When LeBron James accepted his third NBA Most Valuable Player trophy in four years Saturday in Miami, he thanked six Rankin elementary school third-graders sitting in the audience who had flown in from Akron that morning at his invitation.
They were the MVPs of his Wheels for Education initiative with Akron Public Schools through the district’s nationally recognized Akron After School program.
The children were selected because they had good grades, good attendance, good character and good behavior.
“I’m looking over kids in the third grade,” James said during his acceptance speech. “With the help of the LeBron James Family Foundation, these kids are going to be looked at throughout the rest of their childhood and throughout high school and we’re going to make it possible for these kids to get an education and for them to graduate high school and hopefully pursue a college career as well.”
The kids wore the black “promise” bands that James has been wearing throughout the NBA playoffs. They promise to work hard in school, pay attention to their teachers and parents and stay fit.
“I promise them that I won’t let them down, on and off the court, as a professional athlete and as a role model to them,” James said. “So, you guys were my biggest inspiration in the last two years.”
After learning late last week that he had won the award, he decided he wanted to share the experience with some of the kids in the program.
Rankin Principal Brandi Davis, who is on the advisory board for the Wheels for Education program, picked six students to go: Rebecca Pasko, 9; Jade Moore, 9; Melinda Moore, 9; Aniya Williams, 8; Tyler Trice, 8; and Michael Portis, 8.
Davis hastily arranged a meeting with their families Thursday evening.
“The principal called and said ‘I have some exciting information about a possible field trip on Saturday,’ ” said Desiree Bolden, manager of the after-school program.
When the kids and parents found out that the “field trip” would be a flight to Miami to see James accept the honor in person, they screamed and shouted.
“The response was amazing,” Bolden said. “We all just started laughing because it was so cool.”
The kids met at the school at 5 a.m. Saturday morning.
The Akron group, including Bolden, Davis and superintendent David James, flew from Cleveland to Fort Lauderdale, changing planes in Charlotte, N.C.
It was the first time any of the children had been on a plane.
Tyler Trice was scared at first, but before the plane landed, he decided he wanted to be a pilot, Bolden said.
Black Cadillac Escalades met the Akron group at the airport for a VIP escort to the ceremony.
“They had ‘Happy Meals’ in the car,” said Michele Campbell, who manages the LeBron James Family Foundation. “We got them some food and then we went straight to the AmericanAirlines Arena. It was a closed ceremony. It was just the media, LeBron’s teammates, his family, and then our Wheels for Ed kids.”
After the event, the kids posed for pictures with LeBron next to the 2013 Kia Sorento that James received for the award and donated to Wheels for Education.
Then it was off to a Johnny Rockets hamburger restaurant at the beach for dinner and back to the airport for the flight home.
James’ impact in Akron
James acknowledged the Rankin students during the ceremony after thanking his Miami Heat teammates and his fans and just before thanking his fiancee, Savannah Brinson, and mother, Gloria James.
He talked about his hometown several times during his acceptance speech and in response to media questions.
He said his coaches, mentors and his mother helped him achieve what seemed out of reach for kids in his situation as an African-American child of a young, low-income, single mother.
“Where I come from, Akron, Ohio, they automatically think you’re going to be a statistic,” James said. “You’re either going to fall in the streets or you’ll end up in prison. ”
LeBron’s Wheels for Education aims to help children avoid that kind of future.
Last summer, the LeBron James Family Foundation and State Farm Insurance transformed his annual bike-athon into a more substantial investment in education. School officials selected 342 third-graders from across the district who already were getting extra help with reading and math to participate in Wheels for Education.
Next year, the foundation will support a new crew of third-graders and follow them through high school graduation.
The elusive championship
A reporter asked James if winning his third MVP award made him want the one prize that has eluded him — an NBA championship — even more.
James said he would give back all three MVP trophies for a championship.
He told the reporters about playing for the Summit Lake Hornets in Akron’s youth basketball league when his team went 5-0 for the season.
“At nine years old, you can’t tell me I’m not the best player on the team,” James said. “But our coach, Frank Walker Sr., who was also one of my mentors, gave the whole team MVP trophies. Everybody, not just me. Right then and there, I knew it was bigger than just that. It was bigger than just me. This game is all about team and the ultimate team goal and the ultimate team trophy is the gold ball that we see at the end of June every year.”