NBA All-Star weekend PSA: LeBron James is the Kid from AKRON, not Cleveland

An empty Perkins Park basketball court in Akron on a wintry day.
The Perkins Park basketball court in Akron, Ohio, is empty on a wintry day, but this is one of the places LeBron James regularly visited as a youth.
(Madeleine Hordinski / For The Times)

Perkins Park is surrounded by snow and silence, a cold, wet February afternoon chasing even the most ambitious hoopers away from one of the city’s most famous courts. A sloppy mix of water, ice and snow covers huge portions of the partially cracked cement. One net is dangling from the rim.

A small gaggle of geese marches up a hill behind empty bleachers and naked trees.

For the record:

8:10 p.m. June 19, 2022An earlier version of this story misidentified Malaki Branham as Malaki Brown.

The courts down this skinny one-way road are totally empty — and somehow LeBron James is still everywhere.

A week before James plays in his 19th NBA All-Star game in Cleveland, the town where he rescued a franchise and earned the city a coveted title, he told The Times that this wasn’t a homecoming.

“People always say, ‘You’re going back home.’ But I tell people all the time, ‘I’m not from Cleveland.’ There’s no disrespect to Cleveland. But, when you’re from Akron, you’re not from Cleveland,” James said. “This is where I’m from. “


The proof is everywhere.

A mural of LeBron James inside the St. Vincent-St. Mary High gymnasium.
A mural of LeBron James inside the St. Vincent-St. Mary High gymnasium.
(Madeleine Hordinski / For The Times)

At Perkins Park, his logo is at center court, under the melting snow. At St. Vincent-St. Mary High, his name is above the doors and below the scoreboard. At the Summit Lake Community Center, his photos, sneakers and wristbands are inside a glass case.

Forgetting for a moment James’ other Akron initiatives — his I Promise School, House Three Thirty community center and I Promise Housing — his basketball legacy in his hometown has as large of an impact as ever — a new era of players ready to add to the city’s story.

And they’re all inspired by the Lakers’ star.

“It’s just a given. … He’s inspired people here so many different ways,” said native Chris Livingston, one of the top seniors in the country. “If you play basketball, that’s definitely someone you look up to.”

And James is watching, too.

For the first time since James became America’s most famous high school basketball player, a can’t-miss prospect who somehow exceeded expectations, his city is producing high-level basketball talent that is in position to build on Akron’s already rich history.


Livingston is a five-star prospect at Oak Hill Academy in Mouth of Wilson, Va., who’s headed to Kentucky next fall. Malaki Branham, a Columbus, Ohio, native who moved to Akron to play at James’ alma mater, won Ohio’s 2021 Mr. Basketball honors. And this season’s team at St. Vincent-St. Mary Branhamis led by Illinois-bound guard Sencire Harris.

“It’s a good time to play basketball in northeast Ohio,” Livingston said.

Things are so good that James, even during a disappointing season in Los Angeles, is well aware of what’s happening in an Akron hoops scene he elevated.

“When you grow up in Akron, Ohio, you already feel like no one cares about you too much,” James said. “And the only people that really care about you are the ones from that town. When you are in certain community centers, in certain gyms, you look for inspiration — people who came before you, people who were already there.”

A mural of LeBron James with characters from "Space Jam: A New Legacy" movie in a storefront.
Signs of LeBron James’ legacy are all over Akron, including this mural of James with characters from “Space Jam: A New Legacy” movie in a storefront.
(Madeleine Horlinski / For The Times)

A trip around the city’s basketball meccas makes the message incredibly clear — if there’s a backboard and a rim, LeBron James was there and still 100% is.

“Most of the Ohio hoopers think he’s the G.O.A.T.,” Branham said of the acronym for greatest of all time. “We wear his shoes. Playing at St. V, we got custom [LeBron] shoes, but playing against other teams that weren’t sponsored by LeBron, you always see LeBrons on their feet. Always.


“He means a lot to Ohio hoopers for sure.”

Nowhere more than Akron.

Dru Joyce II wasn’t supposed to be a basketball coach, never mind an Akron hoops icon. If his son, Dru III, was a better wideout, he’d have played football just like his dad. But his namesake wanted to play basketball, so when his son was 7, he went to the community centers in town to try to find a league.

Even though his son was too young to play, he found one that would take him — albeit with a condition. Joyce’s dad would have to coach. It was one of those tiny moments that likely changed basketball forever, because a few years later Joyce was driving his son home from practice with the best scorer on their team in the car.

“Bron, if you pass the ball, everyone is going to want to play with you,” Joyce told James that day in the midsize sedan. “And I never had to say that to him again.”

