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Has LeBron James changed? Just ask the people of his hometown

Friends and supporters of LeBron James from his hometown of Akron, Ohio, recount their years with the NBA superstar.

Dru Joyce II is reading a book. He can’t remember its name, but it was written by a Catholic priest. He thinks of it 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 visits.

He thinks of the book when asked about LeBron James and whether the NBA superstar he coached as a teenager comes around much anymore.

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No, James doesn’t visit as much, but Joyce doesn’t hold that against him. James is a businessman. His life is shifting to a new place as he grows up. Joyce mentions this book and the author’s message 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.

“… 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 on to the memory but you’re not that person anymore. You’re just not.”

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James never has forgotten where he was raised, even as he closes a chapter of his professional life in nearby Cleveland to begin a new chapter with the Lakers.

He recently met a longtime goal when his foundation’s large donation spearheaded the opening of a public elementary school for at-risk children in his hometown of Akron.

The people here remember what shaped him as a player and person. And they don’t begrudge him taking his talents — and influence — to Los Angeles.

Akron, the fifth-largest city in Ohio, has a population of almost 200,000. Between 2012 and 2016, the median household income was $35,240. Last year the 42 homicides marked the city’s most deadly year since 1978. As of a 2017 census estimate, 25% of residents live in poverty, as 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 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 sugary cereal, she didn’t stop him, but she did start to ration breakfasts.

Wanda Reaves sits in the living room of her Akron home where she once provided shelter for LeBron James and his mother.
Wanda Reaves sits in the living room of her Akron home where she once provided shelter for LeBron James and his mother. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

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, repainted only 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.”

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Willie McGee, who became a high school teammate, played with James here. James’ future teammate Dru Joyce III played at a rival recreational facility. None of them was as good as Lavette Wilborn, a girl on their team.

Through the recreational center, James met Frank Walker, a football coach with whom he eventually lived. Walker and his wife forced James to go to school, even when he didn’t want to, and worked to help him recover from a fourth grade year in which he missed 83 days of school.

Walker’s father, whom James called Pawpaw, often drove him home from school.

“He was in eighth 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. That close-knit group is still part of his inner circle. Walker’s son is still one of James’ best friends. So is McGee, now the athletic director at St. Vincent-St. Mary High.

Basketball coach Dru Joyce Sr. sits in his office at St. Vincent-St. Mary High in Akron. He coached LeBron James and his teammates to three state championships.
Basketball coach Dru Joyce Sr. sits in his office at St. Vincent-St. Mary High in Akron. He coached LeBron James and his teammates to three state championships. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

McGee was part of the group called the Fab Four at St. Vincent-St. Mary’s, a dominant local 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 in large part by 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.

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Fans chanted “Akron hates you” in December 2010, when James returned to play in Cleveland for the first time since announcing on national television that he was leaving to play for the Miami Heat.

It wasn’t how people 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 school James’ foundation helped open. “It’s more personal.”

Here, James is both larger than life and a regular guy. He is a superstar success story. He drew famous athletes and celebrities to the city for his high school games. He was on the cover of Sports Illustrated when he was 17.

As an NBA superstar, he’d come back 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.

He showed up at one of 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.

Ken Chapman, 13, attempts a dunk on a street in LeBron James' hometown of Akron, Ohio.
Ken Chapman, 13, attempts a dunk on a street in LeBron James' hometown of Akron, Ohio. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Vikki McGee, Willie’s sister-in-law, advised her guests James would be visiting and to control themselves. She asked that they not take his picture or ask for autographs during the 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 Heat, then returned to Cleveland, citing unfinished business. He won the city’s first major sports championship in 52 years in June 2016.

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Dru Joyce II was too nervous to watch Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors with anyone else. He watched quietly at home, just in case the Cavaliers lost. Willie McGee watched at a St. Vincent-St. Mary 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 the championship. Nike removed the iconic banner with James’ image from Cleveland, but 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 L.A. we’re going to be right there with him.”

St. Vincent-St. Mary High athletic director Willie McGee stands next to a mural of LeBron James, his childhood friend and high school teammate.
St. Vincent-St. Mary High athletic director Willie McGee stands next to a mural of LeBron James, his childhood friend and high school teammate. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

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, SpringHill Entertainment, and his media company, Uninterrupted.

“I definitely think winning the championship, he fulfilled his purpose here,” Joyce II said. “It was much easier to leave.”

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Last year James filmed a video project in which he and Kevin Durant rode in the back seat of a mock Uber, 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, 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 them mature and change as they grew up in the NBA.

That theme — change — resonated with James.

“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?”

LeBron James once played basketball along Overlook Place in Akron. His former home is on the left.
LeBron James once played basketball along Overlook Place in Akron. His former home is on the left. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
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