Gabrielle Briggins tries to hold back tears, to no avail. Minutes earlier, her daughter Shavelle received a Samsung Galaxy tablet as a door prize from the LeBron James Family Foundation (LJFF) at one of its monthly Hometown Meetings, which rotate among schools.
Shavelle's been in the LJFF Wheels for Education program four years now. It has helped her bring up her grades and so much more. In addition to the tablet for her daughter, Briggins was informed this April afternoon that her family also had won $1,000 in groceries from the Foundation, an incomprehensible stroke of luck for a mother of three just trying to get by.
"It's very inspirational. We love LeBron and the Foundation," Briggins says before rhapsodizing about the changes she's seen in her daughter. "She's more outgoing, more outspoken, she participates more. It's great. They listen to [LeBron] better than they do us."
At a table nearby, a boy puts almost half his arm into one of LeBron's sneakers and a little blond girl named Zoe, sporting a braided ponytail and glasses, twirls in a LeBron James practice jersey that nearly reaches her knees. She could be the flower girl for a Cavaliers-themed wedding as she spins about the Jennings CLC cafeteria like a reeling top.
Her father, Chris Fassnacht, is a teacher at Harris Elementary and coached against James in football more than a dozen years ago. He's amazed at the impact her participation in the program has made in just a year.
"After the summer classes, she was reading so much better already and she's been making merit and honor role this year," Fassnacht says, noting how much LeBron's personal touches, like letters and phone calls, mean to these kids. "Just seeing her work so hard and then when there is a letter that comes in the mail from him ... she loves getting those letters from LeBron. He sent ice skating tickets and they went on the Polar Express."
The gifts and memorabilia are just a small part of the LJFF's Wheels for Education program, the Akron charity LeBron started in 2003, during his first year in the NBA. And while it was active while James started his career with the Cavs, it finally found its focus, ironically enough, after James left for Miami.
"We were in Cleveland still at that time, our offices," explains Stephanie Rosa, media relations manager. "It was a very pivotal year for him. He went away. It was the first time he was away from home, first time he was away from mom, away from his fiancé, his boys. We always say it's like that freshman going away to college."
"That year I always say was the best thing that ever happened as far as the Foundation," says Michele Campbell, LJFF's executive director. "Because it was during those struggles in those times when he was alone, away from his support network from home in Miami, that he really learned what he wanted this foundation to do and to be and how he wanted to use his influence to move a community."
He may have been a thousand miles from home physically, but his heart was back there. He realized his greatest desire was to help the kids in his hometown, the ones who face the kind of struggles that LeBron dealt with growing up.
For example, James missed over half the school year during fourth grade as he and his mother Gloria changed residences and school districts several times.
When he discovered that nearly a quarter of all students in Akron public schools never graduate, he set out to do something about it.
"He said we needed to fix that," Campbell recalls. "For these kids to be successful and live out their dreams, they can't do that without an education."
For all the rosy forecasts that greeted his return, it's these more subtle ways in which James has touched Northeast Ohio that are likely to have the most enduring impact. It's not just because an athlete's star burns brightly for only so long, but also because predictions of economic booms from successful sports teams inevitably fail to match the initial fanfare.
That didn't stop civic leaders and so-called experts from throwing around grandiose figures with zero evidence. Former Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald predicted a $50 million windfall from LeBron's return, and John Carroll economics professor LeRoy Brooks suggested a ridiculous $500 million regional economic boom, which he later revised down to $162 million. Even the Plain Dealer got in on the game back in 2010, guestimating a $200 million increase in downtown spending thanks to No. 23.
Sure, downtown businesses might see a bump, especially those within a very close radius to Quicken Loans Arena, but Northeast Ohio? Economic studies have failed to show any real regional economic impact of sports teams more often than Austin Carr says, "Get that weak stuff out of here."
"It really depends on what you define as your area of economic impact," says Victor Matheson, economics professor at Holy Cross and a respected connoisseur of economic impact studies. "Without question LeBron is great for that economy within a mile or half mile radius of the arena, but ... you have to decide: Are we having a gain for [downtown] Cleveland coming at the expense of Shaker Heights?"
This is what's known as the substitution effect. Since most of the spending spurred by the Cavaliers' success comes from residents of Northeast Ohio, it's usually simply money they'd spent elsewhere in the community. Factor in the costs of policing, maintenance and concessions to the arenas and their teams, and it winds up a wash economically.
LeBron's Cavaliers reunion is unlikely to spark a substantial or even measurable macroeconomic impact; however, that doesn't mean the Prodigal Son's return isn't playing an important role in Northeast Ohio's ongoing renaissance.
His presence alone can have a kind of halo effect. A winning team means plenty of glamour shots of the city beaming out to millions on every national broadcast, helping burnish the reputation of the Mistake by the Lake. That can be important for a region trying to stem/replace population loss and convince the best and brightest this is the place to raise their family.
