It wasn't very long ago that LeBron James called Springhill Apartments home.
Today, the 25-year-old multimillion-dollar athlete draws on his memories of living in the West Akron complex (characterized as ''a problem area'' by officers who answered frequent calls there at the time) to inspire his charitable contributions to local youths.
''He knows the place that he comes from and he's not that far removed from the age of the kids he's giving to — he was 17 years old when he was living in Springhill,'' said Maverick Carter, James' business partner and friend of about 20 years. ''He understands what these kids are going through. What he is really trying to give them is a sense of empowerment and instill in them that there is something bigger and better out there for them, if they work toward it — just like he did with basketball.''
Much of James' giving is done via the LeBron James Family Foundation, which was established in 2004 to provide support and charitable programs for underprivileged children and families, with an emphasis on sin
gle-parent families like the one he grew up in. One of the most visible events of the foundation is the annual LeBron James King for Kids Bikeathon that takes place today.
According to financial records filed with the federal government, the foundation has paid out more than $500,000 in expenses related to the bikeathon since it began five years ago. It has also donated nearly $900,000 to causes and organizations, including the Akron Urban League and YMCA, both of which benefit from the bike-athon.
But the foundation's generosity, which includes providing local, needy children with school supplies and families with assistance, doesn't illustrate the full impact of James' benevolence.
The Akron native has also given quietly, on a personal level, to do things like renovate the gymnasiums at a couple of local community centers where he spent time in his youth.
''When he makes personal contributions that aren't public knowledge, sometimes the people who receive them don't even know where it's coming from, and that's the way he wants it,'' Carter said. ''I don't even know about all of the contributions he has made, but I know that everything he does comes from his heart.''
Audley McGill, director and recreation supervisor at Summit Lake Community Center, knows some of the youths who have benefited from James' giving. He says they appreciate what he has done for them.
''Everything LeBron does is for the kids. He doesn't broadcast it because he's not looking for credit,'' McGill said. ''He's doing it because he cares about the kids growing up in the very inner city that he grew up in. The list of things that he does for the kids is endless. He not only buys things for them but he provides encouragement and inspiration.''
Each year, James purchases about 500 uniforms for the teams in the city's LeBron James Youth Basketball League playing at Ed Davis, Joy Park, Lawton Street and Summit Lake community centers. Last year, he hosted an event at Summit Lake Community Center to introduce More Than a Game, the documentary about the Fab Five basketball team at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School, and provided food for about 15,000 people. The Fighting Irish basketball team accompanied James at the event, McGill said.
In addition, James has provided free back-to-school haircuts and supplies for youths at some of the city's recreation centers. In partnership with Nike, he provided new gymnasium floors at Ed Davis and Joy Park community centers (with plans to do more) and has revamped outdoor basketball courts at Summit Lake, Prentiss, Perkins and Morgan parks.
According to the foundation's federal tax reports, other local organizations that have benefited from James' philanthropic efforts include Summa Health System, the Akron Community Foundation, the Akron Pee-Wee Football Association and the Northeast Ohio Basketball Association, based in Fairlawn.
More than $50,000 has been reported to provide Thanksgiving turkeys to needy families. Nearly $200,000 has been donated to the Akron Area YMCA and more than $130,000 to the Akron Urban League. James also gave the Kia crossover SUVs he received when honored with the NBA's 2009 and 2010 MVP awards to the Urban League and Summa Foundation.
On a national level, the foundation gave $280,000 to children and families affected by Hurricane Katrina. Since 2008, James has partnered with State Farm Insurance in a playground construction project during NBA All-Star weekend.
And the proceeds are still being tallied from the ESPN special The Decision, when James announced he would leave the Cleveland Cavaliers and join the Miami Heat. Carter estimates that the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, including the one in Akron, will receive $2 million to $2.5 million.
James' announcement drew the ire of some people in Northeast Ohio, but Carter and bike-athon producer Damon Haley said they (and James) hope that his supporters will have a strong presence today.
''This guy loves Akron,'' said Haley, a managing partner with UMCA Sports, a marketing communications company. ''He's a model citizen. I would argue that he does more for his community than most of us do. He loves the city and he loves the kids. And he hasn't lost sight of the fact that he was really raised by a community of people.
''This is still about the kids and LeBron will be right there with the kids, giving them high-fives and words of encouragement. He's not mailing it in and we need his supporters to come out.''
Note to community
In a full-page ad that was published Tuesday in the Beacon Journal, James wrote a personal note to his ''Family, Friends and Fans in Akron,'' assuring them that he will continue his commitment to his hometown while playing for the Heat in Miami, and thanking them for their support.
Haley said this year's bike-athon included a school supply giveaway and a healthy choices luncheon for girls Friday. The luncheon is a new endeavor in conjunction with Summa Health System. The giveaway was moved up from its traditional time in late summer.
The bike-athon will get under way at 8 a.m. today at Lock 3 Park in downtown Akron with the arrival of the children who have been invited to participate. James will hand out 400 bikes and helmets, then lead a ride down South Main Street. The children who will ride alongside the NBA star have been selected based on academic success, improvement of physical fitness and contributions to their community.
Haley and Carter described the bike-athon as James' passion, fueled by his experience of standing in the very shoes that are now worn by the children he is giving to.
James' life has been well chronicled: the only child of a mother (Gloria James) who gave birth to him when she was 16 years old; how she struggled to provide for him in his early childhood; how he and his mother moved often, including seven times in one year when he was about 5 years old; how his mother, in an effort to provide stability, allowed him to live with another family for a couple of years during elementary school; and how he never knew his biological father.
A segment of his documentary More Than a Game was filmed in the government-assisted unit in Springhill Apartments where he and his mother lived during his high school years. James even named his entertainment entity Spring Hill Productions out of respect for the families he lived with in the complex and because of the impact that living there had on his life.
Carter, an Akron native who grew up on North Hill, said he hopes the people of Akron understand that he and James will always be a part of the city and that the city will always be a part of them.
''We're both Akron born and raised. We both still live in Akron and we will always support Akron,'' Carter said. ''Whatever path LeBron's life takes him on, he will always be born and bred in Akron and he will always do whatever he can to support Akron.''
Colette Jenkins can be reached at 330-996-3731 or email@example.com.