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LeBron's early roots in Akron helped propel him into the NBA record books

Los Angeles Lakers' LeBron James goes up for a dunk during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Philadelphia 76ers, Friday, Dec. 9, 2022, in Philadelphia.
Matt Slocum
The Los Angeles Lakers' LeBron James goes up for a dunk during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Philadelphia 76ers, Friday, Dec. 9, 2022, in Philadelphia. James passed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Tuesday night for the NBA career scoring record.

LeBron James became the NBA’s all-time leading scorer Tuesday night, surpassing Kareem Abdul Jabbar’s more than 30-year-old record of 38,387 points.

Ideastream Public Media’s sports commentator Terry Pluto, who has written about James for the Akron Beacon Journal and The Plain Dealer/Cleveland.com since James was in high school, says James’ Akron roots shaped him into the record books.

Pluto thinks back to many years ago when he was driving through Akron one day with Melva Hardison, whom Pluto considers to his second mother. Hardison pointed out the home of Freda James Howard, who was LeBron James’ grandmother.

“Freda did home hairdressing. Melva said, ‘I seen little LeBron, you know, little itty-bitty little boy,’” Pluto said.

LeBron James lived at his grandmother’s house with him mom, Gloria, until he was three years old.

“But on Christmas Day, [Howard] had a heart attack and died. That then sent the family into a difficult time where they lived in many different places growing up. You know, LeBron had it pretty tough,” Pluto said.

When James was eight, he said, Pam and Frank Walker gave him a stable home .

“He was playing on a peewee football team in Akron called the Southside Rangers. Walker's son, Frankie Walker, was on the team and Frank Walker Senior was the coach," Pluto said. "In the fourth grade, LeBron missed about 80 days of school. So, the Walkers opened their home to LeBron and [he] stayed there about a year-and-a-half.”

Pluto said James didn’t miss any days of school in fifth grade and ended up moving back in with his mother.

He said there were other influential people in James’ early life, including then-Akron St. Vincent St. Mary’s High School coach, Keith Dambrot, and Dru Joyce II, who later became James’ high school coach, along with his son, Dru Joyce III.

“Different people helped LeBron along the way and LeBron was willing to listen to them. You're only a good teacher if you have a willing student," Pluto said. "And LeBron turned out to be a willing student. But it's such an Akron story.”

Pluto said those key people in James’ life helped build the foundation for his longevity in basketball.

“Also, he learned that for all his interest in music and all these other things, you still got to be a really good basketball player in itself to stay in shape. And a lot of these guys, after they maybe hit their first big contract or whatever, they get off the rails," Pluto said.

"He just spent so much money and time to make sure he stayed in shape because basketball is really demanding when you're playing at a high level, not just the NBA but the NBA playoffs," he said. "And I just think the discipline he got, whether you want to talk about from Keith Dambrot or Dru Joyce II or from the Walker family and his mom, all those things. And he had a drive, I think, to make Akron proud and his family proud. Meantime, he keeps evolving as a player.”

And Pluto said it’s remarkable that James is still putting up big numbers on the court every night.

“When he was younger, he was wildly athletic, you know, run, dunk, all this stuff. But he was really interested in passing and things like that. I often wrote, you know, he had the physical ability to score like Michael Jordan and he had the heart of Magic Johnson, the passer," said Pluto. "And now he's gotten older, yeah, he could still jump some whatever, but he's nothing close to what he was when he was younger and he still scores 30. I've never seen a player be so good so late in his career like LeBron James.”

Until the last couple of seasons, James would missed very few games.

“In fact, his old line he would use is, 'Father time is undefeated.' Well, he's starting to have some of that with the Lakers, but he certainly wants to keep going and talking about wanting to play with his son. We'll see how that works out,” Pluto said.

As James was closing in on the points record, Pluto said, he really wanted it.

“To him, I think it's not just that he scored a bunch of points, but he played so well, so long and really with such dignity,” he said.

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