NEW YORK — LeBron James sat at a small desk inside a preschool classroom in Harlem surrounded by books like “The Little Engine That Could,” scribbled crayon artwork on the walls and an alphabet chart.
He didn’t look the least bit out of place.
In fact, the setting suited him perfectly.
“If I could be a kid for the rest of my life, I would,” James said, chuckling.
But time is passing quickly for James, and his 11th All-Star game appearance prompted the Cavaliers star to reflect on his life and legacy — both on and off the court. Two months after turning 30, and the end of his career closer than its beginning, James won’t take a single moment for granted. Time is flying and he’s determined to savor everything.
“It’s 12 years for me in the league now,” James said, shaking his head in disbelief during an exclusive interview with The Associated Press. “I remember like it was yesterday when I was headed to New York for draft night.”
Don’t we all. Back in 2003, he was the fresh-faced Ohio high school phenom, dressed impeccably in an all-white suit before being selected No. 1 overall by Cleveland and posing for photos with Commissioner David Stern. He was the “Chosen One,” picked to be the league’s next superstar and he has most certainly fulfilled both his promise and potential.
And as he prepared to play on Sunday night in Madison Square Garden — a place he holds dear — James, who has slight traces of gray coursing through his beard, is in a good place mentally and physically. His return home this summer to Ohio has energized him, brought comfort to his wife and three children and given the four-time MVP a chance to bring a championship to a region that has embraced him once again.
After four years in Miami, he and his family are back where they belong.
“It’s brought a sense of security,” he said. “That’s all I want. That’s all that matters. Obviously the people of Northeast Ohio brought me back. I felt it. I wanted to be back for them. It’s given me a huge responsibility to try and come through for these guys and try to bring something to Cleveland that has not been there for a while. That’s one thing.
“But for my kids to be back in the school they were in before they left; my wife being back home and my mom being home. It’s just all comfortable. It’s a good thing.”
Following the dedication of a refurbished court at a Boys and Girls Club, the 22nd of 23 “Acts of Kindness” that James and his foundation are completing during the weekend across the city, the superstar said he’s not solely driven by the quest to win a third NBA title. To James, raised by a single mother, the greatest satisfaction is helping kids follow their dreams.
His purpose is touching lives.
“As far as my game, I don’t think about that nearly as much as how I’m looked at with what I do off the court,” he said. “I think my game will speak for itself. You are always going to have someone who likes you and someone who didn’t like the way you played. But as long as I’m respected — that’s all that matters to me. Off the floor what I do for this generation and the generation that’s behind me, and them looking up to me for inspiration, that means more to my legacy than anything.”
Seeing the ecstatic expressions on the faces of youngsters when they saw James was proof he’s making an impact. During his stay in New York, James, through his foundation, paid for the renovation of a teen center and staff offices at a Brooklyn Boys and Girls Club, surprised local teams who didn’t have uniforms with jerseys and shorts and delivered sleeping bags and coats to a homeless shelter.
The kid from Akron feels connected with the Big Apple and wanted to make a lasting gift.
“This is who he is,” said Michele Campbell, executive director of the LeBron James Family Foundation. “Everyone sees LeBron the player, but they don’t always get to see LeBron the person.”
Or LeBron, the daddy.
James and his wife, Savannah, have two sons, LeBron Jr. and Bryce, and an infant daughter, three-month old Zhuri. James said his parenting style is similar to how he interacts with teammates.
“You’re going to have great days and sometimes you’re going to have bad days, but it’s how you come from those days that define you as a father and define you as a leader. I’ve got four personalities in my household and there are different ways you approach them. It’s great being a father. It just correlates so much to who I am as a player, too. Everything I do as a basketball player kind of correlates to being a parent as well.”
He’s the game’s best player — still. But James knows his best days are dwindling.
“I don’t have 12 more years left, so I’m headed more downhill then I am going up,” he said. “I don’t know what chapter in my career I’m at. I would just say chapter 12 and we’ll see where we go from here. I’ve got a lot of basketball ahead of me, but I’m not the 18- or 21-year-old kid anymore.”
On Sunday, James will take the Garden floor as an All-Star for the first time. He wants to do something special, but isn’t sure what.
“I haven’t decided what my minutes are going to be just yet,” he said, laughing. “It’s my first time in the Garden, so I’ve kind of been like, ‘Should I go out and do one of those LeBron games? What should I do?”
Make it one to remember.