AKRON, Ohio – LeBron James stood before 360 third-graders on Monday, telling them their futures are bright.
Plenty of ominous signs notwithstanding, he believes the same is true for the NBA.
In an interview with The Associated Press, the Miami Heat forward said he is not considering offers to play internationally during the NBA lockout — with one catch. He's committed to the 2012 Olympics and trying to help the United States defend the gold medal he helped win at the Beijing Games.
"I'm optimistic that we will have a season this year," James said. "Very optimistic."
A little anxious, too.
He's working out twice a day, trying to erase some of the sting that's still there after the Heat lost to the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA finals.
"Right now I've just been focusing on being a better player, working on my game every single day," James said at a news conference before the AP interview. "Like I said, the Dallas Mavericks were a great team and they deserved to win that championship. And I'll just use that as motivation coming into this season."
He's also trying to deliver on his vow to be even better whenever the Heat resume play, saying he's been in Houston at times this offseason to learn post play from one of the game's all-time greats, former Rockets star Hakeem Olajuwon.
"I look at what he was able to do throughout his career," James said. "Unbelievable talent. Multiple champion. Just to see how he was able to dominate in the low post, for me as an individual, I just try to look at some of the things I feel I need to get better at and hit home at it. Our team becomes better if I continue to get better and that's what it's about."
So even with signs of major trouble afoot in the NBA — union chief Billy Hunter told a conference of attorneys in Baltimore last week that he would bet against there being a 2011-12 season "at this moment" — James remains hopeful.
He said he understands why someone like star guard Deron Williams would feel compelled to seek a deal overseas and why Kobe Bryant appears to be flirting with the notion. It's just not for him, he said.
"We all love the game of basketball so much," James said. "And the love of the game is always going to be there. Guys love the game."
The Olympics count as a motivating force as well. And in time, he hinted he may even try recruiting some of his NBA pals in an effort to convince them to play in London next summer.
Not yet, though.
"I love representing my country and doing it the way I love to do it and that's playing the game of basketball," James said. "So I would love to be a part of the 2012 team traveling to London and defending our gold medal."
James was in his hometown Monday to open "Wheels for Education," a program he's doing in conjunction with corporate partners State Farm, HP and Nike to provide hundreds of third-graders from Akron Public Schools academic tools they need. The program will follow those kids through their high school graduations in 2021, and James wants the initiative to continue growing annually — plus even sees a chance to take it beyond his hometown, maybe to South Florida, maybe even internationally.
Doused by rain on his 2-mile bike ride through Akron with 22 children ambassadors for the program pedaling alongside him, James said it still resonates deeply within in when he hears screams of joy in his hometown. Some people carrying signs in support of James showed up at the event more than two hours beforehand, hoping just for a glimpse of the two-time NBA MVP.
"He just lives in Miami," said Doris Thomas, who brought her grandson. "He's one of us. He's Akron."
The kids all get a laptop, a backpack with school supplies, and a bike.
"I believe LeBron is a better person than he is a basketball player," Akron Mayor Donald Plusquellic said. "And I believe he's the best basketball player that ever lived. So that puts it in perspective, because he cares. He gives back. He doesn't have to do this. Riding around the city street, taking a chance on falling or something, giving back here and having some jerk yell something like they yell at me ... there's a sincerity inside of him."
Monday's event was part of a busy two days for James: On Tuesday, a new $240,000 clubhouse — some of the $3 million generated from his 'Decision' show last summer — at Akron's Boys & Girls Club will be named in his honor, and later that night James and four of his high school teammates will be added to the athletic Hall of Fame at their alma mater, St. Vincent-St. Mary High School.
"I'm just using what I have, using my ability, for better and good," James said.
James touched on a variety of other topics in his interview with The AP, including:
— How he finds motivation to work, even with many people expecting the NBA season to be delayed, at least: "I believe that Billy Hunter and the owners and (NBA Commissioner) David Stern are going to work toward having a season this year. And I'll be ready for it."
— His upcoming trip to China, which starts later this week: "I look at it as an opportunity for me to go there and to continue to see the growth of the game of basketball. I've been there, I think this is going to be my fifth time being there and every year I continue to see the growth of the game and how inspired they are by the game of basketball. And mostly the game is played outdoors. That's another thing that I hit home ... when I grew up, that's all we had."
— How he is still overwhelmed by the reaction when he makes appearances in Akron and around the world, especially from kids: "It's very humbling that not only I can get a great reception here in my hometown but also when I travel abroad I get the same reception. It was never like a dream of mine, but at the same time, it's very satisfying to see that these kids love the way I play the game of basketball and respect the way I play the game of basketball every night."
James seemed completely relaxed. He was surrounded Monday by nearly his entire inner circle: Longtime girlfriend Savannah Brinson, his mother, his two sons, many of his closest friends and advisers, even former teammates like Damon Jones.
He urges fans to relax as well. James had a message for NBA fans, suggesting they not abandon hope for the season.
"Stay positive," James said. "The game of basketball, we all love it. And we're going to try everything in our power to make sure that this game stays at a high level. And for me personally, I do it because of the fans. Every night I go out on the basketball court, I try to showcase my talent at the highest level because of the fans. They are our league. Our fans are our league."