St. Vincent-St. Mary High boys' basketball coach Dru Joyce II poses for a photo.
St. Vincent-St. Mary High boys’ basketball coach Dru Joyce II has witnessed LeBron James’ legacy grow in Akron.
(Madeleine Hordinski / For The Times)

With the exception of maybe James’ mother, Gloria, no one had a better look at James’ transformation from a kid in Akron to someone so famous that his trips into public are limited to dark movie theaters and Halloween parties where he can hide behind a mask.

In the early stages of that climb, James and his friends played in an AAU tournament against some of the top teams in the country, including one from Los Angeles. He was 14 — maybe the best talent in the entire field — but people couldn’t grasp one thing.


“Akron? Where’s that?” Joyce said, mimicking the scoffs. “And the kids all felt that. From that point forward, you could just see, especially from LeBron, ‘Where I’m from isn’t going to dictate where I go.’”

Where James is from has always been a huge part of who he became once he left.

“Just a kid from Akron” has become his catchphrase, and when you talk to him about his hometown, he quickly transforms into one.

“Ask for the real ice cream,” James said about his favorite banana milkshake at the Swensons Drive-In in town. “Makes all the difference.”

An exterior photo of Swensons in Akron, Ohio.
LeBron James would often go to Swensons in his hometown, his favorite meal a double cheeseburger, fries and a banana shake.
(Madeleine Hordinski / For The Times)

He rocked back and forth talking about all the players from Akron who inspired him — mostly names that only basketball fans in the city would know. Since he didn’t go to college, his biggest fandom in a lot of ways is still St. Vincent-St. Mary’s basketball.

“It gets me fired up,” he said, evoking the team’s nickname. “My Irish pride.”

As part of a $1-million gift to renovate the gym, James added an NBA-style training room onto the newly christened LeBron James Arena. In that room, there’s a vow stenciled on a wall under his foundation’s logo. “I promise to never forget where I came from,” it says.


Above the doors leading back onto the court is another message — “Promise kept.”

Malaki Branham was an eighth-grader from Columbus looking for a high school in 2017 to help make his basketball dreams come true when he walked into LeBron James Arena for the first time.

After passing by the trophy cases on the perimeter of the school’s cafeteria, he opened the doors of the gymnasium and was greeted with a giant timeline of James’ career and ethos on the wall.

“Once you walk in,” he said in a phone interview, “You know what the standard is.”

He walked out of that arena for the final time as a high school student living up to it. Like James, Branham was a state champion. He also won the state’s top individual award — Mr. Basketball — the first time a St Vincent-St. Mary player had done so since James.

James tweeted congratulations after the award was announced.

“I was like, ‘Wow. The best basketball player in the world is actually like shouting me out,’” Branham said. “It was a crazy moment.”

Jaeden Ackles, a 9-year-old fan of LeBron James, poses for a photo at Summit Lake Community Center.
Jaeden Ackles, 9, who goes to Leggett elementary school and is shown at the Summit Lake Community Center, said his mother, Jamara, often tells him before practice that “anybody can come from anywhere and be a star.”
(Madeleine Hordinski / For The Times)

Branham’s rise was different from James’. Branham was an unknown player when he arrived at the school as a freshman. Joyce noticed quickly that his new guard had some of the traits that James had as a high school star.

He worked. Hard. He took advantage of the professional equipment donated by James, no one needing to tell him to utilize the ice baths or the other recovery tools James himself uses as a pro.

He didn’t need the instruction because it was already there.

“You always feel it,” Branham said. “His name is all over the gym. LeBron’s logo is on our jersey. We wear LeBron’s [shoes]. The presence is there. You’re representing the school and also him.”

With Branham now at Ohio State, St. Vincent-St. Mary is being led by another top prospect — four-star guard Harris. Joyce thinks Harris is the best player in the state, a long-armed lefty with the kind of toughness that’s become a staple for Akron players.

Playing in a gym that has James’ name on the scoreboard and his story on the walls, Joyce’s players know that it’s something special.

“When they’re younger and they see this, as freshmen if they hadn’t been in the building, then they’re in awe. You begin to feel like, ‘Wow. I’m a part of this,’” he said. “We always talk about it. This is a legacy that was started with those guys, and it’s your turn to write your chapter. It’s an ongoing story. Malaki proved that. Sencire is proving that.


“The opportunity is great.”

That it’s happening at a school where James and his best friends won and in a building that now bears his name, it’s one of his greatest successes.

“It means you set the path along the way while you’re doing it for the next generation. It was our whole thing while we were there,” James said. “It started with Maverick [Carter] and Derrick and Darren Tarver, guys who were there already. And we came in and wanted to pave the way for the next generation. We wanted St. Vincent-St. Mary to be a school that didn’t just have one-offs. They’re still doing it.

“Sencire and Malaki, to possibly have two, back-to-back Mr. Basketballs — that’s phenomenal man. And Coach Dru does an unbelievable job. People talk about wins and stuff of that nature, but he really cares. He cares about the kids.

“He cared about us.”

The first time Chris Livingston heard it was when he was in the eighth grade.