"People see [on TV] that it's a pretty cool place," says Cavaliers CEO Len Komoroski. "And it's helping to change the dialog and perceptions of Cleveland as a city in a very favorable way."
Given all the gray, sunless skies we've endured literally and metaphorically, you shouldn't underestimate the power of just feeling good supporting a winning team. That simple but vague feeling is the most substantial effect to be found in any sports-related studies, according to Matheson.
"A good example of this is the 2006 World Cup which was held in Germany and was wildly successful both for the German National Team as well as the country," he says. "But economists going back and looking didn't find big increases in tourism spending. No big increases in incomes or employment. But they did find a big increase in the self-reported happiness of Germans. These things might make us happy, but they aren't going to make us rich."
Then again it depends on how you localize the effect. Restricted free agents Tristan Thompson and Matthew Dellavedova not only have seen their careers soar in the past season, but this summer, their bank balances will see similar boosts.
This is not unusual. All his life, James has cultivated the ability to enrich the lives of those around him. From high school teammate and business manager Maverick Carter to former college coaching exile Keith Dambrot, so many have been blessed by their associations with James that one hesitates to doubt his ability to extend that gift to an entire region.
"When he first went to St. Vincent-St. Mary, the school didn't have a lot of students and now they're doing very well," says Dambrot, who coached LeBron at SVSM and who now coaches the University of Akron's thriving basketball program. "He took a former college coach and resurrected his career, and with the shoe deal and the equipments deal he's resurrected our program. He resurrected the Cavaliers. He brought a championship to the Heat.
"You say the halo effect, it's more like the Midas Touch," says Dambrot. "Everything he's touched has turned to gold."
James never has lacked ambition. And, generally, his pursuit of glory and success never has been simply for his own sake, but also for those around him.
With his namesake foundation, he takes on an even bigger challenge: leveraging his spirit and stature as a role model to change Akron's high-school graduation rate. No small task.
If there's anyone that understands that it takes a village to raise a child, it's James. When his mother and he were struggling, a family that knew him through recreation sports offered to take him in for a year so Gloria could focus on improving her situation. That year provided James not only with a stable home, but the discipline he lacked. His grades and attendance turned around, setting stage for his athletic exploits to fully bloom.
So in 2011, the LeBron James Family Foundation began a program in concert with Akron public schools to identify rising third graders at the highest risk for dropping out and bring them into LJFF's newly reconfigured Wheels for Education program.
"We look to identify students at the third-grade level because studies and analysis show us that is the age where a child is most likely to fall through the cracks," explains Desiree Bolden, manager of extended learning for Akron Public Schools, who helps identify the kids.
"Akron public schools use a variety of factors," she continues. "The primary and most pivotal part of the equation is test scores. Upon analyzing incoming third graders' test scores in fundamental areas including math and reading comprehension, we determine which students may be in need of additional educational support."
In order to participate, the child must attend third grade in Akron (those who come to Akron later are ineligible at this point), and must complete a two-week pre-fall technology camp funded by the Foundation and held at their local school.
As long as the child and parent(s) attend eight of the camp's 10 days, they'll remain in the program until they graduate high school nine years later. They currently have 800 kids and expect to have 1,000 by next school year. By that math, LJFF's enrollment will double before they graduate their first kids in 2021.
Not everyone who's eligible does participate (and they're studying why), but those we talked to seemed ecstatic at their kids' turnaround.
Upon completion of the camp, the children also receive a bike. This is sort of a legacy from the Foundation's earliest efforts, where they gave away bikes as part of an Akron area bike-a-thon. The bikes were personally emblematic of freedom and self-agency for James.
"It was something I did as a kid that drove me away from all the hardships that I was going through. It gave me and my friends a sense of... just to be able to get away from it and travel around my city," LeBron says. "It gave us a brotherhood and a sense of being able to forget whatever we were going though at the time. It's just my way of showing my appreciation not only to the city for that outlet but to the kids as well."
The initial bike-a-thon had solicited local agencies and groups for nominees to receive a bike. Recipients then rode around Akron with James for the day. But the LJFF realized such one-and-done events, while an overall positive for the community, weren't focused enough to produce the kind of change James hoped to foment.
Like anything, it was a learning process (nothing is given, everything is earned, as some fella once said). The first year they gave out laptops before realizing, as great as that was, it wasn't having the expected results.
"We thought, 'Oh my god, we're going give away laptops, this is so great,'" recalls Rosa. "It's probably better if you give them to the school. A lot of families don't have access to the Internet. They don't know how to use a computer. So that was a big mistake, but it really taught us we had to get these experts together quicker because it might look good or sound good, but it was not the right thing to do."
