LeBron’s off-court legacy complements his basketball success
Mya Smiley is a student at the University of Akron thanks to an assist from LeBron James, and she is determined upon graduation to become a social worker that helps foster kids.
Her education and career path would not have been possible, the sophomore says, were it not for a scholarship and counseling that she received from the LeBron James Family Foundation. “He’s life-changing,” Smiley said.
For all his accomplishments on the basketball court — four championships, 19 All-Star Game nominations and an imminent coronation as the NBA’s all-time leading scorer — it is James' ambitious pursuits off-the-court that may ultimately distinguish his legacy from other superstar athletes'.
James co-founded a successful media and entertainment company, bought stakes in storied professional baseball and soccer franchises and, with a big assist from product endorsements, his net worth is estimated to have grown above $1 billion. The off-court achievement that James is most proud of, he says, is working to uplift the lives of people like Smiley in his hometown of Akron.
Many athletes have excelled in one or more of these areas. But few have done all of them as well as James, who is closing in on passing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for the NBA's career scoring record.
“His goal, I believe, is to have 10% of his wealth go to causes and support communities, which is an amazing goal,” said Lisa Delpy Neirotti, a professor of sports management at George Washington University. “I would say he’s maybe above and beyond others, just on that aspiration alone.”
James is, by any measure, an overwhelming success. And he makes Smiley — one of the many people in Akron who have received financial support from his foundation — believe that she can be a success as well.
“If I did not have the LeBron program, I probably wouldn’t have ever gone to college. I would be living in a not-so-positive environment," said the 19-year-old Smiley.
“His ability to help people’s futures," she added, "is what makes LeBron a great person.”
James, who entered the NBA straight after high school in 2003, planned early on to use his talents, fame — and, yes, his growing financial resources — to have on impact on the world beyond basketball.
“Even before I got into the NBA, I knew I wanted to find a way to give back to my community,” said James. Although James bounced from home to home during his childhood, and experienced financial insecurity for many of those years, he also was given enormous support from friends, neighbors and educators.
The LeBron James Family Foundation, founded in 2004, at first gained local attention by giving away bikes and backpacks. Then it began looking at after-school programs, with students scattered across several dozen schools, and eventually created a public school currently serving about 575 third through eighth graders. Today the school includes a family resource center that provides a wide-range of services to parents, including mental health, financial literacy, legal aid and GED courses.
Just down the street from the school, the foundation provides rent-free housing to as many as 16 different families — when needed — and it has plans to build 50 units of affordable housing.
“I couldn’t have guessed how much it would grow," James said in late January. “But we got here by listening and responding to our community and what they need.”
James has made over $400 million in NBA salary during his time with Cleveland, Miami and the Los Angeles Lakers. Another $100 million is on the way in the next 2-1/2 years or so.
James is a pitchman for Nike, GMC, AT&T and many more multinational companies. He owns a piece of the Boston Red Sox and Britain's Liverpool football club. His entertainment company, SpringHill — named after the modest apartment complex he grew up in — is valued at $725 million and has produced movies for HBO and Netflix.
“He’s been a brilliant example for millions of kids, especially kids with lesser opportunity and haven’t had the same advantages as others,” San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich said in 2018, a sentiment he’s repeated many times since. “They see in this guy somebody who has consistently exhibited excellence in the workplace and gives them a voice and lets them know that you can speak about anything.”
James puts so much focus on giving back to Akron because of the help people there gave to him and his family. “He’s never lost sight of that,” said Michele Campbell, the executive director of James' foundation. "I think that keeps him grounded.”
Just how down to earth “King James” really was got called into question in 2010. That's when he went on television to announce that he was leaving Cleveland to play in Miami. Billed as “The Decision” — and broadcast on ESPN — the live event was widely ripped as egotistical. But from James' perspective, the broadcast raised around $4 million for charity, a fact was largely overlooked.
Just a couple of years later, James would use his star power to help draw attention to a cause bigger than himself.
In the aftermath of the 2012 death of Trayvon Martin — a Black Florida teen who was wearing a hoodie when he was fatally shot by a neighborhood watch volunteer — James tweeted a photo of Heat players wearing hoodies and bowing their heads that included the hashtag “WeWantJustice."
In 2020, James helped lead the “More Than A Vote" movement, which included registration and early-vote drives and stressed the need for people — particularly Black voters — to get to the polls to fight disenfranchisement.
Also in 2020, in the aftermath of the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd, James was one of the players calling for an end to racial inequality and police brutality.
“Everything I do,” James said late last year, “has to have a purpose.”
James has all the money and all the fame that he ever wanted or needed. His NBA records, including the scoring title, are going to last for a very long time.
As will his off-court endeavors.
“His ability to help others and put others first is what makes him a great person,” Smiley said. “Not the baskets he shot.”
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Tim Reynolds, The Associated Press