The JAMES who would be KING

Posted: June 12, 2007

BEFORE JUNE 26, 2003, there were few places where you'd tell people you were from Akron, Ohio, without them curling up their faces and asking, "Where's that?"

Now, tell somebody you're from Akron and watch how many faces light up, all wanting to know the same thing:

"Do you know LeBron James?"

As a 23-year-old who spent his entire life in Akron before moving to Philly 9 months ago, I find it amazing how many times that question is posed, especially now that the Cleveland Cavaliers are in the NBA Finals for the first time in their 37-season history. The Cavaliers will host their first Finals game tonight, trailing the San Antonio Spurs, two games to none.

Imagine if people always walked up to you and asked whether you've ever eaten a cheesesteak after living in Philadelphia your whole life. How would you react?

Honestly, it's not telling people I do know LeBron that causes irritation, it's just the difficulty of explaining the difference between the LeBron millions of people worship and watch on television vs. the LeBron only a few of us had the opportunity to know in Akron.

Before all the contracts, endorsements and magazine covers, it was just the blacktops riddled with glass, grass and potholes in West Akron, the gated, yet crime-infested Springhill Housing projects and the statistic of being another young, black male raised in a single-parent household for the man many now know as "King James."

That childhood helped mold the player and person he is today. He wasn't always projected to be the savior of the NBA. A little more than 10 years ago, he was just that typical 11-year-old kid crying because he never got to play as much as the other kids on the Shooting Stars AAU basketball team. Two summers and a few inches later, 'Bron finally grew into his head and ears, and began turning and opening them the first day he pulled that St. Vincent-St. Mary High School jersey over his neck.

"It's crazy to see someone you grew up and played with all your life looked at and compared to as Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson," former high school teammate Romeo Travis said.

"It was, like, those were the people we were trying to be when we were at the gyms."

While James was racking up three state high school championships, three consecutive Mr. Ohio Basketball awards, and losing only six games in 4 years at St. V-M, everyone around him reaped benefits as well. All of his high school crew, coined the "Fab Four" during their freshman year, went on to receive Division I scholarships. Travis, the MAC Player of the Year, played at Akron University this past season, along with Dru Joyce III, while Sian Cotton is completing his final season of football eligibility at Youngstown State.

When you have $90 million-plus, just for endorsements, fresh out of high school, it could be very easy to forget where you came from, but not LeBron. Cleveland might have a 10-story high billboard across from Quickens Loan Arena, but there's no need for huge pictures like that in Akron.

Perhaps the most visible depiction of James in Akron is a framed photo collage, tracing his days from high school up to the NBA Finals, that sits above the trophy case at Summit Lake Community Center, with a computer-made banner that reads: "Congratulations LeBron. We Love You!"

They don't love him because he has become an icon or because he has accomplished nearly more in 4 years than most can in an entire career; they love him because he's himself and hasn't forgotten where he came from. If he happens to, a quick reminder is only 32 miles away.

Sure, he's building a nearly 36,000-square-foot house, equipped with a casino, bowling alley and barbershop only 5 minutes from the West Side neighborhood he grew up in, but this comes after he helped refurbish the Rosemary Square Apartments, which went from being a drug-filled living area to the renamed King James Court for single-parent families.

Sure, he has a $400,000 Mercedes Maybach, a few tricked-out trucks and sportish Lamborghini, but he also makes sure more than 500 kids in the city have wheels of their own through his King James Family Foundation, which has hosted the LeBron James Bike-A-Thon in recent years.

And sure, he rebuilt a struggling Cleveland franchise by helping the Cavaliers win their first Eastern Conference championship, but, because he rebuilt and refurbished the gymnasium of Ed Davis Recreation Center and Perkins Pool, his success has given hundreds of kids in the city more motivation to be something in life.

"I don't know if I would even be playing basketball if I never met LeBron," 7-year-old Cedrick Thompson said. "He told me I could play in the NBA like him when I get his age, so I'm going to keep playing out here every day until I play for the Cavs one day."

When all is said and done, many of the books, documentaries and movies based around James' life will rightfully center on how he was the biggest thing to hit Cleveland since the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

They'll call him King James; they'll call him the savior of the NBA; heck, they might even call him the best player ever to play the game.

Call him what you may, but the phone will still ring under the same area code he has tattooed on his right forearm, 330.

Akron, Ohio. Where it all began. *

Send email to kings@phillynews.com.

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