Now the Foundation is guided by two boards comprising elementary and secondary school teachers and administrators, and a third board of community leaders who interact with the LJFF's 100-percent volunteer staff. This helps them tweak the program and quickly solicit crucial feedback.
During the 2011 NBA lockout, as the league grinded to a halt as players and owners battled over a new collective bargaining agreement, LJFF was able to get more time with James. That was good in a way, but more importantly, it was a teaching moment in how parents found a central role in the program.
One such day had LeBron visiting a school. The Foundation fielded numerous calls from parents who wanted to join their children that day for the event. Concerned that a flood of people might disrupt the event, LJFF turned the parents away. Afterward, the board explained how hard (and crucial) it was to get parent involvement.
"They said we would die if the parents called saying they wanted to come, and you're saying, 'No,'" Campbell remembers. "From that moment on, everything changed, and everything we do now involves a parent. Every outing, every field trip, every meeting — we always invite a parent to come. It's a pillar of our program."
Every month LJFF goes to one of the 30 elementary schools the kids attend and takes them on an excursion. Some destinations are suggestions from the board, some are suggestions from the crowd, and some are specially suggested by the King, himself.
Over a recent holiday weekend, James attended a symphony orchestra for the first time and was so struck by the experience that he insisted LJFF take their kids to a special kids-oriented show by the Cleveland Orchestra in March.
"We always include an outing that is an experience that exposes them to something different, coupled with a dinner," Rosa says. "We believe it is very important to sit down with the family and spend time with them over a meal."
James participation isn't limited to his memorabilia and financial donations. He appears at events, records weekly video messages, leaves frequent blogs entries and even sends personal letters and makes phone calls to encourage "his kids." Yes, he's as indefatigable off the court as on.
"The inspiration is simple, it's the kids and for me to be able to be a part of something that's so special and for these kids to be able to get direct contact with me," he says. "It means a lot to me, and it's pretty cool we're able to do things like have a field trip to Cedar Point and take them places for their reward for doing so many great things in school. I'm happy to have such a great program." he says. "It means a lot to me, and it's pretty cool we're able to do things like have a field trip to Cedar Point and take them places for their reward for doing so many great things in school. I'm happy to have such a great program."
As the families dine on food supplied by Old Carolina BBQ Company, Jennings CLC principal Rochelle Brown-Hall effuses about the program's ability to get kids who'd had trouble in school to focus. She compares it to LeBron's homecoming letter where he noted that in Northeast Ohio, "nothing is given, everything is earned."
"They do very nice things for them but they also hold them accountable academically," says Brown-Hall. "It's interesting, there is one young lady here who wasn't doing her best and then they didn't allow her to go on a field trip and now she's doing a whole lot better. So most of them do well in the first place, but the idea that the Foundation has that impact has made a difference."
Indeed, as the oldest kids, the sixth graders, moved into middle school, LJFF added a service component. Recently they went to the Richard Howe House in downtown Akron where they cleaned trash, weeded, mulched and otherwise beautified the grounds around the historic Erie Canalway building. Earlier in the year they attended a University of Akron football game, then helped clean up the stadium afterwards.
Tiffany Taylor's seen the change in her son Jayden just in this year, in which he's won a BUG (Bringing Up Grades) and a citizenship award.
"He'd been bugging me ever since we got to Friday he wanted to get here," says Taylor at the Jennings monthly event. "I said, 'Jayden, I know why you're excited — you think Mr. LeBron is going to be there.' And he said 'No, I just want to go.' He likes answering the questions and being around other kids."
Before the door prizes are handed out and the $1,000 grocery tab to Giant Eagle is awarded (once a month to someone spotted sporting a Just Cling It sticker on their house or car), the kids, sporting their "I Promise" wristbands, gather at the front of the auditorium to recite their pledge to LeBron and his pledge to them.
They promise him they will go to school, be respectful to their parents, teachers and peers, be active and make good decisions. In return, he promises them that he will be the best role model he can be, on and off the court.
"This is the promise between LeBron
and his kids," Rosa says turning over one of the bands in her hands. "They know what this means. Every time we're together, every time he's with them, we always say the promise. I failed a test, I can do better, but there is going to be another test, and this isn't the end."
Before the Foundation, most of James' successes have come around basketball or marketing ventures, like Beats Audio. His association with Akron basketball coach Keith Dambrot in high school helped the Akron native overcome an unfortunate incident at Eastern Michigan that blackballed him among the college coaching community.
Since taking over Akron's head coaching reins in 2004, Dambrot's led the team to 10 straight 20-plus win seasons, made three NCAA tournaments and three NIT tourneys, making it to the second round three times. He's consistently fielded the best college basketball team in Northeast Ohio since Kevin Mackey's heyday at Cleveland State in the '80s.
