EVERY FEW MONTHS, when the situation demands it, LeBron James will give a motivational speech to students about the year that changed his life. He doesn't tell them about his senior year of high school, when he met his wife and became the No. 1 pick in the 2003 NBA draft. He doesn't talk about winning his first Olympic gold medal or his first NBA championship or signing a contract for $110 million or being named one of the most influential people in the world.
Instead, he tells them about fourth grade.
James' recounting of that time rarely includes specifics; even his autobiography skirts the messy details. It is easy now, from the pinnacle of his career, to see that time as simple allegory -- one more chapter in the certain creation of a sports superstar. But to spend time in Akron today, and to talk to those who witnessed that year, is to realize that LeBron's version of the story does no justice to the reality of 1993 and early 1994.
Back then, little about James' life was certain, and nothing about his future was preordained. During fourth grade, he moved perhaps half a dozen times and missed nearly 100 days of school. The identity of his father was a mystery to him. The man he called his dad was in jail. He had never played organized sports, and he had no clue who he was or what he wanted to become.
Long before he tattooed Chosen 1 across his back, James was in fact indistinguishable from so many other lost kids in Akron: "Bron Bron," by turns scared and listless, a lonely boy raised on welfare who sketched hundreds of logos of the Dallas Cowboys and Los Angeles Lakers into his notebook.
His transformation begins (and to some extent ends) amid the details of those troubled years, back when the creation of LeBron James was less a matter of fate than, in many respects, the product of pure happenstance.
HE BEGAN THAT fourth-grade school year the same way he had begun so many others: sleeping on a couch in a one-bedroom apartment that belonged to another of his mother's friends, where parties continued late into the night and police were sometimes called to investigate noise violations. His mom, 25-year-old Gloria, had recently quit a job at Payless Shoes, according to a friend. She was living on welfare. She liked to go out, friends said, and sometimes left LeBron to supervise himself. Often, he chose not to go to school, spending his days immersed in video games, shuttling between the apartment and a corner store where his mother's food stamps paid for his snacks.
By then, James had already spent two-thirds of his life essentially without a home, moving every few months with Gloria from one apartment to the next. She gave birth to him in 1984, when she was 16, and for the first few years they lived with four generations of family in a big house they owned on Hickory Street, a dirt road bordered by oak trees and railroad tracks near downtown Akron. Gloria went back to school; her grandmother and her mother, Freda, watched LeBron. Her grandmother died a few months later. Then, on Christmas Day in 1987, Freda died suddenly of a heart attack, and all family stability disintegrated.
Gloria and her two brothers, Curt and Terry, tried to maintain the house, but the place was cavernous and old, and they couldn't afford to pay for the heat. A neighbor visited that winter, when James was just 3 years old, and what she saw would later remind her of the movie Home Alone. The house was frigid and unkempt, with dirty dishes piling out of the sink and a hole developing in the living room floorboards. "It's not safe here," said Wanda Reaves, the neighbor. "Can you please come stay with me?" That night, Gloria and LeBron arrived at her house with a single suitcase and a blue stuffed elephant. "You can share the couch," Reaves told them, and so began a nomadic six years for a mother and son who were both trying to grow up at the same time.
"I just grabbed my little backpack, which held all the possessions I needed," James has said, "and said to myself what I always said to myself: It's time to roll."
They lived with Reaves for a few months ... then with a cousin ... then with one of Gloria's boyfriends ... then with her brother Terry. Their housing situation reached its nadir in the year of 1993, when they moved five times in three months during the spring, wearing out their welcome in a series of friends' small apartments while Gloria remained on the waitlist for a subsidized housing waiver from the city.
In the summer of '93, they were about to be kicked out again from a friend's two-bedroom place in a faded-brick housing project downtown when Bruce Kelker pulled into the project's parking lot looking for 8- and 9-year-old football players to join his rec team.
Kelker noticed Gloria first, sitting on the steps outside the apartment. She was 5'5" and stunning -- "Loud, proud and beautiful," Kelker says -- and as he walked over to her, he saw LeBron, lean and lanky, already as tall as his mother, playing tag with a few neighborhood kids. Kelker was, in truth, more interested in scoping out football players than women, so he walked past Gloria toward LeBron. "You guys like football?" he asked the kids.
"That's my favorite sport," James said.
Kelker was about to begin his first full season as a coach of the East Dragons, a youth team limited to boys under age 10 who weighed less than 112 pounds. The team's motto was "Teaching boys sportsmanship and teamwork," but Kelker wanted to win badly enough that he had assembled a depth chart and a 30-page playbook. He had been a great high school cornerback before wasting a decade "drinking and getting high," he says. Now he was sober, and he thought coaching a championship team might help redeem his reputation. He needed a star.
Kelker asked James and his friends to line up for a footrace, 100 yards across the parking lot. "Fastest one is my running back," he told them. James won by 15 yards.
