LeBrons James' mother, Gloria James, was 16 years old, just a girl, when she had her first and only child, a son. The boy's father was long gone, so he took his mom's last name. At first, she had her own mother to lean on, to turn to for help raising the boy. Then a heart attack stole her away on Christmas morning, when Gloria was 19. She would have to bring up LeBron James on her own. She did. And she brought him a mighty long way.
Now 25, the NBA superstar is one of the most celebrated players in the history of the sport. On Mother's Day -- and every other day -- he gives his mom all the credit for what he's become. He knows who he is because of her, and he feels this deeply. His awe for her leaves him a little tongue-tied. "I don't have the words, I can't sit here and explain," James says.
But after a short pause he goes on. "I had my mother to blanket me, to give me security. [When I was] growing up, she was my mother, my father, everything. To grow up in a single-parent household, to see what she could do all by herself, that gave me a lot of strength."
But Gloria is not the only mother he will be celebrating this Mother's Day. James shares his life with his high school sweetheart, Savannah Brinson, the mother of his two sons, LeBron Jr., 5, and Bryce Maximus, 2. "The important thing for me is to be with her and our sons. I know how important a mother is, and every day we are together is special to me.
"Being a mother -- it's the toughest job in the world. It's tougher than being a professional athlete or being the president. It's a powerful thing ... mothers should have more than one day," he says. For James, the moms in his life already do.
Gloria James gave birth to her son, LeBron, on Dec. 30, 1984. For the first few years of his life, they shared a large Victorian home in Akron, Ohio, that had been in the family for generations. In his autobiography, Shooting Stars, co-written by Buzz Bissinger, James recalls his mother's struggles to maintain the household on a tight budget. After her mother's death, it became a losing battle.
Eventually, the city condemned the house. Then they bulldozed it. James was 5.
For the next three years, James and his mother moved 12 times. He shuffled from school to school, where friendships began and ended every few months. In the fourth grade, he missed nearly a hundred days of school because he didn't have the means to get there. The one constant was his assurance that his mother was there for him. He writes, "Whatever my mom could do or could not do, I also knew that nobody was more important in her life than I was. You have no idea how much that means when you grow up without so many of the basic things you should have. You have no idea of the security it gives you, how it makes you think, 'Man, I can get through this. I can survive.'"
Her sacrifice was the foundation for his survival. When he was 9 years old, Gloria James realized she could not give her son what he needed most -- the grounding of a family. Along with her two brothers, she had been raised in a full house, cared for by her mother and grandparents and surrounded by an extended family of friends and neighbors. It's where she got her own values, and she wanted the same for her son. That, she came to realize, meant putting him into someone else's hands.
"It was the hardest decision I'd made in my life," says Gloria, now 42. "But it was also one of the best. At that time in his life, he needed stability. It was hard, but I knew it was not about me. It was about him. I had to put him first."
LeBron James and the Shooting Stars
And so James went to live with Frank and Pam Walker in their three-bedroom Akron home. At the time, Frank Walker ("Big Frank") was coaching the boy's peewee football team, the South Rangers. He saw potential in the newly minted fifth-grader, but more important, he saw need. This was a child who appeared older than his years, a boy missing out on the joys of childhood. "The Walkers were also concerned that I was being passed from place to place, that I was a nomad at the age of 9," James writes in Shooting Stars.
The family welcomed James into their home, where he lived for a year, seeing his mother on weekends. The discipline -- he did his first chores there -- along with the stability and the security of a settled family life: LeBron drank it all in.
"I loved being there," he writes. "I loved being part of the flow that is a family." That year he did not miss a single day of school. And that was also the year he started playing basketball.
Walker, still his football coach, asked him to join another team he was coaching, the Summit Lake Community Center Hornets. It was the first basketball team LeBron played for. He stayed with the Hornets a year, and during that time he moved back home, into a two-bedroom apartment his mother rented with help from a government assistance program. They had enough to get by, and James lived with her until he finished high school. Meanwhile, his extended family of friends and mentors kept growing. None was more important to him than Dru Joyce II.
Joyce was putting together a traveling team, the Shooting Stars, and he approached James about joining. Soon, the team included James, Sian Cotton, Willie McGee, and Joyce's son, Dru Joyce III, better known as Little Dru. Under Coach Dru's tutelage, they played together through eighth grade, going all the way to the Amateur Athletic Union nationals in Orlando, Fla. By then, James was already 6 feet 2 inches tall (he's since grown another 6 inches) and could dunk the ball. It was almost enough. They lost by two points in the final game.
The boys and their coach stayed together through high school at Akron's St. Vincent-St. Mary, where James and company became known as the Fab Four (later the Fab Five, with the addition of Romeo Travis). The story of that team, of that family, is told in the 2009 documentary More Than a Game. Here's a sampling of James' high school achievements: He led his team to the state championship in three of the four seasons he played. The Associated Press named him "Mr. Basketball" for the state of Ohio every year but his freshman year. When he was a junior, Sports Illustrated featured him on the cover, dubbing him "The Chosen One."
That was all before he graduated.
LeBrons Joins the Cavaliers
In 2003, when James was 18, he was the Cleveland Cavaliers' first pick in the NBA draft. Nike signed him to a $90 million contract before he played his first professional game. In his first season, he became the youngest player in NBA history to score 40 or more points in a single game. He was named "Rookie of the Year," the youngest player ever to receive that honor. And he was the youngest player to score 10,000 career points, a milestone he reached in the season before he flew to Beijing to represent this country on the 2008 U.S. Olympic basketball team. He has scored plenty more points since then.
Gloria James laughs when she ponders where her son got the hoops gene. She grew up in a sports-loving family, and she recalls sitting on her grandfather's lap as a little girl, watching … baseball. The Cleveland Indians were her team. "He picked up basketball on his own," she says. "I can't take credit for that one."
