The titles that will define LeBron James best are at least a decade away, to be earned through the talent, hard work and dedication of others.
Beginning in 2025, some 2,000 underprivileged kids in Akron, Ohio, will be able to call themselves college graduates thanks to James.
Their four-year scholarships to the University of Akron, which James promised last week, aren’t because they’re great athletes or the best students. These are kids who need a helping hand, whose parents dream of better lives for them but know they lack the money and resources to make it a reality.
Maybe one will find a cure for cancer or be the first person to set foot on Mars. Others may top out in middle management or never put that degree to use. Either way, they’ll be able to write their own future, and there is no more precious gift than that.
“I want them to have a better life than I had and have more education,” said Erica Rouser, whose children, 13-year-old Demetrius and 12-year-old D’Erykah, will be eligible for the scholarships as part of the LeBron James Family Foundation’s “Akron I Promise Network.”
“Coming from my family, we don’t have too many people that went to college. It’s not something we could always be able to pay for,” Rouser told USA TODAY Sports. “It really gives (my kids) more encouragement. `I’m really going to be this now,’ that’s what they’re saying now.”
That James is one of the greatest to ever play basketball is not in dispute. He’s already won two NBA titles and is a four-time league MVP, and will likely add more of both before he’s done playing. Decades from now, people will talk about his on-court accomplishments with the same reverence they do Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan.
But it is what James does off the court that puts him in a class of his own.
Raised by a young, single mother in Akron, James has often said he easily could have ended up as one of society’s sad statistics. His otherworldly athleticism gave him a way out, and he had people around him — his mother, coaches, teachers — who made sure he took it.
Not every child is so lucky, and James can’t save them all. But he’ll be damned if he doesn’t put forth his time, money and support for the kids of Akron.
“He was one of these kids,” said Michele Campbell, the James Family Foundation’s executive director. “He feels the need to share that with other kids that are just like him.”
For the past five years, the foundation has been identifying at-risk third-graders in Akron’s public schools and inviting them to join the Wheels for Education program. As the students reach middle school, they graduate to the “I Promise Network.”
Both programs provide educational support and encouragement, including voice mails from James. The goal is both to keep kids in school, and give them the tools they need so they don’t fall behind their more privileged classmates.
In a 2014 survey by the Akron Public Schools, 91% of parents with kids in the “Wheels For Education” program said their child was doing better academically. Kids in the program now have a higher attendance rate than the rest of the district, Campbell said.
With the program’s first class starting seventh grade, James started looking ahead. Getting the kids through high school would be great, but getting them through college could be life-changing.
“I truly feel like if I had stayed in school, I’d be more successful than I am now,” said Rouser, who works in the hospitality industry but is currently unemployed. “I teach my kids that education is key. I tell them every day.
“It seems like you have a better chance when you have an education. When you’re looking for a job and stuff like that, they look at those things.”
Though the University of Akron will absorb the cost of the scholarships – with tuition currently about $9,500, the value of the scholarships could be more than $75 million – it is with James’ full backing. He already does commercials for the university, and Campbell said he and the foundation would be a part of any fund-raisers that would help defray the costs of the scholarships.
All of which means that so long as “LeBron’s kids” have what Campbell said will be an “attainable” ACT score and grade-point average, and fulfills what will be a “heavy” community service requirement throughout high school, they can go to college.
“I still have to pinch myself,” Rouser said. “We just really didn’t know how we were going to do it. … I think I’m more excited than they are. I told them, ‘You guys don’t understand. You really can be whoever you want to be. You’ve got someone behind you.’ ”
There are many ways to define a champion. By every one of them, James qualifies.
This article was republished with permission from the original author, Nancy Armour, and the original publisher, USA Today.