LeBron has lent his hand, not only making Nike's sponsorship of the Akron basketball team part of his contract but by making frequents guest appearances. He used to host his summer basketball camp on the Akron campus and still can be found hooping it up on campus.
"They changed the rules so he can't do his camps here, but he still comes around to open gyms a couple times each summer and plays with our guys. This year he brought his two sons to one of our games," says Akron athletic director Tom Wistrcill. "Having him tied to our athletic department and our basketball program is hugely beneficial to everything we're trying to do."
Of course, St. Vincent-St. Mary received a whole new gym 18 months ago, courtesy of James, and, like University of Akron, their sports uniforms are provided by Nike. St. V's basketball coach Dru Joyce, now into his 13th year, has turned the success he had leading James' AAU team, the Shooting Stars, into an annual tournament in Akron.
The 10th Annual King James Shooting Stars Classic Tournament brought over 600 basketball teams to Northeast Ohio the last weekend in April. The wealth of out-of-state teams means much of the $2.5 million the tourney is estimated to bring to Akron will actually be new money. It only seems to be growing.
Coach Lenny Cathcart drove his 12-year-old MSU Skyliners seven-and-a-half hours from New Jersey. Bounced from the tournament, the nonplussed 'tweens lean against a car whose music backdrops our conversation and provides them an opportunity on a couple of occasions to bust a move.
Their team travels a lot, but this is the farthest Cathcart's taken them for a tournament. He's going away impressed.
"I loved it. Well run. Well organized. Helluva teams here. I never knew they made kids that big at 12," Cathcart chuckles. He'll be coming back.
"Everyone's respectful and everyone has a good time ... . Our kids just lost and look at them over there."
Of course, you probably knew that LeBron's return would be good for the Cavs. But it's been even better than that. Just as LeBron took it to another level in the post-season, the Cavs have been breaking records off the court, according to Komoroski.
"Even compared to the priorrun, our television ratings are the highest in history," the Cavaliers CEO says. "Numbers from sell-outs to merchandising levels to all our digital assets are at league-leading levels across many different variables and subsets, from merchandising to you name it."
"LeBron accelerates and compounds," adds Cavaliers PR director Tad Carper. "He's a catalyst and a multiplier."
The past couple years have witnessed James' attempts to use his notoriety, charisma and pop-culture power to bridge his way into film and television the way many rappers have. His local Spring Hill Productions Company has been busy pitching and scoring projects that typically play on James' basketball notoriety.
This summer, James will make his feature film debut appearing as himself, alongside rising-star comedian Amy Schumer and actor Bill Hader, in the new Judd Apatow movie, Trainwreck. James plays Hader's "real life" best friend.
In February, Hollywood Reporter published an article enumerating a slate of shows and pitches including those currently in production for Disney (Becoming) and Starz (Survivor's Remorse), sort of the "before and after" of James' story. Among the potential entries were a CNBC show where James and Maverick Carter rescue distressed businesses (Property Brothers II maybe?), a male-targeted Esquire Network show about one's "bucket list," and a trivia game show which recruited its first contestants from Northeast Ohio.
Though based here in Northeast Ohio, they were reportedly opening an office in California. Whether any of this would impact Ohio is unclear; indeed, whether James can even make this transition (Kazaam, anyone?) is open to debate.
The Hollywood Reporter piece cited an anonymous agent (aren't they all?) who was skeptical they could sell material based on something other than James' life and experiences. "If they can do that, they've got a shot. If not, it's done as soon as his basketball career dims."
Even should that be true — and he's been media-savvy enough until now not to doubt him — James has taken the steps necessary to make this area, his home, healthier, not just for this season, but for years to come.
As Campbell notes, "Changing graduation rates is just like winning a championship. It is a monumental task. So the only way he can do that is with an awesome team around him."
The same could be said about pulling Northeast Ohio out of its doldrums. LeBron was never going to be the linchpin in this long-wished-for renaissance, but he could be a big key in that puzzle, as he is for the Cavaliers.
However, as James cautioned early this season, "Patience." Some things take time to take root (even if the team's bulldog defensive demeanor seemed to sprout nearly overnight).
"Having a likeable star and a winning team associated with your city is nice and puts a little burnish on what's otherwise not a great reputation for Cleveland," says Matheson. "It's certainly a lot more fun having a team that's going to win 50-60 and maybe go deep into the playoffs, depending on injuries and suspensions. That's a lot more fun than holding your nose and watching your team go 20-62."
Komoraski already can feel the change in people's attitudes brought on by LeBron's return and the incipient arrival of the Republican National Convention next year. It's like the wind's changed, it's blowing out to right and Jim Thome's up.
"We've got a journey to go and who knows what will happen?" says Komoroski. "But right now we've got a lot of great people and LeBron coming back just amplifies and helps accelerate everything we hope and aspire to as a region. There's a lot of good things that have been happened and hopefully a lot more to come."