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Let’s be clear: It is LeBron James who makes America great

Dan Wetzel
Columnist
LeBron James is dedicated to helping others. (AP)

LeBron James said recently on CNN that President Donald Trump is trying to divide the country racially. It was his most recent criticism of Trump. Trump responded that CNN’s Don Lemon is so lacking in intelligence that “he made LeBron look smart, which isn’t easy to do.”

This is what these guys do. LeBron believes it is important for him to use his platform to speak up on issues he finds important. Meanwhile, Trump is willing to hurl insults at anyone who doesn’t say laudatory things about him. He’s scrapped with Gold Star families, prisoners of war, judges and law enforcement officials – he’s certainly not going to take anything from a pro athlete.

Like or loathe it, this is America’s reality these days. They are both grown-ups. They can handle this themselves.

The more germane question is trying to decide if Trump is correct and that LeBron is, as Trump implies, not smart.

LeBron is definitely smart on the basketball court. What about off it and in his personal life?

Was it smart for him, for instance, to dedicate himself to helping young people who are growing up in situations similar to how he did via philanthropy, mentorship and serving as a model for family values?

LeBron is just 33, and he could instead be maximizing the prime of his life by, for example, partaking in wild, tabloid divorces or repeatedly declaring for bankruptcy.

LeBron was raised in poverty by a single, teen mother. He often speaks about being aware that the statistics were stacked against him. There were times they couldn’t afford even a cheap apartment in Akron, Ohio, and had to move around sleeping on other people’s couches. He missed 80 days in the fourth grade because his mom couldn’t physically get from where they were staying to his school.

Incredible basketball skills allowed him to get out. He understands his great fortune and how without it, he might not have. As such, he’s poured money and time into helping those who won’t grow up to be 6-foot-8.

The core principle behind everything is creating safe and healthy environments so kids learn to value education and the self-reliance it brings.

Is that smart?

He’s been a major booster for the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, including the time he and his wife donated 1,000 computers to sites around the country. He started the After School All-Stars in Akron for kids who didn’t have the safest or most nurturing home life. The ONEXONE foundation focuses on challenges poor children everywhere face: hunger, health, education, water and play. Then there’s his support of the Children’s Defense Fund, a Washington D.C.-based non-profit that advocates for child welfare around the world.

On the micro-level, he’s worked to rehab homes, promote reading and encouraged athletes at all levels: youth, high school, college and the Special Olympics. There’s smaller initiatives, such as one teaching kids how to write computer-language code.

He’s donated millions to his old high school, although he didn’t want anyone to know. The LeBron James Clubhouse that got constructed in Akron doesn’t just give kids a safe place to play and study, it feeds between 40-60 of them a hot meal each day (often their only one). He’s pledged to pay 1,000 scholarships at the University of Akron so high school kids don’t give up because they might not have money.

His most recent endeavor is his most ambitious, and what landed him on CNN in the first place. His new I Promise School is a partnership with the Akron public-school system. The K-8 offers at-risk kids free tuition, free uniform, a bike and helmet, free breakfast, lunch and snacks, transportation within two miles, a food pantry and GED classes for parents that might need it.

Anyone who makes it through gets a free ride to the University of Akron.

“For kids, in general, all they want to know is that someone cares,” LeBron said in the CNN interview that Trump saw. “And when they walk through that door, I hope they know someone cares.”

Is that smart?

There’s more though. And not just financially. If anything, cutting a check or leaning on corporate partners to give big to the LeBron James Family Foundation is the easy part.

Living the life is the hard part.

LeBron James was essentially a child star, on the cover of Sports Illustrated at 17, everyone wanting a piece of him and his future earnings long before that. His support system was limited. Yet he’s never been in any trouble. He’s never been arrested. He’s never been involved in scandal. No, you shouldn’t get too much credit for doing the right thing, but there is a lengthy, lengthy list of those who couldn’t.

His biggest public mistake came in 2010 when he announced his “Decision” to leave Cleveland for the Miami Heat via a television special. It was poor P.R. You could definitely say that wasn’t smart, but then again, no one was hurt, no one was defrauded, no one got stuck going to a bogus university.

That night also raised $2.5 million for the Boys & Girls Clubs of America.

Then there is the part of life that is dear to him – fatherhood. He grew up without a dad and long ago vowed “to be the best father in the world.” He’s married to his high school girlfriend, Savannah, and they have three children, two boys and a little girl.

“Just breaking the mode, that’s all,” James told Cleveland.com in 2016. “I wanted to be a part of the statistics that breaks the mode of fathers running out on their kids. … I knew from Day 1 that wasn’t going to be me. To have a family and be there for them and be there on a day-to-day basis is important. I know I travel a lot, but I’m a staple in the household and it means a lot to me and I know it means a lot to my kids.”

You won’t find many (any?) paparazzi photos of LeBron stumbling out of a nightclub. You will find him cheering at his kids’ athletic events. His sons hang around his locker after games sometimes. He FaceTimes with his 3-year-old daughter, who clearly has him wrapped around her little finger.

The need for great fathers in this country can’t be overstated, particularly in the African-American community.

Here is a high-profile dad, one who has everything, and he doesn’t just embrace the challenges of the job. He broadcasts and celebrates the joy fatherhood produces, championing it as more important than NBA glory.

It’s remarkable. It really is. And it’s impossible to know how many millions of fathers it touches in ways big and small.

LeBron James isn’t perfect. No one is. He may not even be close. And certainly, neither the public nor the media know everything about him, or even most about him. He might be paying off porn stars for all we know.

Heading into his 16th NBA season though, he’s still walking the talk, as well as cutting the checks. He isn’t willing to “shut up and dribble” like he was once told to do on Fox News.

Maybe that’s smart. Or maybe that isn’t.

Or maybe that’s just a guy trying, as much as one person can, to make America great.

Again … or with some of these kids, for the first time.

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