AKRON, Ohio -- LeBron James drove down the streets he grew up on Monday afternoon and parked his vehicle outside the I Promise School that he helped build before roaming the halls for the first time.
The Akron native's LeBron James Family Foundation partnered with the Akron Public Schools system to create the learning center, which opened its doors for the first time to 240 third- and fourth-grade students who enrolled in the full-immersion program to benefit at-risk youth.
The plan is to add more grades as the years go on, filling out the refurbished structure in downtown Akron with students who will see the virtues of the school -- "I will work hard," "I will never give up," etc. -- emblazoned on the walls every time they walk through the impressive rotunda-like entrance.
While James already declared the school project the most meaningful accomplishment of his career, considering he missed 80-plus school days when he was a fourth-grader because of his unstable home life, the occasion comes less than a month after he announced his decision to play for the Los Angeles Lakers and make a new home out West.
"It's kind of a bittersweet moment right now, sitting here in my school that I'm opening around these kids, around this community and then at the same time, making a switch to the other coast, being a part of the Lakers now," James told ESPN's Rachel Nichols as part of a wide-ranging sit-down interview.
"It's always a tough decision when you leave home or you leave an organization that you've been with for multiple years. It was tough to leave the first time I left, [it was tough] when I left Miami and I'm leaving Cleveland once again, it's definitely tough but it's a decision that's best for me and my family, and I think both sides feel great and appreciative of the moments and the time we have spent together."
James is hoping to establish a feeling of togetherness at the I Promise School that will set students on the path for success. It opened with a grand celebration, featuring pop star Tori Kelly singing "Hallelujah" and several figures from James' past -- St. Vincent-St. Mary High School teammates, Nike executives, family members -- accompanying the four-time MVP.
The school has longer hours, running 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and a longer school year than the typical public school. Students will also be provided meals during the school day. James wants the students to feel an unyielding sense of support.
"I think first of all, fueling the body keeps the mind sharp," James said. "I remember when I was a kid, my attention span, I mean, listen, you could have me for a little bit, but you had to keep me engaged, so I think obviously fueling these kids and giving them breakfast and lunch and a snack and just keeping them here under our support, keeping them here under our guidance and giving them objectives and criteria they can match and not feel stressed and feel like they're family. That's what we want to create.
"We want to create an environment of family and not like a workplace. Sometimes you can get tired if you look at it like work -- you kind of get tired of it. We want to create an environment of family where you want to always be around your family. No matter the good and the bad, you always want to be around that support system. So that's what we're creating here."
When James missed 83 days of school in the fourth grade because he and his mother lived on the other side of town and had difficulty getting back and forth from the school building with no car and an uncooperative bus schedule, his fortunes changed for the better when several families took an interest in him and provided their care and support.
"It was challenging," James said. "It was mentally challenging. Sometimes you think about a kid being in the third grade at that age, between 8 and 7 years old; in the fourth grade having responsibility or having stress -- no kid at 8, 9 should have stress. And I was one of those kids, so I know exactly what those kids today are going through being a part of this. ...
"But any time that I would show up to school, it's weird, the teachers would always tell my mom that when he shows up, he's one of the best students that we have. We just hope that he can show up more. And we just couldn't do it at that point and time. So I know exactly what a lot of these kids are going through."
James elaborated on his fourth-grade experience later during a news conference, saying, "School didn't mean anything to me, obviously, back then. ... It was a surprise to me when I woke up and I was actually going to school. So, I just felt like every day, I was just waking up and I had just a bunch of time of nothing. I didn't have any siblings. ... There were just a lot of empty days, empty nights and just kind of a no-future thought process."
James noted that the support he received came before he became known as a standout athlete -- the first year he ever played organized basketball was in the fifth grade.
While the school opening is a tangible representation of his public service, James vowed to continue to make a difference through his example and by addressing social issues when he deems it appropriate -- even if that means publicly challenging President Donald Trump, as he has in the past.
"Well for me, I have a voice, I have a platform and I have so many kids, and not only kids, but also adults and everybody kind of looking for guidance. And looking for someone to kind of lead them in times where they feel like their voice isn't powerful," James said. "And when you see something that's unjust or you see something that's wrong or you see something that's trying to divide us as a race or as a country, then I feel like my voice can be heard and speak volumes. Especially coming from a place of sports.
"I live in sports. Without sports, we wouldn't all be here. I wouldn't be talking to you, Rach [Nichols]. You wouldn't be interviewing me. Sports is like, it stops race. Every race comes together to fight for one common goal and that's to win and to have fun and to have camaraderie and things like that. And for someone or a body of parties to try to divide us by using our platform of sport, sport has given me everything that I could ever ask for, I couldn't let that happen. So, by using my voice and letting the youth know and the people that need the guidance know that I care for them and I'm going to be their voice, it's passionate for me, because like I said, sports is just the ultimate to bring people together, so that's what I'm here for."
And despite his recent political advocacy, that will remain his side hustle outside of his day job with the Lakers.
"I may stick to coaching [my children] for a little bit," James said when asked if he has visions of running for office in the future. "My AAU coaching -- two tournaments, two national championships. I'm feeling really good about my situation."
He'll feel even better if he sees the I Promise School have the type of impact on young people's lives that his mentors had on him, when he could have made a wrong turn.
"When we get the statistics ... years from now, we see a lot of these kids go off to college and start their own companies or give back to the community, things of that nature, it will make us all proud," James said. "Because that's what we're here for. We're a huge support group for these kids.
"We just want everything for them. Everything and more. So it's going to mean a lot to me."
Before the opening ceremony for the school came to a close with James' mother, Gloria, hoisting an I Promise flag up a flagpole, James had a final message for his students -- that he will be monitoring from afar.
"No matter if I'm playing in Los Angeles or not, Akron, Ohio is always home for me," he said.