Already recognized as one of the top basketball players in his age group, Livingston was attending a camp put on by Chris Paul when James first took notice — sharing a highlight video of Akron’s “next LeBron” on Instagram.

“Keep going Young King,” James wrote, adding “#JustAnotherKidFromAkron.”

Monikah Jordan, 14, who goes to Kenmore-Garfield High, poses for a photo at Summit Lake Community Center.
Monikah Jordan, 14, who goes to Kenmore-Garfield High, said before a practice at Summit Lake Community Center about LeBron James: “I think about how far he came.”
(Madeleine Hordinski / For The Times)

When he saw the post, Livingston’s smile stretched across his entire face.

“Showing love like that really means a lot,” he said in a phone interview. “That’s why you always have to treat people nicely. You never know. When a fan comes up to you and asks for a picture, you don’t know if it can make their day. … Him doing that, it really boosted how I viewed LeBron.

“He knows who I am. That says a lot.”

Now a five-star player at Oak Hill Academy and an McDonald’s All-American, Livingston is the kind of player NBA scouts love — big, strong, skilled and with room to grow.

Unlike Branham, Livingston grew up playing on the same courts as James, sweating in the Ed Davis Community Center, scraping his knees at Perkins Park and walking by that memorabilia case at Summit Lake.

“I was just a kid that liked basketball and is from Akron,” Livingston said. “And he’s an icon.”

Even Joyce, himself, is a victim of chasing the next LeBron James, even if he knows better than most that James was unique. Parents, he said, frequently come to him with a player who they are sure is the Chosen One 2.0.

“Too many,” he said with a laugh.

He’s had to figure out a way to walk the line between using James’ successes as an inspiration and not as an impossible target.


“We try to nip that in the bud. All we’re asking for you is to be the best version of yourself,” Joyce said. “There’s no next him. But you can be great on your own. And that’s how we’ve approached it. “

“… Honestly, what I try to do is to just talk about, not so much you being him, but you being a part of the process. That there was a process that LeBron went through, there was growth. There was work. There was desire.”

And there was God-given talents, the things only the most special players possess. Very early people thought Livingston had them. It’s why the LeBron comparisons came quickly.

“People have been asking me that ever since I was younger, is it pressure being compared and this and that. But it’s an honor,” Livingston said. “It means I’m doing something right to even be in the same conversation as LeBron. And it’s that we’re from the same place and I can possibly do the same thing that he’s done. That’s more a positive than a negative for me.”

A portrait of Nate Thurmond is on the wall inside the Summit Lake Community Center gym, the first inkling LeBron James had that someone from his city could become a star in the NBA.

“You’d see him every single time you walked in there,” James said of the Hall of Fame center. “You grab inspiration from that. “


That picture is still inside the gym that was filled with Nike gear as one of James’ biggest sponsors helped celebrate NBA All-Star weekend inside his first home court.

Now it’s his turn to inspire.

“That’s an iconic place,” Livingston said.

A photo shows the words of inspiration that are posted throughout LeBron James' former locker at St. Vincent-St. Mary High.
Words of inspiration are posted throughout LeBron James’ former locker at St. Vincent-St. Mary High.
(Madeleine Hordinski / For The Times)

Those walls, those courts, those backboards and those rims tie James to this generation of Akron basketball players who are playing their way into big-time scholarships and, possibly, professional careers. It tied him to Thurmond and Jerome Lane and other Akron legends who came before him.

For the next aspiring group, many of whom are already playing in those Akron gyms, a new crop of players can use Branham, Harris and Livingston as inspiration too.

“It just speaks volumes about this family we have. This is basketball family in Akron, and all the kids want to be a part of it,” Joyce said. “LeBron is just the biggest star, but there are all these other ones. Bron tells you about the guys he watched before him, and it goes on and on. There’s just a special bond.”

Outside the visiting locker room in San Francisco, James was waiting for Lakers teammates Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook to finish their postgame interviews. The next day, he’d be back in Los Angeles at SoFi Stadium watching the Super Bowl, one of the biggest stars in attendance.

In the game against Golden State, James had become the NBA’s all-time leading scorer when combining regular season and playoff games, an achievement too large to truly process after his team just lost to the Warriors — the latest in a trying, disappointing season.

Yet the mention of Akron was like a shot of adrenaline, James’ posture changing, his voice quickening and his mood improving.


He remembered being “just a kid” and marveled that his name and fingerprints can be so ingrained on the basketball scene in his city two decades later.

“It got me to where I am today,” he said about Akron. “If I can put kids in position, or they can use it to get to where they want to get, then I’ve done my job. I’ve always talked about wanting to inspire the next generation and have people be proud to come from my hometown.”

On Sunday during the All-Star game, James will be playing on a court in Cleveland, but it’ll be on the courts in Akron where his presence will be most felt.

Just like it is every other day.