Hanging at LeBron’s high school A sweet night for the Akron faithful
Preston Clark was so sure that the Cleveland Cavaliers would win Game 7 that he wore a championship T-shirt to a watch party at LeBron James’ alma mater in Akron, Ohio. By halftime, Ace Epps was envisioning the Cavs pouring “golden” champagne all over the locker room in Oakland, California, even though they were down by seven points at 49-42. And Edith Cunningham-Bowman spoke about the possibility of a ring as if she were about to be betrothed.
They were among their own at the LeBron James Arena at Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary High School with perhaps a stray Golden State Warriors fan or two among the 500 followers of King James who cheered his every block and basket, wearing No. 23 jerseys from his high school and pro careers.
“What better place to be than at St. V, where it all started,” Cunningham-Bowman said of the gym renamed for and renovated by Akron’s favorite son.
The watch party was organized and hosted by Willie McGee, who returned as athletic director at St. Vincent-St. Mary, where he and James were part of a local fab five who captured the state championship in 2003.
Long before the NBA Finals, people laughed and called such talk of Cleveland winning it all crazy — especially when Golden State had a 3-1 lead and home-court advantage for the deciding game.
People also laughed two years ago when I speculated that James might head back to Ohio. Not only did James have unfinished business in his quest to lead the Cleveland Cavaliers to a championship, but he was also feeling the tug of home.
Deep down inside, he knew that his two rings in four years with the Miami Heat couldn’t match one with the Cavs no matter how many years it would take. And no matter what anyone says, there are no fans like Cavs fans or Browns fans or Indians fans — like my stepfather, uncles and cousins who schooled me about team standouts Lenny Wilkens and Jim Brown and Larry Doby.
Where else do fans remain loyal without a title for any of their pro teams in more than a half-century filled with too many near misses or fat chances? And these loyal fans can also hold a grudge — like the football diehards who still haven’t forgiven Art Modell for spiriting away the franchise to Baltimore.
In Miami, LeBron was just another NBA star. In Akron, he’s family.
The village is alive and well here, despite experiencing some of the community erosion that plagues Akron and other cities. The village knows your every move — and all of your business. But it’s with you every step of the way, cheering you on and patting you on the back. Even when you leave. And even when you leave like LeBron did with the infamous spectacle of The Decision in 2010.
Let’s be clear. People in Akron might have been disappointed, but they understood — with some surprised that he stayed as long as he did.
“I’ve always rooted for LeBron, whether he was playing for Cleveland or Miami,” said Todd Williams, who watched the game with family and friends at the home of his brother, Tobias.
On the other hand, people in Cleveland were mad as hell, immediately tearing down a larger-than-life image of LeBron downtown and paying good money to remind him of their anger in a billboard strategically placed on the main road near his Akron home.
As the former Rubber Capital of the world, Akron is a place that puts in work — historically at Goodyear, Goodrich, Firestone, General Tire and Uniroyal, where many of our family members helped to put America on wheels. With such a strong work ethic, it’s a place that rallies around people who are trying to be about something. It’s a place that makes anyone who has accomplished anything feel extra special. It’s where I go to recharge my batteries, and I take a little bit of Akron wherever I go.
“It holds a special place in my heart,” LeBron explained in an as-told-to essay in 2014. “People there have seen me grow up. I sometimes feel like I’m their son. Their passion can be overwhelming. But it drives me. I want to give them hope when I can. I want to inspire them when I can. My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball.”
That’s why Alder Chapman founded LeBron’s Grandmothers’ Fan Club, which has 200 “grannies,” including a 91-year-old and until recently centenarians, who have supported his athletic and philanthropic activities during both stints in Cleveland as well as his time away in Miami. The grannies held a fundraiser on the eve of Game 7.
“He’s a special person,” said Chapman, who has followed him since he was 8 years old and whose daughter attended Central-Hower High School with his mother. “He has helped so many people.”
She likes that LeBron is hands-on, whether he’s riding with kids during his bike-a-thons or calling students who might need extra encouragement to boost their self-esteem. He likes to tell them that he’s “just a kid from Akron,” meaning that if he can excel, they can, too.
“When you feel good about yourself,” Chapman said, “you want to do better.”
Chapman was also among those honking horns all over the city. “I’ll be 77 on July 30th,” Chapman said. “Right now I feel like I’m 17, because I’m so happy!
“And I’m so happy for LeBron. He kept his word to Akron first and then Cleveland.”
Cunningham-Bowman came to the watch party at St. V for similar reasons. Besides loving a good basketball game, she is impressed by the homes that LeBron has built around Akron, including one in her old neighborhood, and mine, near the Akron Zoo.
“He’s done an excellent job,” she said of his work in the community. “He’s not just about basketball. He’s also made it about education. It makes young people think about ‘what do I want not just for myself, but what do I want for my family?’ ”
Cunningham-Bowman was among those who leaped from the stands to converge around the screen in a frenzy of cheers and tears during the final minutes of the game with a moment of concern after LeBron writhed in pain upon hitting the floor hard after a missed dunk attempt.
Andreanna Lipford, who felt victory in her heart throughout the game, left immediately after it ended to continue the celebration 30 miles north in Cleveland with her best friend, Jhada Walker.
Meanwhile, Jon Solomon ran around the arena with his sister, Lauryn, yelling that “LeBron is the GOAT!” or greatest of all time.
The little bit of hustle and bustle restored along Main Street in downtown Akron was filled with fans, albeit a smaller crowd than the one in downtown Cleveland.
Like me, some Ohioans extended their visits at home along the 40-mile stretch encompassing Cleveland, Akron, Canton and Massillon expecting to witness history.
“Victory is always sweeter when you’re ‘home’ to celebrate,” said Tracy Taylor, a native of Canton who drove back to Columbus after the game.
Todd Williams, who returned to Akron after living away for a few years, was simply ecstatic.
“During my whole life, I never, ever experienced anything like last night,” Williams said.
Born on March 6, 1965, a year after the Cleveland Browns beat the Baltimore Colts for the NFL title in 1964, he grew up with low expectations for championships from the home teams.
“You’re always preparing yourself for the worst, because that’s all you’ve experienced,” he said.
Even his father, Frank Williams, and his Uncle Woody had forgotten the feeling of a title victory, because it had been so long. Being able to share in their joy made the evening extra special and made it easier to go to work Monday, Williams said, laughing. “I am so happy.”
“It was more than a game,” he added, not only because of the family thing, but also because the Williams consider LeBron as being a man of his word who’s down to earth, despite his celebrity.
“When you see him around, he’ll dap you up like he’s known you for years,” Williams said. ”It’s good feeling to root for someone who’s that humble and that loyal to his city.”
Some non-Ohioans on social media questioned all the fuss as well as the tears of grown men — J.R. Smith over his parents’ support through his challenges and LeBron over not his first, but third NBA title, this time for what he calls “ride-or-die” fans.
“I understood what everyone in Northeast Ohio has been through in the last 50-plus years,” he said after the game.
And his fans understand what he has been through, too, from his days at Spring Hill, Section 8 apartments situated where the Hill meets the Valley in South Akron to his off days on the court, where he has had to prove himself to naysayers who think he’s overrated.
“I strive the most when everyone counts me out,” LeBron explained.
Taylor agreed. “Never write off a kid from Northeast Ohio,” she said. “They will always find a way!”
Williams says that LeBron “cashed in on his promise.”
“He made his promise, and he delivered on it.”