AKRON, Ohio -- In his first interview since joining the Los Angeles Lakers, LeBron James sat down with ESPN to talk about the opening of his foundation's I Promise School in Akron, his move to Hollywood and what it's like watching his son, LeBron James Jr., follow in his footsteps as a young basketball star.
Here is a transcript, edited for length, from the interview.
Rachel Nichols: So someone in the hallway was just saying that this is your first interview since you joined the Lakers. And I have to be honest, it caught my ear: Lakers forward LeBron James. What do you think when you hear that?
LeBron James: It still sounds kinda weird. But it definitely feels good, it feels good. And I'm looking forward to it.
RN: We're sitting here in this school you're opening in Akron, Ohio. You've talked about how much Ohio means to you, how much Cleveland, the Cavaliers have meant to you. How tough a call was it?
LJ: It's kind of a bittersweet moment right now. Sitting here in my school that I'm opening, around these kids, around this community. And then at the same time, making the switch to the other coast, being a part of the Lakers now. It's always a tough decision when you leave home or you leave an organization that you've been with for multiple years. It was tough to leave the first time. When I left Miami, leaving Cleveland once again, definitely tough. But you know, it's a decision that was best for me and my family. I think both sides feel great and appreciative of the moments and the time that we have spent together.
RN: You announced it quicker this time than you have with your free-agency moves in the past. Is that reflective of the fact that you've kind of reached that peace and decision quickly?
LJ: Absolutely. I'm at a point where I know what I want, what I like, and my family played a huge part in that. So no need for the dramatics of the drawn-out conclusion of things. Just get right to it.
RN: So we're sitting here in this school. This is a co-production between your foundation and the Akron Public School District. A public school ...
LJ: Public school.
RN: ... for at-risk kids. You're a guy who has won three NBA titles, four MVPs, and yet you will tell anyone who listens that opening this school today is a greater moment than any of those -- and I got tape of you in Game 7 in the NBA Finals. Do you mean it?
LJ: I do. I do mean it. I can sit here and be at a loss for words, which I am now. This is my first time here, walking these hallways and seeing, when I was driving here, just the streets that I walked, some of the stores are still up when I was growing up. It's a moment I'll never forget, and hopefully the kids, starting with the 240 kids that we have going in here right now starting today, will never forget it, either.
"We literally have a school. It's not a charter school, it's not a private school, it's a real-life school in my hometown. And this is pretty cool."LeBron James
RN: So much of the features of this school were built around your experience and what you would have wanted or what you would have needed when you were that age. So tell me what it was like to be one of those kids. What did you walk around thinking was possible or what was not possible?
LJ: You didn't know what was possible for you because you kind of always paid attention to the statistics. Growing up in the inner city, the numbers are always stacked up against you. So you didn't really know what was possible. I think what happened for me was that I got some mentors and little league coaches and some teachers that I kind of started to believe in. And they started to make my dreams feel like they could actually become a reality.
We're starting with 240 kids, 120 in third grade and 120 in fourth grade. And I believe that's where it all kind of starts. And that's where it started for me. You know, fourth grade I missed 80 days of school. That following year I met the Walker family, and they had a support system. I met some little league coaches playing basketball and football and the following year I didn't miss one day of school. So I feel like this is the point where we can kind of get into the minds of the kids and let them know that we're here for them. And I think that's what kids ultimately want, they just want someone to feel like someone cares about them. And that's what we're trying to do here.
RN: When people hear that number, I'm not sure they can feel what that was like. First of all, I have to say that 80-plus days of school -- the school year only has about 180 days. So that's one thing. But that was the year that you and your mom didn't have a permanent home. You were moving from place to place, you had people helping you out, with a place to sleep, with food. What was that actually like for a kid?
