Video Courtesy of Global News
During the 2018 NBA playoffs, variations on the same argument raged all across barbershops, playgrounds, and social media. Between Michael Jordan and LeBron James, who’s the GOAT – that is, Greatest of All Time? Many Gen-X-ers are more loyal to Jordan because we remember watching his dominance throughout the ‘90s. Similarly, Millennial NBA fans tend to give their allegiance to LeBron, citing not only advanced statistical metrics, but his incredible eight consecutive Finals appearances.
If the argument is confined to what happens on the court, it will rage on for years. But if you factor in off-the-court impact, then there’s no comparison. Because LeBron James just did something that not even “His Airness” can claim – he launched a public school.
Almost a decade in the making, the I Promise School is a collaboration between the LeBron James Family Foundation, Akron Public Schools, and a variety of community partners. It opened with just 240 third-and-fourth graders, but it’s projecting to have around 1,000 students from grades 1-8 by 2022, all of whom will have access to free uniforms, free bikes and helmets, free breakfast and lunch, and free transportation for any students more than 2 miles away.
The title has a double meaning – it’s consistent with James’ stated commitment to his hometown of Akron, which he has promised will continue, regardless of where his playing career takes him. (It doesn’t seem coincidental that this school opened during the same off-season when he left his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers to join the Los Angeles Lakers.) But it also speaks to the promise that students make to themselves, to make the most of the opportunity to excel in a place where, as the school website says, “nothing is given, everything is earned.”
For such a staggering display of educational investment, LeBron James is rightly being lauded as a model citizen. But his example is more than just civic responsibility. Whether intentionally or not, James is upholding an important Biblical principle.
When the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah wrote to the people of Israel, he was writing to a people in exile, people who were in a foreign land, a place where they didn’t want to be. And he wanted to give them hope, but he also needed to be honest with them.
“Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile,” Jeremiah wrote to the people. “Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (Jeremiah 29:7, NIV). Instead of the word “prosperity,” many other translations use the word “welfare,” but the idea is the same. Essentially Jeremiah is telling the people, get used to this place, and make it your home.
This was not an easy message for the people to hear. Many of the Israelites probably wanted to be told their exile would be short, and they would soon return to their home. You have to understand, these were a people whose cultural identity was tied up in the idea of keeping themselves separate from foreigners, foreign lands, and foreign customs… and now they were being told the opposite. Love these people and invest in this place, because as they are blessed, you’ll be blessed, too.
It was a challenge for the ancient Israelites, just as it’s a challenge for many Christians today.
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LeBron James is not in exile. His wealth and privilege allow him to move around at will (as the good people of Los Angeles can now gratefully confirm). And Akron, OH, is not exactly a foreign place.
Nevertheless, with the I Promise School, LeBron James embodies the principle of engaging the welfare of a people. In his words and actions, James has consistently recognized the responsibility he has as a global icon, someone who was able to transcend the boundaries of his native Akron, to help make that place better for the next generation. He, like Dr. King, recognized that his destiny is intertwined with others around him.
Which is why it’s so sadly ironic that conservative commentators like Laura Ingraham have attacked James for speaking out against racism and injustice. Because the ideals that James tends to demonstrate are remarkably conservative. In the 16 years he’s been in the NBA, he’s never been involved in any off-the-court scandals. Only those in his inner circle can truly confirm this, but from all appearances, James has been a model teammate, husband, father, and community philanthropist.
This is consistent with the best practices of positive impact. Showy displays of wealth aren’t as effective if they’re not backed up by consistent integrity in one’s immediate context. LeBron’s commitment to children in his hometown of Akron parallels his commitments to his own sons, LeBron Jr. (aka “Bronny”), 13, and Bryce, 11, both of whom are taking after their dad on the basketball court.
And we don’t know much about LeBron James’ inner spiritual life, because he doesn’t say much about his faith other than that he feels blessed by God to be able to play in the NBA. Nevertheless, families like the James’ are emblematic of the ways impact can be multiplied through relationships. Healthy, righteous people can raise healthy families, that righteousness can radiate further and further out, into schools, workplaces, communities, states, and even nations.
In so doing, James is providing an example for other people to emulate. We may not all grow up to be built like a linebacker with the speed and dexterity of a center fielder and the court vision of a point guard, but anyone can make a positive impact by starting local.
In the ‘90s, Gatorade had a series of commercials featuring their pitchman Michael Jordan, celebrating his greatness and encouraging the next generation to “Be Like Mike.”
In 2018, the bar has been raised. Being like LeBron requires way more than just drinking a soft drink or wearing a pair of shoes. It means, among other things, finding your blessing in the welfare of others.