When he was 3 years old, she gave him a toy basketball set for Christmas. She watched him slam the ball into the plastic hoop, but she had no inkling what the future held.
"I am not going to say I knew he was going to be a superstar," she says. "But you could tell he was fully determined. He wouldn't play with that toy set unless [the basketball hoop] was on the highest setting."
Inside the Basketball Player's Mind
As it turns out, determination and family support are key to athletic success. Because of that, athletes at the top of their game are often more emotionally healthy than the rest of us -- despite their pressure-cooker lives, says Shane Murphy, an associate professor at Western Connecticut State University, former sports psychologist for the U.S. Olympic Committee, and author of The Sport Psych Handbook: A Complete Guide to Today's Best Mental Training Techniques.
What do they do to stay sane, and what can parents of budding superstars learn from them?
Keep your cool. Star athletes "learn how to take criticism, to work with their team," says Murphy.
Love your job. "My main message with the [families] I work with is, emphasize the fun, the enjoyment," Murphy says. "[Top athletes] don't get where they are without loving what they are doing."
Use your brain. "Good athletes develop critical thinking skills," says Murphy. "They can look at a situation and analyze it from more than one angle."
Lean on your family. "It's amazing how important family support is for success," says Murphy, citing a study of Olympic athletes. "It's a huge, almost universal, factor."
Talk things out. "It's a big mistake to think you can handle the pressures on your own," says Murphy. "Talking with your family, your spouse, your teammates is hugely important. Keeping things to yourself can work very negatively on your performance."
How LeBrons Gives Back
Basketball success has allowed James to do a lot more than score points. It has enabled him to give back to the community in which he grew up. He was still a teenager when he founded the LeBron James Family Foundation in 2004, which is dedicated to helping kids and single-parent households navigate their way through school, getting and staying fit, and living healthy lives despite the hardships they face.
Over the last three years, the foundation has raised more than a half million dollars for the Akron Urban League and the Akron YMCA. That money has also helped pay for the King for Kids Bike-a-Thon, held each summer in Akron for the past five years, as well as Playground Build, an initiative to provide playgrounds to urban areas across the country. The first was built in New Orleans, on the site of a recreation center destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. The next was constructed in Phoenix in 2009. Earlier this year, James and State Farm, the corporate partner of both the playground program and the bike-a-thon, dedicated a third playground, in Dallas.
Since 2006, James has hosted the King's Academy Summer Basketball Camp for boys and girls ages 7 to 17. This year's camp, which costs nearly $700 for overnight campers, will be held on the campus of the University of California, San Diego. While James and the other instructors coach the kids on their lay ups, shooting drills, and other basketball skills, James says he wants the 600 or so kids who attend each year to learn much more than on-court skills.
"For me, the goal was to have a camp where kids could learn teamwork, learn to be unselfish on the court and off," says James. "Yes, we'll teach them to make a good jump shot, but they need to learn that the important thing is school."
James is at the camp each day, scrimmaging with the kids, working out with them, sharing meals. They quickly discover that if they want to succeed, they have to stay focused on basketball and not on James.
The camp, executive director Damon Haley emphasizes, is for the committed. "We're talking 45 hours of basketball over five days," Haley says. "It's about basketball, but it's also about hard work and teamwork."
And James, says Haley, wants the kids to learn by example. "He works out as much as the kids," Haley says. "He instructs them as they play, and when he's near the court he makes sure they know it's their job to stay engaged in the game.
"It's an opportunity for the kids to see James unplugged," Haley continues. "For James, it's his mission to give back to the game that has given so much to him."
Although King's Academy is open only to kids, a LeBron James camp for adults is coming soon -- to the big screen. Fantasy Basketball Camp, a comedy starring James is going into production this summer, to be directed by Malcolm D. Lee of Undercover Brother and Soul Man fame. James, of course, is no stranger to the screen. He has hosted Saturday Night Live and appeared in HBO's Entourage.
LeBrons Talks About His Mother
With Mother's Day this month, James' thoughts turn to honoring the two women at the center of his life. It's a conversation that inevitably leads back to his own childhood and the way his mom raised him.
Asked if he recalls one piece of his mother's advice above all others, he laughs. "I'm like a sponge. I take everything in, everything she told me."
Then he adds mischievously, "Now, I'm not saying that I followed every piece of advice she gave me. But I did file it away for later." He's quiet a moment, takes a breath.
"She taught me to know the difference between right and wrong. Sometimes you may do the wrong thing, for the excitement" -- he demurs when asked for an example -- "but you have to know what's right, what's wrong, and be ready to deal with that. ... My mom, she set me up for the life I have now," he says.
Parenting Tips From LeBrons and Gloria James
Included in those lessons were those that Gloria James taught her son about bringing up his own children. Here, mother and son share a few of the lessons that have helped them be good parents:
Family means more than blood. When Gloria asked for help raising LeBron, the Walker family stepped up and treated him as one of their own. Family, he learned, are the people "you can look to in times of need and in times of happiness."
Leave your troubles at the door. Despite financial worries and other challenges, Gloria always had time for her son. "When I was growing up, things were always against her," says LeBron, "but she never brought it to me."
Patience and selflessness go a long way. "The most important -- and sometimes the hardest -- lesson to learn is patience," says Gloria. "It doesn't matter if you are sick and tired. Your baby doesn't know that, doesn't know when you are irritated. And it's always about that baby, it's not about you."
Learn by doing, and then doing again. "You might have to change diapers a thousand times a day," says Gloria. "That might not sound cool, but if you haven't had to raise a child, you just have to learn."
Look to the best teachers. "When it comes to raising my kids," LeBron says, "I'm definitely going to steal from my mom's playbook."