LJ: It was challenging. It was mentally challenging. Sometimes you think about a kid being in the third grade at that age -- being 8, 7 years old or in the fourth grade -- having responsibility. Or having stress. No kid at 8 and 9 should have stress. And I was one of those kids. So I know exactly what these kids today are going through. I was going to a school on the other side of town, but I was living with a family on the complete opposite side of town. So there was no way that I could even get to the school to even participate. You know, we didn't have a car, the city bus didn't come to where I was living. But any time I would show up to school, it was weird, the teachers would always tell my mom that when he shows up, he's one of the best students that we have. We just hope that he can show up more. And we just couldn't do it at that point in time. So I know exactly what a lot of these kids are going through.
RN: You have said the line a lot, "Hey, I could have been a statistic." And you weren't because, as you said, you're good at basketball. That people who were around basketball took an interest in you and supported you. What do you think would have happened to you if you had been a few inches shorter?
LJ: You know what the thing is, a lot of people hear the story of, well, you were good at basketball so a lot of people helped you. I didn't start playing basketball until the fifth grade. I didn't play organized basketball until the fifth grade. I started getting help, you know, third and fourth grade. Going into fifth grade, that's when I met the Walker family and that was the first year that I played little league football. And I played little league football before basketball. And then the mentorship started there, from Frank Walker to Bruce Kelker, a guy by the name of Willie Earl. And then I met coach Dru Joyce, and the list goes on and on. If it wasn't for meeting these families and meeting these people, then I would never have even gotten to a point where you guys know who I am today as the basketball player, but more importantly, the guy who's giving back to his community. I just give a lot of credit and a lot of thanks to my mentorship and to the people who were just there for me.
RN: Most kids don't have all those families, all those coaches, looking out for them. You decided pretty early that you were going to look out for the kids from Akron, even the ones who weren't good at sports. And your foundation has done tutoring and support and all kinds of shoulder programming. But how did you get to a school? Because we are sitting in an actual school.
LJ: Yeah, how did we get to a school? That's what we're all trying to figure out. You were around when it was just a 5-mile bike ride. And I think it just shows growth, from me as a basketball player as well. From the bike-a-thon to who I am as a basketball player, and it shows the growth throughout our foundation and how we can continue to get better and better and better and kind of just, like, not having a ceiling. I don't have a ceiling to how much I can improve my game, and we as a foundation don't have a ceiling on how much we can improve our community, to a point where we have a school. We literally have a school. It's not a charter school, it's not a private school, it's a real-life school in my hometown. And this is pretty cool.
RN: It's crazy.
LJ: Yeah, it is. Absolutely.
LeBron won't stop using his voice to effect change
LeBron James tells Rachel Nichols that he sees sports as a unifying force even if others use it to divide people.
RN: As I look around here, one thing that caught my eye just beyond all the academic stuff is that kids will go here for a longer school year and also longer school days. They're here until 5 o'clock, partly just so they're in this supported system and not out in the world as much. The other thing was food. That if a kid is hungry, it's hard to learn, so you guys are giving these kids breakfast, lunch and a snack. How important is that?
LJ: I think first of all, fueling the body keeps the mind sharp. I remember when I was a kid, my attention span -- I mean, you can have me for a little bit, but you have to keep me engaged. I think obviously fueling these kids and giving them food and breakfast and lunch and a snack -- but just keeping them here under our support, keeping them here under our guidance, giving them objectives and criteria that they can match and not feel stressed and feel like they're family. That's what we want to create. We want to create an environment of family and not like a workplace. Sometimes you can get tired. If you look at it like work, you kind of get tired of it. We want to create an environment of family, where you want to always be around your family no matter the good and the bad, you always want to be around that support system. So that's what we're creating here.
RN: Earlier this year you were instructed to "shut up and dribble." If you had listened to that, we would not be sitting in this school that 300 kids are getting the benefit of. But I want to backtrack because those comments came because you were critical of the president. And I wanted to know why, while you do things like this, it's also important for you to use your voice to stand up for kids like that -- even as high as criticizing the president of the United States?
