WASHINGTON — A longtime admirer of Muhammad Ali, LeBron James said he jumped at the opportunity to support an exhibit honoring the life of the boxing giant at the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.
"Muhammad Ali is such a cornerstone of me as an athlete because of what he represented not only in the ring as a champion but more outside the ring — what he stood for, what he spoke for, his demeanor," James told USA TODAY Sports in an exclusive interview about the exhibit.
"I think of him every day. Without his passion and goals and morals, I don’t know if I’d be sitting here today talking to you about it."
The Cleveland Cavaliers star, his charitable foundation and James’ business partner Maverick Carter are donating a total of $2.5 million to the new exhibit, "Muhammad Ali: A Force for Change." They join the list of founding donors to the museum that includes two NBA Hall of Famers. Michael Jordan donated $5 million. Magic Johnson and his wife Cookie donated at least $1 million.
The growth and importance of James’ foundation parallels his personal growth. During the early years of his foundation, James gave away bikes to Akron-area students. He said he quickly realized that wasn’t enough.
That morphed into Wheels for Education, a program that works with third-graders in Akron to keep them on target to get high school diplomas. The foundation provides laptops, backpacks with school supplies and bikes. But that wasn’t enough either.
In 2015, James announced a program that will give students enrolled in his foundation’s academic program a four-year scholarship to the University of Akron. The first group of those students are currently in the eighth grade and need to meet academic and community service requirements to qualify.
Last month, the foundation established the I Promise Institute, aimed at making the transition to college life easier for students and their parents.
"We continue to crack the code and break the mold. We’re not a pop-up store," James said. "We are built for longevity, and we’re built for longevity because these kids continue to grow and more kids come after them. It’s about being sustainable. That’s the main thing I’m proud of with the foundation more than anything."