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In February of 2002, Sports Illustrated released their newest issue, putting a then 17-year-old high school basketball phenom LeBron James on its cover.

The issue was titled “The Chosen One.” Throughout the past 18 years, LeBron has exceeded this title in the most honorable ways, proving that whether or not he was chosen, he is someone all children and adults can look at as an example of dexterity, dignity, and grace in the face of a lifetime of great adversity.

Akron

In so many ways, where we are from shapes us as people and as learners. Growing up in Akron, LeBron James had a difficult childhood. “I saw drugs, guns, killings; it was crazy,” LeBron said in that Sports Illustrated article. On his must-see show “The Shop,” LeBron described how half of his friends who he grew up with are now dead, and he could have very easily been one of them. He questioned why life took him in one direction and not the other, when the circumstances of his childhood could have very easily led him to an early death. Was this pondering one of the catalysts for his work, years later as one of the most successful sports figures in history, with his “I Promise School”? LeBron’s “I Promise School” in Akron gives this writer – a teacher AND basketball fan – quite the conundrum: Is LeBron’s most powerful legacy this school or his work on the court? Luckily, I can safely and happily answer “both.” We don’t have to choose. He exemplifies excellence in all aspects of his life.

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Cleveland – Part I

Every teacher knows that their students must fail. It’s one of the most important parts of learning. It’s a very difficult idea to translate to a child – you must fail to learn, it doesn’t feel good, but it’s essential. I’m sure the pain of failing to win a championship each season for his first seven years as a professional partly led to his, at the time, controversial choice to air “The Decision” to leave Cleveland and seek success elsewhere. “The Decision” raised $2.5 million for the Boys & Girls Club, and partners who purchased advertising time also gave their commercial minutes to the Boys & Girls Club, a place that lifts up children all across the country. Again, LeBron’s decisions in life and actions based on circumstances were something to aspire to be.

Miami

One of the most important aspects of learning is collaborating. Ideally, all children have the opportunity to learn the values of empathy and teamwork, and through these lessons can evoke change for the better and an evolution of thinking and living. When LeBron took his “talents to South Beach” in 2010, he showed everyone that he was willing to set aside ego and change his strategy to achieve his goal of winning a championship in the NBA. He joined two other top players in Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh on the Miami Heat, and in four years there, he won two championships. His game evolved – it had to – and he proved that trusting his teammates’ talent and contributions leads to success. In his personal life, LeBron married his high school sweetheart and mother to his children, capping a stretch of joy and celebration.

Cleveland – Part II

Often times in life, we have a second chance to prove to ourselves and to everyone else that we have changed and grown, we have evolved and can tackle any problem or challenge, no matter how big. We apply our lifetime of education and learning to the new, seemingly insurmountable obstacles in our way.

LeBron James never got a college degree, yet his education is the most profound of his generation, and any other generation or age.

As a 30-year-old in 2014, LeBron returned to the small-market team that drafted him, the Cleveland Cavaliers. After losing in the Finals in 2015, he came back stronger to face the mighty, record-breaking 73-win Golden State Warriors in 2016. LeBron and the Cavs went down 3-1 to the Warriors, and it looked like LeBron would not be able to reach that ultimate goal.

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He used many of the past professional and life lessons he learned and earned to attempt to bring a championship in professional sports to a city that hadn’t seen success in almost six decades, and still, it looked like he was coming up short. Then, LeBron scored 41 points in each of game five and game six, tying the series. In the winner-take-all game seven, LeBron provided the play of the game with less than two minutes left, when he chased down and blocked a layup that would have led to a shift in score and momentum. He also mustered up a triple-double and a late-game dagger free throw to win his third NBA championship and the first ever for the Cavalier franchise.

lebron james you reach I teach

A little over a year later, when LeBron exercised his right of free political speech, he was told to “shut up and dribble” by a Fox News commentator. LeBron responded in the best way he knew how – the only way. LeBron produced a documentary series about athletes and advocacy and titled it “Shut Up and Dribble,” thereby continuing a lifetime of creating positive opportunity amidst adversity.

Los Angeles

There’s a time in all students’ lives when they go from learning to doing, practicing to mastering. As a progressive educator, we celebrate all moments in the process of learning, from failing, collaboration, to challenging oneself and reaching our learning goals, no one experience necessarily more valuable or important than another. This isn’t to say progressive educators don’t celebrate culminating work, rather, we look forward to those displays of knowledge, growth, and deep learning.

LeBron’s signing with the Lakers in 2018 and his “More Than a Vote” initiative, in many ways, seems like the culmination of an NBA career filled with education both professional and personal.

Through an already unprecedented time of Covid and quarantine, when George Floyd and Breonna Taylor were gruesomely murdered by police, it was LeBron who, as the face of the most exciting professional sports league in the world, rallied the players, coaches and commissioner to dedicate the season to Black Lives Matter. In fact, that true and powerful statement is sprawled across every half court in the NBA Bubble.

This statement, though, has propelled LeBron into becoming a political force, gathering powerful names across sports and entertainment to sign on to “educate, energize and protect the Black voter.” Their inclusive work is committed to fighting voter suppression in all its ugly forms. It’s this work of LeBron’s, along with his “I Promise School,” along with his skill and achievements on the basketball court, that is simply incredible, and worth reflecting on.

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LeBron James never got a college degree, yet his education is the most profound of his generation, and any other generation or age, and needs to be forever celebrated.

Brian Wright