THE BIGGEST COMPLIMENT

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Last week LeBron James returned to Ohio for the grand opening of a public school for at-risk children in his hometown of Akron. Two-hundred and forty children who are under-performing in math and reading comprise the inaugural class in the I Promise School. The LeBron James Family Foundation and its partners have already donated $2 million to the school, most of which went to renovation costs. But $500,000 was earmarked to hire teachers and fund after-school programs.

LeBron’s gift will also insure that all students have uniforms and hot meals, and the family of every student will have access to a food pantry.

To insure the school’s success, LeBron’s foundation has pledged $2 million per year through 2022. At that point, the school is expected to have 1,000 students enrolled. And here’s the best part – LeBron has pledged free college tuition at the University of Akron for every student who graduates from the I Promise School.

“For kids in general, all they want to know is that someone cares,” James said. “And when they walk through that door I hope they know that someone cares.”

It’s hard to think of a worthier or more inspiring storyline than one of the world’s most famous athletes using his riches to improve the lives of at-risk children by providing them a pathway to a college education. One of LeBron’s role models is Muhammad Ali, an athlete who surrendered his heavyweight championship belt when he was the most widely recognized athlete on earth and risked imprisonment for opposing the Vietnam War and refusing to join the military. He did so on religious grounds. “I’m giving up my title, my wealth, maybe my future,” Ali said at the time. “Many great men have been tested for their religious belief. If I pass this test, I’ll come out stronger than ever.”

Ali with Martin Luther KingAli with Martin Luther King

As a journalist who covers sports, I get much more inspiration from athletes who do great things off the field. Wilma Rudolph. Arthur Ashe. Billy Jean King. Each stepped up as advocates for greater social justice and equality. That’s one reason I admire James. There are big risks when you take a stand. Michael Jordan was criticized for remaining on the sidelines when it came to social issues during his career.

In recent years, LeBron has been using his platform to improve the lives of children through education. He’s also quietly funded a lot of initiatives both in Ohio (spending $1 million to renovate the gym at his high school) and elsewhere (donating $2.5 million for the Muhammad Ali exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture).

Naturally, LeBron gets asked lots of questions about what’s going on in our country. And why shouldn’t he? He’s one of the most successful African-American men in the country and one of the most visible Americans on earth. Last week when CNN interviewed him about his new school, LeBron used the opportunity to share what it was like growing up poor with a single mother. All of us who grew up that way – count me among them – appreciate it when he opens up about his upbringing. At one point, he talked about the importance of athletics in a school.

“Sports was the first time I was around someone white,” he said. “And I got an opportunity to see them and learn about them. And they got an opportunity to learn about me, and we became very good friends.”

“Sport has never been something that divides people,” he continued. “It’s always been something that brings people together.”

Anyone who has played sports can relate to what James was saying. Athletics can bridge differences in race, religion and economic status.

LeBron being interviewed by Don LemonLeBron being interviewed by Don Lemon

James added that he couldn’t relate to the way President Trump was using sports to divide people. He didn’t elaborate. Nor did he have to. There are few things that Trump rails against more than NFL players kneeling during the National Anthem. The President also uninvited professional sports teams from attending the White House after individual players on those teams indicated they would skip the visit. He has also mocked NFL owners who supported new rules to protect players from brain injuries, saying, “Uh-oh, got a little ding on the head?”

LeBron’s comments, while measured, drew the ire of the President. Shortly after the CNN interview re-aired, Trump tweeted: “LeBron James was just interviewed by the dumbest man on television, Don Lemon. He made LeBron look smart, which isn’t easy to do. I like Mike!”

Trump insults a lot of people – Senator John McCain (“He’s not a war hero”), Stephen Colbert (“a low-life”), Meryl Streep (“overrated”). The list goes on. But why is it that every time he insults an African-American, he does so by demeaning their intelligence? Maxine Waters (“an extraordinarily low IQ person”), Barack Obama (“the most ignorant president in our history”), Don Lemon (“dumbest man on television”).

Columnist William Rhoden said it best. “Not only did POTUS 45 insult a prominent African-American newscaster and the NBA’s most popular player, he dragged the famously neutral Michael Jordan into the fight. One of the worst things for any African-American is to be used publicly to denigrate another African-American by a white person perceived to be anti-black.”

Michael Jordan wasted no time responding. “I support L.J.,” he said through a spokesman. “He’s doing an amazing job in his community.”

Leaders in business, politics, sports, and education expressed dismay at President Trump’s verbal broadside of James in the aftermath of opening a school. But former Boston Celtics legend Bill Russell had a different take. “You must be doing something right!” Russell told James on twitter, adding that an insult from this President is “the biggest compliment you can get.”

Russell was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which he referred to as the second greatest honor of his life. His greatest honor, he said, was his 77-year-old father telling him: “You know, I am very proud of the way you turned out as my son, and I’m proud of you as a father.”

Bill Russell with President ObamaBill Russell with President Obama

Russell was the first black NBA player enshrined in the Hall of Fame. But his most courageous acts were off the court. Back in 1963, right after leading the Celtics to their fifth consecutive NBA title, Russell received death threats for going to Jackson, Mississippi, where he held the first integrated basketball camp in the state’s history. This was Russell’s way of responding to the murder of civil rights activist Medgar Evers.

Russell likes what he sees in James. The impact of LeBron’s leadership is obvious in the actions of others. On Sunday at the Hall of Fame induction ceremony, former New England Patriots wide receiver Randy Moss wore a black tie with the names of African-Americans who have been killed by police. “With great powers come great responsibility,” Moss said.

Golfer Bubba Watson paid $30,000 for a shoe worn by LeBron James. The money will go toward the new I Promise School in Akron, Ohio. “You know, I’ve won three times this year, but this was way better in my book,” Watson said. “I feel like I’m known as a golfer and not a real person sometimes and I just want to do other things that are far more important than playing golf.”

And Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Chris Long donated his salary to fund two scholarships – seven-year, all-expense paid programs – in his hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia. “We watched people fill our hometown streets with hatred and bigotry,” Long said. “[My wife] Megan and I decided to try to combat those actions with our own positive investment in our community.”

So far, LeBron hasn’t responded to Trump’s latest insult. But First Lady Melania Trump has. Over the weekend, her spokeswoman issued this statement: “It looks like LeBron James is working to do good things on behalf of our next generation and just as she always has, the First Lady encourages everyone to have an open dialogue about issues facing children today.”

I’d like to see the First Lady visit the I Promise School in Akron. LeBron James is the kind of man who would offer to give her a personal tour. Maybe he’d even invite his friend Michelle Obama to join them. That would be something.

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Jeff Benedict is a best selling author of 14 books and a television and film producer.  His latest book — QB: My Life Behind the Spiral (written with Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young) was a New York Times bestseller. He is currently writing the biography of Tiger Woods. He is a producer on the forthcoming motion picture “Little Pink House,” starring Oscar-nominated Catherine Keener with music by David Crosby.  To book him for a speech or private event, contact Ellis Trevor at ellis@chartwellspeakers.com

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