By Tim Rogers
James funds $1 Million renovation to SVSM gym that now bears his name
It was two days before Thanksgiving and after-school basketball practice was in full swing at Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary.
Athletic director Andy Jalwan was standing in the south end of the gymnasium, half-watching practice and half-admiring his surroundings, which had undergone a mammoth $1 million renovation over the summer, compliments of the school’s most famous alumnus.
Suddenly, someone was pounding on a metal door that leads directly outside and is frequently used by late-arriving players, assistant coaches and unexpected guests. With classes over for the day all entrances to the school were locked from the inside. Pounding on the door, in hopes of attracting attention, was the only way to access the gymnasium.
So, Jalwan was not surprised when he heard the knock at the door. He was, however, surprised when the door swung open and there stood LeBron James and his sons, LeBron Jr. and Bryce. Alone. No bodyguards. No entourage.
With the Miami Heat in town to play the Cavaliers in two days, James was making his first visit to inspect the nearly-complete renovation project he had funded. He put his finger to his lips, giving Jalwan the hush-up sign. He and his boys slipped in and took seats in the bleachers, initially unnoticed by those intently involved in practice.
The old gymnasium did not have a name. It is now known as The LeBron James Arena. Rightfully so.
“He didn’t say much to me but the smile on his face said it all,” Jalwan recalled as James reviewed the new digs. “I’m sure he was satisfied. I’m sure he liked what he saw.”
There isn’t much not to like. The place is a knockout, considering the space limitations involved. The renovations include:
•A regulation 94-by-50 sports performance floor. The old floor was 84-by-48 ½.
•New bleachers throughout, adding an additional 200 seats, raising the capacity to 1,831. In the corners of the south end zone are two small sections that resemble lodges. Jalwan said they have become the places “where everyone wants to sit.”
•Six hydraulic baskets by Spalding.
•New lighting that is 8-times brighter than what had been in place.
•Renovated lockerrooms for both the boys and girl teams.
•Renovated offices for boys coach Dru Joyce and girls coach Joe Jakubick.
•A new treatment room for trainer Brian Knight.
•A new sound system, all the better for long-time public address announcer Gary Johnson.
•A “dedication wall” in which James’ time at SVSM, along with his four close friends who completed the Fab Five – Dru Joyce III, Romeo Travis, Willie McGee and Sian Cotton – is impressively chronicled in pictures.
The original gymnasium opened on February 15, 1959 and was showing its age. There were dead spots on the floor, the bleachers were an accident waiting to happen, and the lighting was barely brighter than something you’d find in a place where people didn’t want to be seen.
The renovation began in May and was dedicated in a special ceremony on December 14th, except for a few cosmetic endeavors, such as relocating the retired jerseys of James, Curtis Wilson and Jerome Lane.
“To say that the gym was on its last legs is an understatement,” said Jalwan. “The underside of the floor was covered in cork and there were spots where the cork had just fallen off. One of the contractors said he was surprised no one had fallen through.”
Construction workers unearthed a stunning surprise during the removal of the old floor. Even some of the school’s old-timers were shocked at the discovery of a set of stairs leading to nowhere below the floor’s surface.
“The belief is that at one time the gym was stand alone and wasn’t connected to the rest of the school,” said Jalwan. “The project manager thought the stairs were put in to be used as an exit from the gym.”
The idea might have been abandoned when plans were made to connect the gymnasium to the rest of the school.
“They just put a huge concrete slab over the whole thing and that was that,” said Jalwan.
Jilting the Cavaliers in favor of Miami made James Public Enemy Number One in the minds of many Northeast Ohioans. Yet, he remains revered in the halls of his old school.
“People ask me what I thought about LeBron leaving,” said school president Tom Carone. “My response has been, ‘To us, he never left.’ What he has contributed to our school and our students is remarkable. The arena has brought a whole new dimension to our school and it is amazing for our students. It tells you what kind of person LeBron is. Any time he comes to town he finds the time to come to school and talk to our students.”
Many people assume that because I had spent so much time around LeBron and his pals that I had a pipeline to his living room. More than once I was asked, “Has LeBron given one dime back to SVSM?”
I have to admit I had no idea. Nor did I care. Once LeBron left SVSM, I was off the merry-go-round. I would hear an occasional rumor but paid no attention. Who is to say LeBron had an obligation to the school? It is obvious – and school officials will readily agree – LeBron has helped SVSM as much as SVSM has helped LeBron.
“It is hard to put a dollar value on what it has meant for us to have LeBron attend St. Vincent-St. Mary in terms of marketing and exposure,” said Jalwan. “He put the school on the map, not just locally or nationally, but world-wide, in my opinion.”
The $1 million gift from James was above and beyond another less-publicized donation he made last fall when he covered the cost of new uniforms for the entire athletic department. Jalwan said James outfitted every varsity sport, regardless of gender.
Those close to the situation will tell you about countless other, less-publicized instances when James opened his checkbook or did something that led to a revenue producing event for the school. There have been team meals, donations for equipment and uniforms prior to the overhaul in the fall.
“I’ll give you a good example,” said Jalwan. “Nike wanted to shoot a LeBron commercial in our gym and they were willing to pay our rental fee. I can tell you it was sizable. That was money the school never would have received had it not been for LeBron.”
But, it is the behind-the-scenes events that endears James to those who remain.
“That day that he showed up with his boys, he sat and talked with the kids on this year’s team,” Jalwan said. “He does that a lot whenever he is here. How much do you think that means to those kids?”
No matter what detractors say, the LeBron James Arena was not a grandstand play by a guy worth hundreds of millions. It was an example of what James has become. He did not have to foot the bill for the new gym. Or the new uniforms. Or the team meals. Or any other contribution he has made.
“This is something LeBron said he has always wanted to do,” Jalwan said.
The school printed commemorative tickets for the official unveiling, attended by James’ mother, Gloria. Right in the middle of the ticket, in big, white letters are two words:
See For Yourself