LeBron James

LeBron James: Rising to the NBA Summit from a Shattered Life

LeBron James’ unfortunate childhood – fatherless, living with a single mother – nurtured his iron will on his journey to becoming the NBA’s number one star.

LeBron James’ misfortune is not uncommon in life and in the world of sports. But it was enough to crush the spirit of any African-American child born in the U.S. during the ’80s. Fatherless, homeless, James wandered the streets of Akron, Ohio with his 16-year-old single mother, entirely dependent on social welfare. This was the beginning of the harsh childhood years of the current NBA’s number one star.

High school girl Gloria Marie James became pregnant after sexual encounters with thief and robber Anthony McClelland. There was no love between them, as Gloria later recounted, just pure physical satisfaction. Carrying McClelland’s blood, therefore, was unintentional for Gloria. Baby LeBron was born on the last day of 1984, one of the coldest days of Gloria’s life. She was just 16 years old.

The first three years were not too bad. Gloria kept going to school every day, leaving LeBron at home with his grandmother and mother. Her two brothers lived with them in a large house on Hickory Street, next to a rugged road with old oak trees and a railway crossing, near the center of Akron city. The tragedy began on Christmas 1987 when Gloria’s mother Freda died of a heart attack. A few months earlier, the young girl’s grandmother had passed away. The stability of the entire family was seriously threatened.

Terry and Curt, Gloria’s brothers, tried to keep the house for their sister and nephew to live in. But the severe deterioration of the house, coupled with insufficient income to cover the expenses, soon led the three siblings into homelessness. Everyone had to find their own new accommodation as none had a stable job.

Gloria wandered the streets of Akron with three-year-old LeBron. They lived in the homes of friends, staying at each place for a few weeks or longer. At times, in desperation, Gloria would take LeBron to her brother Terry’s house for a few days. During this period, mother and son depended on social welfare, as Gloria couldn’t find suitable employment due to the lack of childcare.

LeBron James’ family fell into homelessness when he was only a few days away from turning four years old

LeBron later described this period bitterly: “My asset was a backpack on my back. I would say to the backpack, ‘It’s time to roll,’ every time I had to leave an apartment with my mother.” Until 1993, when LeBron was nine years old, they moved on average twice a month. They often appeared in humanitarian housing areas for the homeless, or overnight shelters built by churches.

During his fourth-grade year, LeBron moved 12 times and missed about 100 school days. “The kid had trouble moving. He was confused by new classmates in new schools. Sometimes he missed school because he didn’t know which bus to take,” said Bruce Kelker, LeBron James’ first football coach.

Kelker, after a chance encounter on the street and noticing LeBron’s superior physique, took mother and son to live with him and his girlfriend in a small apartment. Kelker took responsibility for picking up, buying training equipment, and teaching football to James, in return Gloria cooked hamburgers and cooked twice a week.

But Kelker’s small apartment only provided a few months of shelter for LeBron and his mother before they decided to move out. By this time, LeBron’s standout performances in youth football matches in Akron had caught the attention of Frank Walker, a local youth coach.

Knowing the difficult circumstances of LeBron and his mother, Walker offered to help by inviting LeBron to live with his family in the suburbs of Akron. Gloria would have time to look for work, stay with friends, and visit her son on weekends. The offer came just as Gloria was about to send LeBron to live with relatives in New York. The 25-year-old woman agreed to Walker’s proposal, and that was the turning point that led LeBron James to later success in the NBA.

The Walker family, with two sons of LeBron’s age, brought the homeless boy into their routine. They woke James up at 6:30 every morning, cooked him decent breakfasts, and took him to school. James also had his hair cut by Walker every Saturday, and on his birthday, Mrs. Walker made German chocolate cakes for the 10-year-old boy. “That was a real family,” James recalls of his time living with Coach Walker.

After doing homework in the afternoon, James began playing basketball with Walker and his children. Although a football coach, Walker was good at basketball. He taught James how to dribble, make left-handed shots, and realized the boy had great potential. “LeBron was one of the best youth football players in Akron at the time. But it was his basketball skills that amazed me. Despite his initial awkwardness, LeBron progressed quickly, soon surpassing his peers,” Walker told ESPN in 2013.

James played both football andbasketball in his youth. Not until his sophomore year in high school, at 15, did he decide to follow in Michael Jordan’s footsteps. “It was a wrist injury. I nearly broke my wrist after a game. I decided to give up football, even though it was the first sport I loved,” the Cleveland Cavaliers star shared.

Although Walker played a part in cultivating James’ basketball talent, enabling him to shine at St. Vincent-St. Mary’s high school team, it was his mother Gloria who was James’ biggest inspiration. “She went crazy every time she came to the court with James and watched her son play. She even volunteered at the club, ready to do the smallest jobs like filling water bottles or cleaning everything, just to be with LeBron during practice. That gave the boy strength,” Terry, LeBron’s uncle, recounted.

James has never forgotten the hardships he and his mother experienced: “I thank life for that. I thank the father who abandoned me. That helped me bond with my mother, going through the worst and the best with her. She’s not perfect, but I love her more than anything. She not only gave birth to me but also made me the person I am today.”

James is currently the most promising star to become the next billionaire in the U.S. from the NBA, following the legend Michael Jordan. After signing a lifetime contract worth $500 million with Nike last year, James bought his mother a six-million-dollar mansion in Florida. Before that, the 32-year-old star bought 10,000 square meters of land in Akron, linked to the tough childhood of mother and son, to build one of the largest amusement parks in Ohio.

“God has taken many things from me. But He gave me something priceless, LeBron,” Gloria shared when she and James received the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award in 2009.

Since becoming the top NBA star over a decade ago, James has often been invited by prestigious schools like Harvard to speak to students. These presentations are aimed at inspiring the younger generation about success in life. Perhaps no one in the NBA is better suited to these talks than James. His life is the most complete testament to the journey of a boy who overcame a harsh fate to become number one in his chosen field.

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