LJ: Well, for me, I have a voice. I have a platform, and I have so many kids and -- not only kids but also adults that look for guidance and look for someone to lead them at a time when they feel like their voice isn't powerful. And when you see something that's unjust and you see something that's wrong and you see something that's trying to divide us as a race or as a country, then I feel like my voice can be heard and speak volumes. Especially coming from the point of sports. I live in sports. Without sports, we all wouldn't be here. I wouldn't be talking to you, Rach. You wouldn't be interviewing me. You know, sports, it stops race. Every race comes together to fight for one common goal, and that's to win and to have fun and to have camaraderie and things like that. And for someone or a body or parties to try to divide us by using our platform of sport -- sport has given me everything I could ever ask for -- I couldn't let that happen. By using my voice and letting the youth know and the people that need the guidance know that I care for them and that I'll be their voice, it's passionate for me because, like I said: Sports is just the ultimate to bring people together. That's what I'm here for.
RN: Can we expect you to be as active going up to the next election like you were in the last one?
LJ: I'm here. I already got my suit, my glasses.
RN: We've had athletes run for office. This is sort of a public policy thing you're doing right here at the school.
LJ: It is, but I may stick to coaching for a little bit -- AAU. Two tournaments, two national championships, so I'm feeling really good about my situation.
RN: Can I ask you about your other job, the whole basketball player thing? You've made a huge change, and you've talked about the weight and idea of helping this historic Lakers franchise -- and you looked up to big names like the Lakers, the Cowboys, the Yankees and stuff as a kid -- bringing that franchise back up to championship level is an exciting goal for you. I want to know why you picked that over going to a team that's closer to winning a championship now, because those are two different things.
LJ: I definitely thought long and hard about the possibilities of lining up alongside Ben [Simmons] and [Joel] Embiid, or lining up alongside [James] Harden and Chris [Paul]. I just felt like at this point in my career, the ultimate for me -- just like when I went to Miami, everyone kind of looks at me joining a superteam, but if people look at it, I think Miami was [47-35] the year before I joined that team and you can look at the Lakers' record -- so I like the challenge of being able to help a team get to someplace they haven't been in quite a while. Obviously, the Lakers haven't made the playoffs in a few years, but the Lakers organization and the historical franchise matches up there with all the greats -- you can look at the Cowboys, and you can look at the Patriots, you can look at Manchester United, the Boston Celtics -- these are historical franchises, and for me to be a part of that, I think it's a great moment for not only me but for my family and for the history of basketball in general.
RN: When you look at that roster, though, you're the only All-Star on there. You could have told the Lakers, "Hey, I'd be willing to come, but please do what it takes to get Kawhi Leonard here, too." Why didn't you want to do that?
LJ: Because I love the young guys that they have, and I'm not trying to force my hand in no way, shape or form. I believe Rob [Pelinka] and Magic [Johnson] and Jeanie [Buss] have done an unbelievable job of reshaping what the organization should be, keeping Dr. Buss' dreams and what he was all about, to keep that going. I feel like they know what's best for the team, and I wanted to be a piece to continue that motion of being back to a championship franchise where they should be.
RN: There is one guy who could have come with you: Paul George. What were your conversations with him before he decided to stay with the Thunder?
LJ: I didn't have many conversations with Paul, and I think Paul did what was best for him. And I think that's what everybody should do as players, they should do what's best for them and their family. You shouldn't get too pressured by anybody. If there's somebody they want to play with, and they have the opportunity to do it, then go for it. I think we all see that he made the best decision for himself and his family.
LeBron on leading Lakers: 'I like the challenge'
LeBron James tells Rachel Nichols why he's embracing the challenge of leading the Lakers to be a championship contender.
RN: Now the Lakers have signed other free agents that have raised some eyebrows -- you have a guy who's a "Shaqtin' a Fool" MVP, you have a guy who wears wrist watches on his ankles, you have someone who likes to blow in other players' ears, including yours. Why should people not be skeptical of this roster?
