When LeBron James was named the NBA’s Most Valuable Player for the fourth time on Sunday, 10 young academic all-stars from his hometown were by his side.
The fourth-graders from Akron Public Schools were flown to Miami for an all-expenses-paid trip by the LeBron James Family Foundation for the big event.
The students were selected for achieving all the goals set this school year by the foundation’s Wheels for Education program. The initiative with Akron Public Schools promotes good grades, good attendance, good character and good behavior.
Program participants take a public pledge, complete with black “promise” wrist bands, to follow James’ lead and stay in school.
During a speech at the ceremony, James noted that he also wears an “I Promise” wrist band during every game he plays.
“It’s because of these kids right here,” he said, pointing to the proud students on stage. “I promised that I would never let these kids down — ever — in whatever I do on and off the floor. I want to thank you guys for being here.”
For Mariah Riley, 9, the trip marked her first time flying on an airplane or playing on a beach.
“It was awesome,” she said.
The fourth-grader from Portage Path elementary school said she was excited when James thanked her and the other students for coming to his MVP ceremony.
“He’s really nice and he paid for the trip and everything,” she said. “We were all cheering for him. He really does deserve it.”
Her mother, Melanie English, said James’ program is a wonderful way for him to support the Akron community and motivate students. Each of 10 students was accompanied by a parent at no cost to the families.
“He never left his city, even though everybody feels like he left us because he went to the Miami Heat,” she said. “He still comes back and gives back.”
One shy of unanimous
James was just one vote shy of becoming the NBA’s first unanimous MVP, collecting 120 of the 121 first-place votes. Carmelo Anthony of the New York Knicks picked up the one lone remaining top choice.
“It was probably a writer out of New York that didn’t give me that vote,” James said. “And we know the history between the Heat and the Knicks, so I get it.”
A panel of 120 sports writers and broadcasters cast ballots in the NBA MVP voting, with a combined online fan vote also being taken into account.
Shaquille O’Neal got every first-place vote but one in the 1999-2000 season, when one voter cast his ballot for Allen Iverson — who finished seventh that year.
This season, Kevin Durant of the Oklahoma City Thunder finished second, well ahead of Anthony, who was third and didn’t even appear on nine of the ballots cast. James was the only player listed on all 121 ballots; Durant was omitted from two, according to the results released by the NBA.
Miami hosts Chicago in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals tonight, when NBA Commissioner David Stern will present James with the trophy, largely just for the benefit of giving Heat fans a pregame reason to cheer.
“My ultimate goal is to win an NBA championship,” James said. “That’s what I was brought here for. That’s why I signed here as a free agent in 2010. It wasn’t to win MVP trophies. It was to win a championship — and win multiple championships — and that’s still my No. 1 priority.”
James averaged 26.8 points, 8.0 rebounds and 7.3 assists this season, leading Miami to a league-best 66-16 record while shooting a career-high 56 percent.
Video for Honeybunny
Sunday’s ceremony was filled with tributes and even some laughs, like when James’ youngest son Bryce posed for photographers on stage while his father was speaking and older brother LeBron Jr. looked on — and when James’ fiancee, Savannah Brinson, appeared on a congratulatory video and called him “Honeybunny.”
“I know you’re embarrassed when I call you that,” Brinson said. “But whatever.”
When James found out he earned another MVP award, he wanted to share the moment with some of the high achievers from the Wheels for Education program, said Michele Campbell, executive director of the LeBron James Family Foundation.
A total of 471 students in third and fourth grade are participating in Wheels for Education this school year. Additional students are added each year, beginning in third grade.
“It’s a reward for them for working hard and being an MVP in school throughout the school year,” Campbell said of the trip to Miami.
Jamil Wright, 10, a fourth-grader from Case Elementary School, said he liked being on stage with James and getting his picture taken with the NBA star.
“It was really cool to see him get his award,” he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this story. Cheryl Powell can be reached at 330-996-3902 or email@example.com. Follow Powell on Twitter at twitter.com/abjcherylpowell.