Dru Joyce Sr. is reading a book right now. He can’t remember the name of it exactly, but it was written by a Catholic priest. He thinks of it now while sitting in a small office at St. Vincent-St. Mary High, cluttered with paperwork, a bin filled with basketballs and simple chairs in case anyone wants to visit.
He thinks of the book when asked about LeBron James and whether the superstar he coached as a teenager comes around less often now.
No, James doesn’t visit as much anymore, but Joyce doesn’t hold that against him in the least. James is a businessman, after all. His life is shifting to a new place as he grows up. Joyce mentions this book to illustrate his point.
“He just talks about in life as a young person through all stages of our life we’re all changing, we’re growing,” Joyce says. “As a younger person you’re always putting on a different costume. You’re trying to see who you are. Then you change the costume. I think that we all go through that and that’s just part of the maturation process.
“… We’re all going through that. We’re all maturing. We’re all trying on different costumes, we’re all growing to become a different person. And you know, you think about it, that person that you were five years ago is gone. You’re not that person anymore. Every cell in your body has changed. That’s how life is. You can hold onto the memory but you’re not that person anymore. You’re just not.”
* * *
The Lakers’ newest superstar has never forgotten the town in which he was raised, even as he leaves Cleveland, again, this time for his second home of Los Angeles.
He leaves having won a championship for the region, and having helped open a public elementary school for at-risk children, to which his foundation is the largest donor. Both events fulfilled dreams for James even as he moves onto a new phase in his life.
But Cleveland is not his hometown.
It’s Akron, the fifth largest city in Ohio, with a population of almost 200,000. Between 2012 and 2016, the median household income was $35,240. Last year the 42 homicides marked the most deadly year in the city since 1978. As of a 2017 census estimate, 25% of the city’s residents live in poverty.
James did as a child. His mother, Gloria, had him when she was 16 years old. She and her baby lived with family, until her mother and grandmother died. Then one January a friend noticed they were still living in the old house, but had no heat.
Wanda Reaves already had family staying in the attic and in her spare bedroom, but she didn’t want anyone to be cold. She lived around the corner and gave Gloria and LeBron her couch to sleep on. She made them spaghetti and chili and when LeBron ate too much expensive sugary cereal, she didn’t stop him, but she did start to ration breakfasts.
Around 8 years old, he found organized basketball at the Summit Lake Community Center, where more adults helped raise him. On a rubber court inside the center, he learned how to make a layup and first felt an indescribable joy at playing a game he would come to dominate. The wooden surface that eventually replaced that court is still there, only repainted occasionally. One of his coaches there, who happened to be a Magic Johnson fan, made James the team’s point guard.
“As he got older he was the focus,” said Audley McGill, the director of the Summit Lake Community Center. “… He was not the focus here. He was just one of several kids that we provided whatever we can provide for him and everyone else.”
Willie McGee, who would become a high school teammate, played with James here. James’ future teammate Dru Joyce Jr. played at a rival recreational facility. None of them were as good as Lavette Wilborn, a girl on their team who quit basketball shortly thereafter.
Through the recreational center, James met Frank Walker, a football coach with whom James eventually lived. Frank and his wife forced LeBron to go to school, even when he didn’t want to, and worked to help him recover from a fourth grade year during which he recently said he missed 83 days of school.
Walker’s father, whom James called Pawpaw, often drove James home from school.
“He was in the 8th grade,” Walker said. “[My dad] said, ‘This young man right here, if he wants to be the President of the United States, he can be the President of the United States.’”
When James and his mother moved into the Spring Hill Apartments, his friends would come over for sleepovers as much as he’d go to their homes for sleepovers. That close-knit group is still part of his inner circle. Frank’s son is still one of James’ best friends. So is McGee, now the athletic director at St. Vincent-St. Mary High.
McGee was part of the group called the Fab Four at St. Vincent-St. Mary’s, a dominant local high school team led by James that competed with powerhouse prep schools in the early 2000s. They won three championships, commemorated by trophies that sit in glass cases outside the LeBron James Arena, which was renovated thanks in large part to a $1-million donation by the superstar.
The gold lettering shines brightly on most of the trophies, but not theirs. The etchings for the school’s titles in 2000, 2001 and 2003 are barely visible anymore.
Fans chanted “Akron hates you” in December of 2010, when James returned to play in Cleveland for the first time since announcing on national television that he was leaving for Miami.
It wasn’t how people who were actually from Akron felt.
“In Akron we want to make sure LeBron James and his family do what’s best for LeBron James and his family,” said Angela Whorton, who grew up in Akron and is now a teacher at the public elementary school James’ foundation helped open. “It’s more personal.”
Here, James is both larger than life and a regular guy. He is the kind of superstar success story. He drew famous athletes and celebrities into their city for his high school games. He was on the cover of Sports Illustrated when he was 17 years old.
He’d still come back every once in a while, to stroll through the Summit Lake Community Center, to get in a workout at his old high school or to hang out at a neighborhood barbecue among people who knew him before he was famous.
One year he showed up at one of Wanda Reaves’ Fourth of July cookouts. Another July he visited Ilya McGee, Willie’s older brother, who was a father figure to Willie and many of his friends, on his birthday.
Vikki McGee, Willie’s sister-in-law, warned her guests LeBron James would be visiting and to control themselves. She asked that they not take his picture or ask for autographs during their little party in the garage of her Akron home.
“They actually respected our wishes and we really appreciated that,” Vikki said recently.
James won two championships with the Miami Heat, then returned to Cleveland, citing unfinished business. He won the city’s first major sports championship in 52 years in June of 2016.
Joyce was too nervous to watch Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals against the Warriors with anyone else. He watched at home, quietly, just in case the Cavaliers lost. Willie McGee watched at St. Vincent-St. Mary at a school watch party. They all celebrated together when it ended.
James brought the trophy to Akron for a ceremony at a park called Lock 3. There is still a banner there that commemorates James’ first Cleveland championship. While Nike removed the iconic banner with James’ image from Cleveland, Akron has no plans to remove this banner.
They celebrated with the rest of the region, but it felt a little different to his friends and those in his hometown.
“In Akron we absolutely felt like we were part of [the Miami] championships,” McGee said. “He’s family. He’s from here. Wherever he goes we support him. When he brings one back to LA we’re going to be right there with him.”
The Cavaliers returned to the Finals the next two seasons, but lost to the Warriors both times. This year’s Finals ended in a sweep. As soon as it did, James began considering his options. He chose the Lakers, citing the team’s basketball lore. It also happened to be a town where all of his non-basketball business was based — including his production company, Spring Hill Entertainment, and his media company, Uninterrupted.
“I definitely think winning the championship he fulfilled his purpose here,” Joyce said. “It was much easier to leave.”
* * *
Last year James filmed a video project in which he and Kevin Durant sat in the back seat of a mock Uber ride, with ESPN personality Cari Champion driving.
Snow fell on the streets as their black SUV ambled through Akron so James could show Champion and Durant the three places that mattered most to him growing up: the Summit Lake Community Center, where he first met basketball, St. Vincent-St. Mary High, where he became a star, and the Spring Hill Apartments, site of his first stable home.
The video ran 16 minutes with the basketball stars asking each other questions and Champion moderating the discussion. At one point she stopped them to muse at the pleasure she derived from watching the two of them grow and change as they grew up in the NBA.
That theme resonated with James. Change.
“You hear the saying like, ‘You’ve changed,’” he said. “You’re damn right I’ve changed. Of course I’ve changed. I’m trying to better myself. Why haven’t you changed?”