With apologies to true pro basketball fans, I can say I've never understood the NBA. It always seemed to me like a lot of posturing and one-man plays, grandstanding and not a whole lot of teamwork.
However what I've learned lately about superstar LeBron James has made me appreciate things in a whole new way. LeBron was selected by Sports Illustrated as its 2012 Sportsman of the Year, which is an award for his play on the basketball court and his brilliance in analyzing the game, obviously, but also (and more importantly in my opinion) for his numerous equally generous and thoughtful contributions to the community. And this especially rang true to to me in his work with disadvantaged youth, in which LeBron uses his love of bikes and bike culture as a good way to reach and motivate kids.
LeBron himself loves bikes. It's not uncommon for him to ride his bike to home games, morning practices or other events at the stadium where his Miami Heat plays. Some credit that time on the bike with helping him build the endurance to survive the NBA's grinding season, where he averaged over 37 minutes per game in 2011. And get this: he's even got an ownership share in Cannondale. LeBron even participates in Miami's Critical Mass ride, even recruiting teammates Dwyane Wade and Mario Chalmers to join him.
But as an example of the way he's expanded his own passion for the bike to helping kids through his foundation, while playing for Cleveland Caviliers, each year from 2006-2010 in his nearby hometown of Akron, Ohio, LeBron hosted an event called "Bikeathon". As a part of this, he'd pass out 300 bikes to underprivileged kids, then rode with them through the streets. He even set up a place where kids could go for free repairs.
All this was noble enough, but in 2011 LeBron expanded the program dramatically, creating a year-round, specially focused program emphasizing reading scores and academic achievement. Now called "Wheels for Education" it targets third-graders, which research shows is a critical point in school, a fork in the road where kids either generally are positioned for long-term success (i.e. graduation) or else eventually failing or dropping out. With that in mind, LeBron's program enrolled 290 kids from 30 elementary schools in the city in the first group; just over 200 are participating this year. Kids in the program start out by taking part in a two-week technology-focused "fall camp" where they receive a bike at the end of the week. But that's just a start. During the school year, the students are tracked by LeBron's foundation and they receive any one of six voice mail messages from him tailored to specific situations, such as when they do well on a test or maybe miss a couple days of class. As part of the program, students repeatedly recite "The Pledge" where they promise to go to school, do their homework, listen to parents and teachers, to strive to be healthy and make good choices and above all, to finish school. LeBron sends letters to the kids once a month or so, including a recommended reading list with selections from his boys and fiancee. And he returns to Akron each year for graduation.
And this is what I find most impressive. While many athletic superstars have foundations, often their own participation is limited to a few "photo-op" appearances each year. LeBron James is personally involved with Wheels for Education and committed to it. This is not a recent start-up foundation to get some positive publicity. The program will track kids through high-school, nine years from when they enter the program. If LeBron has given away 300 bikes each year for the first five years, and now is supporting another 200 or more kids per year, it is conceivable that within a decade he will have touched over 3,000 kids with both a love of biking and the even more important academic support and motivation to do things now that will lay the foundation for future success.
Sportsman of the Year? Sounds more like a Humanitarian of the Year to me.