LeBron James dazzles hometown crowd in Akron title party

ByDave McMenamin ESPN logo
Friday, June 24, 2016

AKRON, Ohio -- TheCleveland Cavaliers' championship party kept right on rolling Thursday with a celebration in honor of NBA Finals MVP LeBron James in his hometown.

When James greeted fans at Hopkins International Airport on Monday afternoon, the day after the Cavs bested the Golden State Warriors to win the first pro sports title in the city of Cleveland in 52 years, he reminded the adoring masses, "I just always want you guys to remember that I'm just a kid from Akron, Ohio."

A few days later, that "kid" -- now fully grown at 31 years old -- got to see just how much the residents of Akron appreciate the man he's become.

James took the stage at Lock 3, a public park in downtown Akron, to Skylar Grey's "Coming home," the same song he chose in the summer of 2014 when at another public gathering in Akron to commemorate his return to the Cavs. Only this time, he was carrying the Larry O'Brien Trophy.

"I remember like it was yesterday when we had the welcome home celebration and I walked inside of the University of Akron football stadium and all you guys was there when I decided to come back," James said. "And that roar that I heard then is nothing compared to this roar right here. You guys are unbelievable."

Lock 3 met its capacity of 7,500 approximately an hour before the start of the event. Canal Park, the 9,000-seat home of the Akron Rubberducks, an AA baseball team, was also opened for the overflow crowd. Others lined building tops and parking garages to get a glimpse of James.

The Akron event drew upwards of 25,000 people, according to organizers -- a modest turnout compared to Cleveland's championship parade crowd that was estimated at more than 1.3 million people Wednesday.

"I promised when I came back two years ago I had one mission from a basketball standpoint," James said. "I had one mission and my one mission was to bring a championship back to Ohio, back to Cleveland and back to Akron and look up there, it's right there!

"There's no way I could accomplish such a feat like we just had this past Sunday without the support from all of you guys. Akron is home. You all know that. Everywhere I go, everywhere I go I preach Akron. I love each and every one of you."

The crowd loved him back.

"The young man continues to take pride in Akron," said Dave Tomei, 63, who was wearing a T-shirt honoring James and the Fighting Irish of St. Vincent-St. Mary winning the mythical high school national championship in 2003. "He never forgot where he came from. He continues to give back. Even when he left for four years to Miami, he continued to give back. He never forgot about us and he deserves a lot of credit for that."

Wilson Campbell, 48, coaches youth sports in Akron and sees James' direct impact with his teams.

"For over 10 years he's given back," Campbell said. "Brand new helmets, uniforms, you name it. He's dedicated, and it's a great thing."

The city unveiled a 60-foot banner showing James, with tears in his eyes, holding the Larry O'Brien Trophy after the win over the Warriors with the headline "I'm Home." Below it, a quote from James' homecoming letter in Sports Illustrated, "In Northeast Ohio nothing is given, everything is earned, you work for what you have," was printed, only modified to start with the words, "In Akron."

It also re-named a portion of Main Street as King James Way.

Keith Dambrot, head coach of the University of Akron men's basketball team, who coached James in his freshman season at St. Vincent-St. Mary, was in attendance. As was Dru Joyce, his second coach at the high school, who continues to coach there.

"This is amazing," Joyce said. "That's the word: Amazing."

Despite persistent rain Thursday, event organizers said a crowd started forming at noon, approximately eight hours before the start of the program.

The night ended with fireworks, but not before Dambrot launched some fireworks of his own, setting the bar for his former player's championship future.

"Listen, we're going to have about six more of these celebrations," Dambrot said. "Anybody could have stayed in Miami, but not many guys could come to Akron, Ohio, and Cleveland (and) win championships."

Monitors on site displayed a slideshow of images of the children enrolled in the LeBron James Family Foundation's "I Promise" campaign -- which pledges a free education at the University of Akron to the 2,300 students who complete the program that runs from middle school through the end of high school -- interspersed with photos of James' youth from playing on a toy hoop as a toddler to winning state championships as a teenager.

"Every kid here, I want to thank you guys for allowing me to continue to inspire you guys every single day," James said. "Every single night when I step out on the basketball floor or even when I leave the arena, I always have you guys on my mind."

The celebration could be seen on the land and in the air, from vendors selling T-shirts with sayings like "Cleveland scored the championship, Akron got the assist," while the Goodyear Blimp flew overhead, sharing the sky with a prop-engine plane that towed a sign that read, "THANK YOU LEBRON!!"

"It was 50-plus years that the Cleveland drought was going on," James said. "Cleveland's last championship was 50-some-odd years ago," James said. "Guess what? It took a kid from Akron to end it. Thank you."

With that James, dropped the microphone and exited into the night with his family beside him.

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