By: Roger Riddle
When I’m out traveling and mention that I live in Akron, every now and then I run across people who still haven’t heard of our fair city. However, quite often I get the response, “LeBron James is from there.”
It’s honestly a pick-me-up whenever it happens. It’s great to be known as the hometown of one of sports’ greatest figures. He’s in the spotlight, and that means we catch a little bit of that shine as well.
Is it crazy that one of the greatest figures of the NBA came from a city that is often overlooked? Not at all. Akron has had a major role to play in sports that stretches back to the early decades of the 20th century.
In the early 1900s, Akron had one of the most dominant semi-pro football teams, the Akron East Ends. By 1920, the football team had been sold multiple times and went through several name changes, finally landing on the Akron Pros. They were one of the original teams that played in the inaugural season of the American Professional Football Association – which was renamed the National Football League in 1922.
In that inaugural season, the Akron Pros were led to and won the NFL (AFPA) championship by a half back named Fritz Pollard. Pollard was the first Black football player at Brown University, and when he joined the Akron Pros he became one of only two Black players to play in the NFL.
Is it crazy that one of the greatest figures of the NBA came from a city that is often overlooked?
In 1921, Pollard was named the head coach of the Akron Pros, making him the first Black head coach in the NFL. That season, Paul Robeson joined the team and played under Pollard. Robeson would go on to become one of the greatest actors of his generation.
In 1935, Goodyear, Firestone, and General Electric formed the Midwest Basketball Conference. The companies found that if they could keep their employees happy, they stayed with the company longer. A big part of keeping them happy was intramural sports, and basketball was one of the most popular of the sports. In 1937 the conference changed its name to the National Basketball League (NBL). In 1947, the NBL merged with the Basketball Association of America to form the same National Basketball Association (NBA) that we watch LeBron James play in today.
So, if you are keeping score, Akron played a role in founding two of the Big Four sports leagues that are active today.
During the days of the NBL, Akron was known as Championship City for the number of championships won by the Goodyear Wingfoots and the Firestone Non-Skids basketball teams. However, while the championships were nice, the game that really mattered each season in Akron was the Wingfoots vs the Non-Skids. This was an intense basketball rivalry that made local heroes and celebrities of the players and gave bragging rights to the sides of town where the teams played. The results of these games would make front page news and be the talk of the town.
…if you are keeping score, Akron played a role in founding two of the Big Four sports leagues that are active today.
In one matchup between the Wingfoots and the Non-Skids, a not so well-known player for the Non-Skids, Charles Hollis Taylor, hit the winning shot in the game. Taylor wasn’t known as a great player, but by making the winning shot, he was named in a front-page news story. He took that issue of the paper to the Converse shoe company and told them he was a professional basketball player and he wore their shoes. Converse’s All Stars were about to be discontinued, but Charles “Chuck” Taylor took a sales job with the shoemaker and made it one of the most popular shoes in the country. Eventually the Chuck Taylor All Stars became the iconic shoe we still wear today.
That should be enough for us to brag about, right?
How about we quickly mention that CC Sabathia, Lonnie Chisenhall, Coco Crisp, Jason Kipnis, Victor Martinez, and Jhonny Peralta–just to name a few–all played in Akron for the Aeros/RubberDucks before heading on to the big leagues.
In 2016, Ayanna Jeanne “AJ” Andrews became the first woman to win a Rawling’s Golden Glove Award as part of the Akron Racers fastpitch softball team.
Are you a soccer fan? In 2010, the Akron Zips men’s soccer team won the NCAA Division I soccer championship under the guidance of head coach Caleb Porter. In 2011, DeAndre Yedlin joined the Zips. Porter is now the head coach of the MLS Columbus Crew; while Yedlin has played internationally with the US Men’s National Team and currently plays for Newcastle United in the English Premier League.
One last thing I want to talk about. If you love Akron Zips sports, you love Zippy. Our beloved kangaroo mascot was chosen to represent the school in 1953 by the university’s student council. Since Zippy has a pouch, that makes her one of only a handful of female mascots throughout the country.
With a sports history like that, it’s no surprise that LeBron James went on to become one of the greatest sports figures of our time. My guess is it’s only a matter of time before we see another athlete get their start in Akron and go on to make us proud.
Roger Riddle was born and raised in Detroit, Michigan, and moved to Akron in 2015. He is the Vice President of Marketing & Corporate Engagement for United Way of Summit & Medina and a member of Leadership Akron’s Signature Class 37. He can be reached at @rogerriddle_ on Twitter and Instagram.
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