(Reuters) - National Basketball Association star LeBron James won praise on Monday from an Ohio school district for his support of disadvantaged children in his hometown of Akron, after U.S. President Donald Trump attacked him in a weekend tweet questioning his intelligence.
The president lashed out at James after the three-time NBA champion was interviewed by CNN’s Don Lemon largely to tout a public school in Akron, Ohio that his foundation helped to open last week. During the interview James said sports was something that unites Americans but that Trump “used sport to kind of divide us,” drawing the retaliatory tweet from the president.
The “I Promise” public school in Akron, which opened last week, will offer classes for “at-risk” students in the third and fourth grades and add first and second grades the following year, the foundation website said. The school will be finished by 2022 with first through eighth grades.
James also promised a free bicycle and helmets for students and vowed to pay tuition to the University of Akron for I Promise graduates, among other things.
“Anyone that’s done what LeBron James has done for the past decade to 15 years for our children to prepare them to flourish in life has to be an intelligent person,” Akron Public Schools spokesman Mark Williamson said in a telephone interview on Monday. “He’s a bright guy, end of story.”
The comment came after Trump on Friday had tweeted “Lebron James was just interviewed by the dumbest man on television, Don Lemon. He made Lebron look smart, which isn’t easy to do. I like Mike!”
The president’s “I like Mike!” comment was an apparent reference to the perennial sports debate over whether six-time NBA champion Michael Jordan, or James, a four-time league most valuable player, was the NBA’s all-time best player.
Jordan, who rarely wades into the political fray, and other U.S. athletes rallied to James’ defense on Saturday, praising him for his work in his community.
James, a persistent critic of Trump and prominent supporter of Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, last month announced his decision to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers for a second time, this time to play for the Los Angeles Lakers.
In response to Lemon asking what James would say to the president if he were sitting right there, the NBA star said: “I would never sit across from him. ... I’d sit across from Barack though,” referring to Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama.
Trump has lambasted National Football League players who knelt during playing of the national anthem as a form of protest against law enforcement’s treatment of racial minorities. And he has disinvited championship teams whose members have been critical of him from traditional White House visits.
U.S. first lady Melania Trump also appeared to take exception with her husband’s attack on James.
“It looks like LeBron James is working to do good things on behalf of our next generation and just as she always has, the first lady encourages everyone to have an open dialogue about issues facing children today,” a statement issued by Melania Trump’s spokeswoman said.
The spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a question on whether the first lady planned to visit the I Promise school.
LeBron James Family Foundation did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Monday.
Williamson called James a great role model. “He’s never let our children down. Not once. He’s never let these kids down,” he said.
Reporting by Makini Brice in Washington and Suzannah Gonzales in Chicago; Editing by Frank McGurty and Bill Berkrot