By Jeremy Repanich
Last December nine-year-old Conner and seven-year-old Cayden Long traveled to New York City with their family to attend the ceremony that honored them as the 2012 SPORTS ILLUSTRATED KIDS SportsKids of the Year. While there, they made an unexpected new friend.
The night Conner and Cayden were being honored another great athlete was in attendance to accept an award. On the heels of his first NBA championship, a second Olympic gold medal, and a third NBA MVP award, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED named LeBron James its Sportsman of the Year. While James settled in with his friends Jay-Z and Beyoncé for the night's festivities, he watched a video that hundreds of thousands of people now have seen: the story of how these two brothers became triathlon stars.
Cayden has cerebral palsy and can't talk or walk on his own. James saw the video that showed how Conner included his brother in competition. He swam while pulling Cayden in a raft, biked with his little brother towed behind him in a trailer, and pushed that trailer when they ran. The inspirational story of brotherly love nearly moved the Miami Heat star to tears. As James took the stage to give his acceptance speech, he said, "Conner and Cayden are the real Sportsmen of the Year." And then James made a promise to the Long family. He was going to fly them to Miami to be special guests at a Heat game. It was a promise he kept.
One Friday in April, the Long family — Conner, Cayden, and youngest brother Cooper, and their parents, Jeff and Jenny — arrived at their hotel on the water in Miami's South Beach. In their room was a note from LeBron welcoming them to the city. Along with the note, James gave them some gifts, including Miami Heat shirts with his number on the back, teal Nike LeBron X shoes, and a bracelet that James also wears that reads I PROMISE.
That simple phrase is a pillar of the LeBron James Family Foundation. James's charity is committed to supporting education and fitness initiatives for children and young adults. A central program of his foundation is the I promise Network. In 2011, 342 third-graders from James's hometown of Akron, Ohio, made a promise to go to school, do their homework, listen to their teachers, eat well, exercise, and have fun. James in turn promised to be the best role model he could be. Today, his foundation supports those kids' educations by connecting them with a network of mentors that help them through high school. Each year the foundation asks another third-grade class to make the pledge, and the foundation, in turn, also supports those kids.
In that spirit of giving, the foundation brought the Long family to Miami to recognize their contributions to the community. Team Long Brothers promotes a message of inclusiveness and not letting any barriers hold you back. On their trip to Miami, Conner and Cayden got a fun weekend break from school, training, and traveling to give inspirational speeches.
After James was wowed by the Longs at the Sportsman of the Year ceremony, he invited them to Miami, where they played on the beach, got a courtside view of the pregame action, and watched the Heat win.
After James went back to the court to get ready for the game, Conner helped with warmups. Other players, including forward Udonis Haslem, had Conner pass them the ball while they shot. Then it was time to head up to the seats and settle in for the game.
In the morning, the family spent some time on the beach and splashed around in the ocean. Then they got ready for the main event that night. The Longs arrived at American Airlines Arena dressed in their Heat shirts, and Conner wore his new LeBron X sneakers.
James emerged for warmups with a serious look of determination for the game ahead. But when he saw Conner out of the corner of his eye, his expression changed immediately. Wearing a huge grin, he ran over to Conner and gave him a big bear hug. Conner, Cooper, and Jeff snapped some photos with LeBron, and then King James realized someone was missing. "Wait, where's Cayden?" he asked. James then pushed through a throng of fans and media to get to an area off the court where Cayden was hanging out. James hugged Cayden and his mom and got some pictures with them, too.
The family cheered on the Heat to an easy 106–87 win over the Philadelphia 76ers. James scored 27 points. When Conner was asked which was his favorite part of the trip between the beach, the new gear, the LeBron hug, and the game, his reply was simply, "Everything!"
HOW YOU CAN HELP
The LeBron James Family Foundation renovates Boys & Girls Clubs around the country. In Akron, it has a program that pairs kids with high school and college student mentors. The foundation raises money in part through the sale of I PROMISE bracelets. They also created limited-edition Long Brothers bands, which you can find at timetopromise.com.