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."
James 'so invested'
When James’ legacy is discussed, so often it’s about what he does on the court. But to James, his charitable work is as much a part of his legacy as the on-court accomplishments, if not more.
James has made a point in recent years of saying he could’ve been a statistic in the wrong way — another kid who didn’t finish high school, didn’t go to college. Of course, James’ rare basketball talent and his dedication to fulfilling his potential allowed him to have success in adulthood. Not everyone has that, and James knows it.
"He has really been able to lay the groundwork for long-lasting change," Michele Campbell, executive director of the LeBron James Family Foundation, said. "He is changing not only these kids, but their families and the community.
"He just doesn’t write a check to say, 'Here, this makes me feel better.' He’s so invested, so involved. There’s a lot of things pulling at him. He’s not afraid to roll up his sleeves and say, 'I’m going to give back to my community.' "
Ali died in June, between Games 1 and 2 of the NBA Finals between Cleveland and Golden State, and James spoke eloquently about the boxing great. "As a kid I gravitated towards him because he was a champion, but I only knew as a kid of what he did inside the ring. As I got older and I started to be more knowledgeable about the sport, about sport in general and about the guys who paved the way for guys like myself," James said then.
At the time, James didn’t know he would have the opportunity to contribute to the Ali exhibit. The exhibit spans two portions of the museum — the Sports gallery and the Making a Way Out of No Way gallery — and focuses on Ali’s boxing accomplishments and social activism, including politics, religion, civil resistance and community work.
"His support will help us to continue the story of Muhammad Ali and will encourage athletes to realize how important athletics is in terms of social justice," museum founding director Lonnie Bunch said. "It’s also really important that actions like this by Mr. James encourage younger athletes and people with means to recognize the philanthropy and paying homage to those who went before, how crucially important that is."
Ali 'would be honored'
American Express CEO Ken Chenault reached out to James during the summer to gauge his interest in contributing.
"I’ve been impressed with, not only he is one of the greatest basketball players of all time, but how he has evolved as a leader," Chenault said. "The fit of LeBron supporting the Muhammad Ali exhibit is perfect because he exemplifies the qualities that Muhammad Ali exhibited throughout his life."
When James had a chance to contribute, he called Ali’s widow, Lonnie Ali, and the two became friends, Chenault said.
"When it was presented to me later in the summer, I wanted to make sure I got Lonnie’s blessing," James said. "Once I got her blessing, I told the museum it was a go. Full throttle. Let’s get it going."
This donation highlight’s James’ growing philanthropic efforts, focused mainly on improving and enriching the lives of young people. The funds will help add historical context and memorabilia to the Ali exhibits.
"I am overwhelmed by the incredible generosity LeBron James has shown," Lonnie Ali said in a statement. "This exhibit will enable children visiting the Smithsonian to learn more about Muhammad’s work outside of the ring, particularly his humanitarian work and stance on social justice for all people. ... I know that if Muhammad was alive today he would be honored."