LeBron James said he always knew if he became an NBA star, at some point in his life he would make sure the antiquated gymnasium at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School was renovated.
Now the challenge could be sticking to his budget.
The three-time NBA Most Valuable Player now with the Miami Heat has donated $1 million for a state-of-the-art gym at his alma mater that is slated for completion this fall.
James has appointed St. V-M boys basketball coach Dru Joyce II to oversee the project for him, but Joyce said everything will be run by James.
“He has some ideas, for sure,” Joyce said.
James will be heavily involved, he said in a telephone interview Thursday evening as the Heat await the second round of the NBA playoffs.
“I’m a hands-on guy and this is going to be more hands-on because it’s something that means a lot to me,” James said. “I’ll try to be hands on with Coach Dru, with the school, with the floor, the locker rooms, the bleachers. … I have a good sense of what stadiums or arenas or schools or gyms should look like.”
But James agreed he might have more than $1 million taste.
“I’ve got to keep it right there now. I’ve got to be responsible,” he said. “I told Coach Dru, ‘We’ve got a budget. We’ve got to stay inside that budget.’ ”
Planning started in January and renderings are under way for what will be named the LeBron James Arena. The project will include a new floor, lighting, bleachers, locker rooms, restrooms and an upgraded training room. One wall will tell the story of James and his high school friendships and “why he is so emotionally tied to us,” said Patty Burdon, St. V-M public relations manager.
The seating capacity might be slightly larger than its current size of about 1,700, Joyce said.
Built in 1958 and opened Feb. 16, 1959, the old gym cost $270,000, the equivalent of $2.16 million today. Its court measured 84 feet by 50 feet, not the 94 by 50 size being constructed now.
“It is a funny quirk, but clearly it hasn’t stopped world champions from developing basketball skills,” said Ellen Zegarra, St. V-M’s director of advancement.
St. V-M President Tom Carone said he hopes the new gym will be completed by the end of September.
“With a project of this magnitude that’s this exciting, it’s amazing how quickly people can get to work and get things done,” Zegarra said. “We’re just overwhelmed with gratitude.”
Roar of applause
St. V-M students learned the news in an announcement made over the intercom on Thursday afternoon.
“There was definitely a roar of applause heard throughout the campus,” Zegarra said.
“I’m grateful to have that support in that school, all the students and everyone,” James said. “I’m not doing it for applause or a roar from anyone. I’m doing it because it’s going to benefit the kids that are there now and in the future. It holds a special meaning for me being from Akron, Ohio, and being at that school for four years.”
Those who have known James for years and have seen him return in the offseason to work out in the auxiliary gym or catch passes at football practice are not surprised.
“LeBron has never left St. Vincent-St. Mary High School, or the Akron community for that matter,” Burdon said. “He’s been giving since the day he left.”
James, 28, was the NBA’s first overall pick in 2003 out of St. V-M. He is competing in his 10th season, seven of those with the Cavaliers. Last season, he led the Heat to the NBA championship, then followed it up with a gold medal at the London Olympics.
Joyce called the announcement “a great day for St. V.”
“There’s always some nostalgia, but for the safety of my players and the fans, this is great news,” Joyce said. “The floor we’re playing on right now is the original floor. It’s almost like playing on concrete. There’s some wear and tear because of it.
“The stands were the original set. This will be a great attraction for some alumni and some people who weren’t too sure of navigating those old bleachers.”
James admitted his trainer didn’t want him working out in the soon-to-be gutted gym.
“He tried to keep me off that floor as much as possible. It wasn’t the best floor for my knees and my ankles,” James said. “I am happy that I can put a new floor up, new everything and in the offseason I can be back in the gym where I first started.”
The gymnasium isn’t James’ only financial commitment for the 2013-14 school year. At an assembly at St. V-M in September built around his “I Promise” campaign, James vowed to purchase new Nike uniforms for all Irish athletic teams. Members of the golf and cross country teams were assured by James they would be included.
Something for seniors
James wants to make sure they can choose from the latest styles, so orders will be placed in three waves for fall, winter and spring. James felt badly that the Class of 2013 would not enjoy them, so he is getting the seniors something for graduation, according to Michele Campbell, executive director of the LeBron James Family Foundation.
“Even though he’s not here, his heart’s still here,” Campbell said. “Those type of things are what show that.”
James sounded like he can’t wait for the day the newly outfitted Irish play their first game in the arena bearing his name.
“We want ’em to look sharp, we want ’em to feel good,’ he said. “But at the end of the day, we know what’s most important: education and winning. We want ’em to win, we want ’em to get a great education, then everything will take care of itself.”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at email@example.com. Read the her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.