AKRON, Ohio — LeBron James has a new teammate who's just as popular. The guy has a few holes in his game. Oh, and he lives in a pineapple under the sea.
SpongeBob SquarePants won't help James win any NBA titles, but the Cavaliers' superstar has paired up with Nickelodeon, the home of SpongeBob and his ocean-dwelling cartoon chums, to raise awareness about the environment.
Beyond the global-awareness message — part of Nickelodeon's Big Green Help campaign — James is hoping to educate kids on the importance of exercise.
"We're trying to get kids out of the house,'' Cleveland's All-Star forward said while dressing in his trailer after filming the PSA, which will air in mid-July. "Get outside, ride bikes, play hoops. And in this, we're trying to save water and do other things that can help the environment. ... It doesn't take much to recycle a can or turn the faucet off.''
At 23, James is still a kid at heart. A big SpongeBob fan, the two-time Olympian is also a father of two young sons, and he understands the impact he can have on shaping other kids' lives.
"They are our future,'' he said as his 1-year-old, Bryce, begged for daddy's attention. "You never forget things when you're a kid, so every time I do something I like to have it involve kids. I was at my basketball camp earlier and the memories those kids made are going to stay with them the rest of their lives. What I do is kid driven. I don't do it because I have to. I want to.''
Political interests, as well
In addition to being more socially conscious on issues like the environment, James has broadened his interest in politics, another sign of his maturity off the floor.
Two weeks ago, he was part of a group who had dinner in New York with Michelle Obama, wife of Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee.
"It was an unbelievable experience,'' said James, who took his girlfriend, Savannah, with him. "It was mind-boggling.''
James has no plans to campaign for any candidate, but he intends to stay up to date on important issues.
"I'm not so far into it. I don't feel I need to be hands on into it,'' he said. "You want to keep athletics and politics separate. I don't want to start getting up on panels or talking about Barack or (John) McCain. I'm aware of what's going on not just with the presidential election. You want to be aware of gas prices and other things. Being a father and being responsible for my kids, I want to know what's going on in our world.''
LeBron avatar part of green game
Nickelodeon, famous for kids shows where contestants get "slimed'' with a green, gooey mixture, found that kids — and their parents — wanted to know more about their world, too.
After getting feedback from folks eager to learn more about ways they can help the environment, Nickelodeon developed its Big Green Help initiative and launched it in April.
James is featured on Nick's Web site in a game where kids navigate a bike-riding LeBron avatar down an obstacle-filled dirt road. The animated hoopster delivers "green'' tips along the way on how to help the planet.
"We found that parents weren't sure what they could do,'' said Nickelodeon's Jean Margaret Smith, who overseas all the network's pro-social campaigns. "We're connecting the dots for them.''
As for connecting with kids, that's where James comes in. His easygoing personality and approachable manner, along with being one of the world's most recognizable athletes, has made him popularity with kids and adults.
Everyone seems to like LeBron.
"He's got a real charm and real connection with kids, and it is so genuine,'' said Smith, who noted that James gave his input into the game's design. "He's excited to be involved.''
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