AKRON, Ohio (AP) — They share similar backgrounds, growing up with little money and scant hope.
One is from Chicago’s south side, the daughter of a city pump operator. The other was raised by a single mother, who bounced around Akron looking for a better life for her talented son.
But as they stood side-by-side Wednesday, Michelle Obama and LeBron James were proof to kids that dreams do come true.
“If we can be here,” the first lady said as she addressed a crowd of school kids and their parents, “we know you can be here, too.”
The NBA’s biggest star, James appeared with Obama at an event to celebrate the importance of education and to challenge thousands of children in the LeBron James Family Foundation programs to finish college.
After the crowd of approximately 2,500 watched videos explaining the importance of a earning a college degree, James and Obama took the stage together inside the University of Akron’s Rhodes Arena, a venue where the four-time league MVP played many times while in high school.
Obama pointed out to the children and their parents that she and James were from humble beginnings.
“We don’t come from places where families had a lot of money or a lot of resources,” she said.
Obama then turned toward James, who wore a blue T-shirt with “We Are Family” – one of his foundation’s slogans – on the front and reminded the kids that he was once one of them.
“LeBron is investing so much in you guys because he knows that you’re worth it,” she said.
During the summer, James announced a partnership with the university to provide free four-year educations to city students who qualify. Obama praised James for those efforts and reminded the kids they are being given a unique opportunity.
“It’s on you,” she said. “You’ve got college paid for. Are you going to do the work to get there?”
The crowd erupted with a resounding “Yes.”
Before hearing Obama and James speak, Mike Darke sat in the stands along with his 8-year-old son, Ethan, who could hardly sit still as he waited for the Cavaliers’ All-Star to take the stage. Ethan is in his first year in James’ “Wheels For Education” program, an initiative designed to motivate and inspire kids to stay in school and reach their goals.
Darke said James’ college promise is a blessing for many families.
“That was probably the best thing I have ever heard in my life,” said the father of three. “It’s giving a path to college that a lot of kids don’t have. It’s a great opportunity for him and for a lot of kids, and to not take advantage of it would be crazy.”
Obama recently launched her Reach Higher public awareness campaign to encourage students to aim higher than just a high school diploma. She expanded it this week by announcing the start of Better Make Room, a project to motivate youths from age 14 to 19 to complete their education past high school.
James, who bypassed college by going straight to the pros, was joined at the event by his wife, Savannah, and their three children. Almost since his first day in the NBA, James has been giving back to his community and he reminded the kids that he represents them every day.
And like his young fans, Obama referred to James as “Mr. LeBron” and said she and her husband appreciate the 30-year-old for going giving back and being much more than a great basketball player.
“We love this man because of the man that he is, not because of the athlete he is,” she said. “He is a role model.”