LJ: 'Cause we got guys who love to play basketball. And that's what they do every single day. I love that, and I think Pelinka and Magic love that as well. And that's why they made the signings. Bringing Lance [Stephenson] and JaVale [McGee] and [Michael Beasley] and [Rajon] Rondo -- guys that every day, they wake up, they're thinkin' about the game of basketball. Everything else is secondary. So we look forward to all the challenges and, I mean, eyebrows is always gonna get raised when my name is involved anyway, so it shouldn't even be a surprise.
RN: A lot of these are one-year contracts. The Lakers talked about wanting that flexibility still for next summer. A lot of big free agents could be available then. You're turning 34 this season, though. How do you feel about the idea that what could be one of the last years of your prime is going to be more of a building year?
LJ: I don't even look at it like that, 'cause I don't feel like this is one of the last years of my prime. I think that's another statistic number, and I've always been a part of beating the odds in life. Being around my kids allow -- it gives me even more and more time in my youth. I don't feel like this is even a rebuilding year for us. We have an opportunity to do something that a lot of people don't think we can do. And we love the notion of, "it's another rebuilding year and we don't have enough." So that will motivate the guys that we have anyway.
RN: The reason why people are saying, "I don't know where the Lakers are going to end up," is because the Western conference is really tough. It's the deepest it's been in a while. You haven't played in the West before. Have you really thought through, "OK, I'm gonna be in my fourth four-hour flight of the week"? Stuff you didn't do back in the East. And, "What if it's February and we don't have a winning record?" Have you thought through if things are grim before they get great?
LJ: Oh, absolutely. I mean, that's all part of the mindset. There's gonna be times, being a young group playing together, that we're gonna have times where guys are gonna question what's goin' on. And that's just human nature. I understand that. But I've always been a part of it. I know a lot about the ups and downs of a season. And one thing we can't do is lose focus on what the main goal is, and the main goal is to continue to be as great as we can be every day. Build championship habits -- and I'm not even saying that we're a championship team now -- but building championship habits so when we get to that point -- we can fall back on something. We have a great young core. We have great veterans. We have a great system and a great organization, more importantly. So it should be fine.
RN: And you've made a longtime commitment to these guys, a four-year contract. How confident are you that sometime in this four years you will be in the [NBA] Finals again? You could win another championship?
LJ: That's the goal.
RN: That's not the question.
LJ: Listen, I plan and I train and I set my mind every single day to play for championships. And Magic and Jeanie and Rob, they believe the same thing. So when you're around people who have the same goal in mind, you can live with the result.
RN: So that's your professional legacy. Your personal legacy is, of course, another story. That's family. That's things like this school. You mentioned your AAU coaching career. We've been seeing you around and with your son. What has it been like for you to be watching him growing into this basketball player and dealing with the pressure of being your kid?
LJ: It's been challenging for all of us, but it's been fun. I love it. He's getting an opportunity to feel some of the things that I had to go through.
RN: Yeah, but he's called LeBron James Jr.
LJ: Our kids are so awesome that they don't even get caught up into it. No one calls him LeBron around our house. No one calls him Junior around the house. We call him Bronny. And every day he wakes up saying, "I gotta make sure I look out for my little brother and my little sister and be a great young man." You know, make my mom and dad proud, and everything else kinda takes care of itself. So it's always pretty awesome to kind of just see him grow and grow every day, and then play the game that he likes to play. Not what I want him to do. He loves to play the game of basketball, have fun with his teammates, and he plays it the right way, and that makes me happy.
RN: And of course it's your kids that you influence, but it's all the kids here in this school. And really a lot of kids across Akron. When it is all said and done, what is that going to mean to you?
LJ: Well, when we get the statistics, and we get the names, and years from now we see a lotta these kids go off and go off to college and start their own companies or give back to the community, things of that nature, it will make us all proud. Because that's what we're here for. We're a huge support group for these kids, and we just want everything for them. Everything and more. So it's gonna mean a lot to me.
RN: Well, people keep track of your championships, so you might as well keep track of that number, too.
LJ: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely.