For Black men, a fresh haircut can be transformative. There is no job interview, presentation or first date without a fresh fade and a crisp line, the confidence that only a dope cut can provide.
For Black boys, however, a clean cut can be absolutely life changing. Locked in the limbo of adolescence — too old to be babies but too young to be grown, even if society sees them that way — they can find space between their bodies and the world, all from the buzz of a barber’s clippers. These boys are renewed in the chair. They are loved and cared for, fashioned into the best outward version of themselves.
I was in Akron, Ohio, when I saw this effect up close, on children other than my own. One by one, Black and brown boys who had been previously deemed “difficult” or “bad” or “incapable” filed into an empty classroom turned multichair barbershop. They entered shy and self-conscious. They exited self-assured and jubilant, chests inflated and stuck out far.
It was February 2020, just a month before the world would shut down, and I was being given a tour of LeBron James’ I Promise School.
I had already accepted the gig to help James write a middle-grade follow-up to his New York Times bestselling “I Promise” picture book. The story, “We Are Family,” was to be one of hope and resilience about a group of 12-year-olds coming of age in a forgotten, down-on-its-luck Ohio town.
I knew about the school, about James’ efforts to give back to the community, but I also knew what these celebrity-driven efforts typically mean, how the work can become secondary to the social goodwill and the million dollar tax breaks. And then I saw, with my own eyes, what makes James’ efforts so special. I saw, for myself, the part of his career that could very well be enough to shut down any future conversations about his GOAT status.
For students at the I Promise School, James isn’t the greatest because he has scored 35,000 points or because he’s still dominating the NBA at 36. For these kids, James is the best to ever do it because everything he does on the court, every new record he sets, provides more fuel, more incentive, to change their lives.
We’ve seen James’ YouTube videos with daughter Zhuri, the pride in his eyes as he and wife Savannah sit courtside at son Bronny’s basketball games. We’ve heard him talk about his love for his mom, how grateful he is for the sacrifices she made even in the darkest times. But the kids at the I Promise School — kids who are struggling, yes, but who are beautiful and brilliant all the same — are James’ family, too. And he treats them as such.
It’s not just haircuts of course.
The most remarkable work of the LeBron James Family Foundation is, perhaps, its holistic approach to community outreach. While there are plenty of programs that provide care for young children, too few extend that care to the members of those children’s family — the people who will, in fact, determine whether the planted seeds of hope and change are able to take root and grow. This is family love.
So James doesn’t just ensure that kids get two healthy meals at school. At the I Promise School, there’s an on-site pantry where students can pick up groceries and household items to take back home — many organic or all natural, all free of charge. (Staff can also offer their students polos and khakis for school, mittens and scarves for winter, and even new underwear; in the same hallway there’s a “laundromat” called, fittingly, “Loads of Love” that’s outfitted with washers and dryers — and not a single coin-operated machine.)