"How much football have you played?" Kelker asked him. "None," James said. Kelker told him where to meet for the team's first practice, he says, but Gloria interrupted him. She said she couldn't afford to pay for her son's equipment. She had no car and no way to take him to practice. "How do I even know football will be good for Bron Bron?" she asked.
"Don't worry about any of that," Kelker told her. "I'll take care of everything, and I'll pick him up."
HE TOOK HIS first handoff for the East Dragons 80 yards from scrimmage for a touchdown. After that, the pieces of LeBron's chaotic life slowly began to congeal. His mother began rearranging her weekends around his football games. Teammates warmed to LeBron, gravitating to talent, even when it emerged in a boy who could still be "awkward and shy," Kelker says.
Kelker became the most reliable adult in James' life: He stored the boy's football equipment in the back of his car and arrived to pick him up every afternoon at 3:45, sometimes only to discover James had moved again. "I was tired of picking him up at different addresses," he says, "or showing up at one junked-up place and finding out they had already moved to another."
Two weeks into the season, Kelker invited his new star player to live with him. He wanted more stability for James, and he also wanted to make sure his best player continued to show up for games. When Gloria said she felt uncomfortable having her son move in with a virtual stranger, Kelker invited her to come too. He already had a live-in girlfriend, Kelker said; he promised Gloria that his only interest was in helping take care of her son. Gloria promised to cook Hamburger Helper twice each week and chip in some of her welfare payments for rent.
So began their life as an unconventional family. For the next several months, Kelker watched as the people he called "Glo and Bron" found a footing in Akron's sports-centric world. Gloria volunteered to become "team mother" rather than pay the league participation fee; she came to practice, took attendance and filled water bottles. James scored 17 touchdowns that season, and Gloria raced down the sideline each time -- "stride for stride with LeBron, looking like a maniac," Kelker says. During one touchdown celebration, she whacked her son's shoulder pads so hard he fell to the ground.
"That was their first taste of success," says Rashawn Dent, another one of James' coaches that year.
James was still sheepish and subdued. He had always thought of attention mostly as something to avoid. As the new kid in class -- year after year, in school after school -- he had cultivated a habit of sitting in the back and keeping quiet, or skipping class altogether. Even in the fall of 1993, during the months in which he lived with Kelker, he continued to miss school, at first not sure which one to attend, then uncertain about where to catch the bus, Kelker says. And during the football season, when opposing coaches started to complain about his size and demand his birth certificate, James sloped his shoulders and dipped his knees in the huddle.
"What the hell are you doing?" Kelker asked him.
"Trying to blend in," James said.
"You ain't ever going to blend in," Kelker told him. "And that can be a good thing."
AFTER ANOTHER FEW months, late in the fall of '93, it was time to move again. Kelker's girlfriend felt crowded with four people living in the small apartment; Gloria and her son agreed to leave. She considered sending James away to stay with relatives in Youngstown or even New York so he wouldn't have to stay on couches with her, but another youth football coach made a better offer. Frank Walker suggested that James live with him in a single-family house in suburban Akron. That way Gloria could stay with a friend and still see her son on weekends, and the East Dragons could keep their best player. It would prove, for LeBron and Gloria, a turn of great luck.
The Walkers had three children, and James shared a room with Frankie Walker Jr., a football teammate who would become one of his best friends. It was James' first experience with what, years later, he would call "a real family." The Walkers were hard workers with 9-to-5 jobs -- Frank at the Akron Metropolitan Housing Authority and his wife, Pam, in the offices of a local congressman. James had to clean the bathroom every other weekend. Frank cut LeBron's hair every Saturday afternoon, and Pam baked German chocolate cake for his birthday. They made James wake up at 6:30 a.m. for school and finish his homework before practicing basketball, which was now the in-season sport. Frank taught him how to dribble and how to shoot lefthanded layups. He signed up James to play for a 9-year-old team and enlisted him as an assistant coach for 8-year-olds, believing that coaching would accelerate his basketball learning curve. "You could see his skills getting better at Frank's house literally every day," Kelker says.
The Walkers enrolled James in Portage Path Elementary, one of the oldest schools in Akron. It was a poor inner-city school with an aging building where roughly 90 percent of students qualified for free lunches. But it had also begun to experiment with what the administration called "holistic learning." Students took classes in music, art and gym -- all three of which became James' favorites. He didn't miss another day of school that year.
At the beginning of fifth grade, James and his classmates took a weekend field trip to Cuyahoga Valley National Park. James had never been there before -- he had rarely left Akron -- and his new teacher, Karen Grindall, wondered whether he might cause mischief in the park's dormitory. Grindall also had taught Gloria years earlier; she knew the family's troubled history. "You worried, with all that tumult, about the past repeating itself," she says. But instead there was James, running through the pines, hiking to waterfalls, always back by curfew. "So steady. So happy," Grindall says, and she never worried about him again.