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"Akron was almost like a boomtown," says Marilyn Holley, a lifelong resident of Akron, one of the city’s de facto deputy mayors — and my mom.
"Almost everyone that you knew had a job with the rubber factories. Uncle Gus worked two factory jobs — Firestone and Goodyear. Uncle Johnny worked at Firestone."
Akron, Ohio, 30 miles south of Cleveland, was proud of its moniker: Rubber Capital of the World. Firestone, Goodyear, Goodrich and General Tire all thrived there in the 1960s and ’70s. The ’80s, though, weren’t as profitable. Goodyear stayed, and everyone else left. The heartbreak extended to the area’s pro basketball team — the Cleveland Cavaliers, who regularly fell to the Chicago Bulls in the playoffs.
By 2000, the Cavaliers were becoming one of the worst teams in the league. Northeast Ohio’s most compelling basketball story starred a 16-year-old high school junior.
"When was the first time you heard about LeBron James?" I asked my mom.
"When he was in high school," she said. "Actually, I don't know if you remember, but I asked you, 'Is he really that good?' And you said, ‘Yes.’ "
In his senior year, 2003, James and his Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary team won a state championship. Meanwhile, the Cavaliers lost 65 games. They did have one big win — in that year’s NBA Draft. They selected James, and he quickly became the best player in team history. He was revered in Cleveland for seven years. But then, in 2010, he decided to leave for Miami. Local fans burned his Cavs jersey.
The reaction to LeBron’s decision was harsh in many corners — and that’s something that my Mom couldn’t understand.
"LeBron, to me, is a phenomenal basketball player," she says. "But what impresses me about LeBron is who he is as a person. And the fact that he never forgot where he came from."
Where he’s from is Akron — all over Akron. The only child of a single mom, he once moved 12 times in three years. He missed lots of school days early in his academic career, which made him an at-risk student. He did make a return to the Cavaliers after four years in Miami. And he helped the region win its first championship in 52 years. But basketball wasn’t his sole reason for going back.
A Mystery Letter
Emily Ross is from Tallmadge, a suburb of Akron. Two decades ago, when she was a sophomore in high school, her grandparents’ home burned down.
"We ran to the back door and we looked and we just saw the home engulfed in flames," Emily says. "It definitely caused me some issues as a kid, knowing that I could've lost my grandma that day. I could've lost my grandpa that day. My mother."
Emily says she has struggled with anxiety since. She eventually dropped out of high school. She has four daughters now and lives in Akron. As her children have gotten older, they’ve asked their mom many questions — like why she never finished high school.
"I mean, how do you tell your kid that I failed?" Emily says. "I failed when I was 18 and I didn't get my education like I should have?"
About four years ago, when LeBron returned to Cleveland, Emily was a single mom. Divorced. There was no time to be an all-in sports fan.
"Absolutely not," Emily says. "Not at all, nope. I had heard of LeBron James — just heard the name as a local celebrity but never really knew much about him. Didn't follow him in basketball.
"And all of a sudden this letter comes in the mail, and I read it. And I had to read it like three times to really understand what it was."
'Just Hometown Kids'
The letter was from LeBron and his Family Foundation. It was a promise for at-risk kids in the Akron public schools. LeBron James had a vision for a school program that would offer tutoring and school support, so that the kids wouldn’t fall behind academically.
Emily’s daughter Morgan, who is now 10, was eligible, and she joined the program after second grade. But LeBron’s biggest assist was still to come. All the program’s kids and their families were at an amusement park for a day of fun. The all-expenses-paid trip there was a treat in itself. But there was a larger announcement.
"They told us that every kid was going to be attending Akron U completely, 100-percent free," Emily says. "I broke down. I was standing in the middle of a crowd of people, crying. I wasn't sure how I was going to send my kids to college. So this was a huge, huge relief.
"It was amazing to know that one man could care that much about the kids of Akron. Kids that he's never met. Just hometown kids."
Morgan stuck with the program. Emily says her daughter has "blossomed" since becoming involved with the Foundation. She gets support with her schoolwork and she’s even had a picture of her and LeBron appear in a local newspaper. As cool as that’s been, Emily and Morgan are still capable of being surprised.
"LeBron James isn't just basketball to my family. He's a hero. In every sense of the word."Emily Ross
"So last year, another letter came in the mail," Emily recalls. "And letters come in the mail all the time from the Foundation. It's always exciting when they come. They're usually addressed to my daughter, to Morgan. I give ‘em to her. I let her open ‘em up. It's usually tickets to an event or something local.
"So we get the letter and we open it up. And she reads it. And she says, 'I don't know what this is.' So she gives it to me, and I read it. And this was a letter stating that any of the parents who did not graduate from high school were gonna be given an opportunity to get their GEDs through Project Learn at the cost of the LeBron James Family Foundation."
"And you said, 'This is my opportunity'? " I ask.
"I said, 'I can't' — I cried again. And I read the letter to my mom and I said, 'I've tried before to get my GED.' But I knew this time it was going to be different. Because there's my kid. Standing there. Looking at me. Looking up to me. And I could not let her down."
Emily completed her requirements and graduated in July 2017. I asked her what her graduation day was like.
"It was really amazing that all my kids could watch me," Emily says. "I walked across the stage. And that was something I never thought I would do. I mean, 20 years ago, I gave up on that. I never thought I'd have that opportunity. So to see — to have my mom and my dad, and now all of my children, watch me walk across the stage. What an amazing day."
"And, so, when people ask you now: 'Where did you graduate from?' What do you say? What's your answer?" I ask.
"I tell them that I graduated from Project Learn in Akron, Ohio," she says. "Courtesy of the LeBron James Family Foundation."
And remember how Emily said she wasn't a sports fan? That's changed.
"Me and my daughter definitely follow LeBron James now," Emily says. "We definitely try to watch every game. We look at him in a different way. LeBron James isn't just basketball to my family."
"What is he?" I ask.
"He's a hero," she says. "In every sense of the word."
'It Doesn't Matter Where He Works'
There are now about 1,300 Akron Public School students just like Morgan who are on track to get a scholarship to the University of Akron. And this fall, a public school for third- and fourth-graders — founded and paid for by LeBron James — will welcome its first students. With tutoring, mentoring, scholarships and an actual school building, LeBron’s impact on his hometown will outlast his Cavaliers career. Because LeBron is moving to Los Angeles. On July 1, he agreed to become a Laker.
"It doesn' t matter where he works," Emily says. "His heart is in Akron. And that's where it will always be. He can work anywhere he wants to work. He's made a promise to these kids, and I believe with everything I have that he will follow up with that promise."
We first learned about the story of Emily Ross from wkyc's Amani Abraham.
This segment aired on July 7, 2018.
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