“I’m not having a press conference or a party. After this, it’s time to get to work.”
Those were the words LeBron James uttered to Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins in the piece that will forever live in Cleveland’s sports lore, henceforth known as “The Letter.”
When it was announced weeks ago that James would be hosting a “welcome home” gathering in his hometown of Akron, Ohio, however, those words didn’t seem to mean much.
That is, until the actual gathering took place Friday night.
Having come across a ticket to the free event at the last minute, I took the trek up to InfoCision Stadium at the University of Akron and upon my arrival, almost two hours prior to the 7:15 p.m. projected start time, the areas surrounding the venue were packed with LeBron-loving patrons.
Wine-and-gold tinted fans lined the streets and as the gates opened, they rushed to their seats, vying to get the best glimpse possible of Akron’s prodigal son.
Upon entering the stadium, whispers of a plan for the event made their way around.
One rumor said The Black Keys, a renowned rock group hailing from the same city as James, would be performing. Others said that James would be giving away the many bikes that bordered the seating area on the field, as the event would take the place of James’ annual “bike-a-thon” that benefits local students through the LeBron James Family Foundation.
With the rumors swirling, the crowd of nearly 30,000 took to their seats at 7:15, eagerly awaiting the proceedings.
As it turns out, they’d be eagerly awaiting for quite some time.
The loudspeakers announced that James’ honored guests for the evening would be the aforementioned students that take part in the many programs James provides throughout the Akron community.
For 45 minutes, the seemingly endless line of students made their way onto the field and into their seats that surrounded the stage that lie right on top of the Akron Zips logo at the center of the field.
It was amidst that parade of youthful, smiling faces that I understood that LeBron was right.
This event would not be a press conference nor a party.
This celebration would be all about the kids.
When things finally got going at around 8 p.m., the master of ceremonies, Cleveland Cavaliers in-arena host Ahmaad Crump, took the crowd through the journey of James, from the Boys and Girls Clubs of Akron, to St. Vincent-St. Mary High School and the return to the Cavaliers.
Amidst it all, in-house videos showcased the charity work James has done for the Akron community, from helping impoverished children to providing uniforms for the entire athletic department at St. Vincent-St. Mary, and special guests like Cavaliers legend Austin Carr, Cavaliers general manager David Griffin and the Mayor of Akron, Don Plusquellic, each offered their thoughts and appreciation for the superstar for his efforts, both on and off the court.
Included in those efforts is the recent renovation of a house for one special student sponsored by James and his foundation, which was showcased as part of the ceremony.
James and HGTV teamed up to renovate the house, with the superstar and his family playing a part in the dirty work to get the house ready for showing this Sunday.
While the hour of videos and speeches entertained the crowd, there was no doubt that fans were getting anxious to hear from the man behind it all.
Finally, the lights dimmed. Singer Skylar Grey stepped to the recently-placed piano and performed her world-famous hit song, “Coming Home,” as James and his family emerged from the massive poster behind the northernmost field goal post that read, “I promise to never forget where I came from.”
All of the pent up excitement, all of the joy, all of the hope that LeBron has given to the Northeast Ohio since his return poured onto him as he made his way to the stage. The 30,000 attendees sounded more like 100,000, as chants of “LBJ” flooded Infocision Stadium.
“I missed you guys,” James said as he took the mic. “Wow, I missed this home-cooking.”
Almost immediately, James took the attention and love that he received and flipped it right back around to the students that surrounded him on stage. He spoke not about himself, but about the importance of education, hard work and dedication to the many students who he has guided throughout the years.
Following a crowd-pleasing rendition of the “O-H-I-O” chant, made famous at Ohio State, James took out a sheet of paper and recited, along with the thousands of students around him, the covenant between himself and those kids- the covenant that LeBron has turned into his “I Promise” campaign.
In that creed, James asks his students to promise to attend school, work hard and remember that everything in this life is earned and not given. In return, James said he will never forget the promise he’s made to them to keep them an integral part of his life and to help guide them through their years in school.
WIth a promise renewed and the business said and done, James finally spoke at length about his decision to return to where it all began.
“People around me told me to do what makes me happy,” James said. “I thought about that, but then I thought, ‘nah, I’m going to do what makes my city and my state happy.’”
As the tickled crowd roared once more, LeBron ended his speech with a couple of simple, yet profound words.
“I love you,” James announced to the crowd. “I’m back.”
Immediately, he dropped the mic and an incredible fireworks display began.
As the event came to a close, just as he has fulfilled the promises he has made to the Akron community, James fulfilled the promise he made in his words to Lee Jenkins.
His homecoming certainly was not a press conference, nor a celebration.
Rather, it was another step in his plan to make better the entire Northeast Ohio community.