alumni boosters who provided him and his mother with clothing, and when it all became news, LeBron had broken the rules of recruiting, and was now ineligible to play college ball.
Disappointing as it was for LeBron, his mom, his family and friends, it was even more so for the University of Akron, a Division I school that thought he would sign with it and put it on the map. But it never happened, only the National Basketball Association happened.
But he remained a fan of the Zips, loved the nickname, was friends with the mascot named Zippy, and when there was news around campus, it was mostly about LeBron.
So now there was news, not good news, but a cut-setting move necessitated by the coronavirus pandemic becoming worldwide news. On Thursday, the U of Akron cancelled out its women’s cross country, men’s lacrosse and baseball. This public university, successful in academics and various sports, now had its budget cut to $4.4 million in a pandemic inflicting financial plan that stretched the athletic department budget.
Involved and invited to seek transfers after the 2019-20 season (if it was played), were 23 men and 9 men associated with those programs. New adventures awaited them, but at least they could or would find a place to play while the Zips wrestle with other programs that might also be eliminated. Also losing their positions were three coaches and one graduate assistant.
Said Akron’s athletic director Larry Williams: “Our future right now is uncertain. Other schools are probably thinking the same, but we can only attend to the business in front of us. We must focus on the stem.”
LeBron’s immediate comment was not good. But he could do nothing about it, for he has already done enough for his hometown of Akron, which is amazing for someone who had never attended the college but was nothing but the savior for the area and its other non-profit organizations.
There has been charities he sets aside for the Akron elementary, middle schools and high schools. There is free tuition to the University of Akron arranged by LeBron for the area graduates who post at least a 2.5 grade-point-average, as well as other thoughtful James advantages for the youngsters and their families, and the list goes on. He’s often said that he will always be associated with his hometown.
Now picture him being eligible to select a college, and all the other recruiters knowing it was a lost cause. It was 2-0 for him and his mom and the nearby Zips were to be his new address. There are now 17 athletic programs in existence there, 10 for the women and seven for the men.
Akron’s colors are blue and gold, It plays in the Mid-Atlantic Conference, which has, as the other schools in the country have done, eliminating its post-season tournaments in eight sports. It has been 100 years since the school began fielding athletics, with football coming first behind founding head coach James Heisman, whose namesake is responsible for the prestigious annual Heisman Trophy originated in 1893.
And it has been 35 years since LeBron was born.
High school national championships, NBA titles. He’s now with his fourth NBA team, the Los Angeles Lakers, after bringing his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers their initial title in 52 years, Rookie of the Year, Player of the Year, Playoff MVP, a muscle-filled 250 pounds standing 6-foot-8, a true team player who can take over a game.
His current worth is around $300 million. His cash machine is always revolving. He doesn’t hesitate to assist charities. He married his high school sweetheart Savannah, and they have a 16-year-old boy, a 13-year-old boy, and a 6-year-old girl. He wears a size 16 shoe. And he was the most-ever hyped high school basketball player.
He is great for commercials, some of which involves the University of Akron and whatever NBA roster he is on. He has a great sense of humor, as in the commercial he shot in the middle of a New York City street. He has had roles in movies, and his ratings have been good.
Oh, can’t forget his hometown fever. A true Zip.