Brian Windhorst/ESPN Senior Writer
The path of LeBron James‘ foundation has, in some ways, mirrored the path of his career.
Always a potential powerhouse because of James’ wealth and influence, the operation was somewhat unfocused early on. For example, for several years its major annual event — a city-wide bike-a-thon for kids in his hometown of Akron, Ohio — ended up losing money and straining the city’s budget.
But as James was finding his footing as a superstar and a leader during his time in Miami, his foundation was doing the same back in Ohio, as it became focused specifically on at-risk children and their education. They’ve both been on a roll ever since.
Many times over the past decade, James has said, “I’m just a kid from Akron” and “I’m not supposed to be here, I’m supposed to be a statistic.” It can sound like a slogan, but to him, it isn’t. As is well known, he faced poverty, lack of stability and periods of homelessness when he was a child. His small family was directly impacted by drugs and violent crime, and things crashed down on him to the point that he’d stopped attending school regularly by the time he was in fourth grade.
The circumstances pointed toward James’ life not having a good outcome, on the verge of being lost before he knew where basketball could take him. These are the statistics he’s trying to fight with his money and ability to rally huge corporations and schools to a cause.
Over the past four years, as he played again for the Cleveland Cavaliers, James’ career became fully mature. It culminated in both the 2016 NBA championship, and this past season, when he played in every game and had one of the best playoff performances in NBA history as he pulled his underdog team to one more Finals appearance.
The same could be said for his foundation, which reaches a milestone more than a decade in the making on Monday when it launches its own school in coordination with the Akron Public Schools. It will eventually draw hundreds of at-risk children, kids who are walking in the same shoes James was in at elementary school age. The new school has a longer school day and a longer school year, and its educators will be tasked with trying to overcome historic disadvantages the attendees face.
If the children follow the program the foundation has worked to mold, James has arranged for them to have free college tuition at the University of Akron. Along the way, the foundation has set up a program to also help the parents earn their high school diplomas and other continuing education.
It’s a brave experiment. Instead of disadvantaged children being mainstreamed, James’ school will group the at-risk students from across his hometown together to try to streamline the support system. If it works, James and his foundation’s leaders dream, it could change the way cities and school systems view these challenges. It could spread to other cities in Ohio that need help. And then, who knows?