‘Hi, I’m in Delaware!’: From LeBron and JFK to Kim and Kanye, they were in The First State

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If you live in Delaware long enough, you’ll learn all about the state’s most famous native sons and daughters.

They range from actors and actresses (Aubrey Plaza, Ryan Phillippe) and sports stars (Elena Delle Donne) to rockers (George Thorogood) and even a U.S. president.

For a small state, we have a pretty stacked lineup of well-known Delawareans who have gone on to make big names for themselves.

While we have plenty of our own homegrown celebrities, they sometimes have to share the 302 with other visiting stars, some of whom shine even brighter.

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Over the years, Delaware has hosted its fair share of visiting out-of-state luminaries.

Some came to visit family or give a speech. Others to perform or simply take a pee break in between East Coast tour stops.

We’ve raided our archives for details about these visits and will occasionally publish more.

LeBron James

Remember when LeBron James played basketball in Delaware only hours before his 18th birthday?

With thousands of fans in Lewes’ Cape Henlopen High School gym on Dec. 28, 2001, the best high school basketball player in the country wasn’t about to let the flu keep him out of the game.

James and his then-trademark headband was feeling the sickness, though. A player that the St. Vincent-St. Mary coach would normally have to drag out of a game for a break actually asked out of the contest twice to rest.

Even so, he led his team to victory.

As The News Journal reported at the time, “James’ moves, dunks and passes gave all of the more than 3,000 fans squeezed in the bleachers and crammed in doorways what they came to see.”

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He put on a show, including a spectacular open-floor dunk with 42 seconds left in the game when “he caught up to a long pass, accelerated, hung in the air and pounded the ball through the rim as the fans jumped out of their seats.”

James may have been the top high school player at the time, but he was far from the global superstar he is today. The write-up about James’ Delaware visit appeared deep on the fourth page of the newspaper’s sports section the next day. 

John F. Kennedy

When then-Sen. John F. Kennedy arrived late to New Castle Airport on Oct. 15, 1960 — less than a month before being elected president — he started with a joke and then (kind of) blamed New Jersey for his tardiness.

“I want to apologize for keeping you waiting. I was not playing golf. We were over in New Jersey campaigning,” he cracked.

Kennedy’s short speech and Delaware drop-in was not only to make his pitch to voters in his race against Republican Richard Nixon, he was also there to support the reelection campaign of U.S. Sen. J. Allen Frear Jr. of Delaware, who ended up losing to J. Caleb Boggs. (Boggs in turn ended up losing to an upstart named Joe Biden a decade later.)

“I come here today and ask your help,” he said in closing. “The Democrats have a majority in the State of Delaware but we have not always carried Delaware. Now, this year, I come up here and ask your assistance in this campaign.”

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Nearly seven years earlier, the new U.S. senator from Massachusetts was at Wilmington’s Hotel du Pont for the Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner, a Democratic fundraiser, on May 14, 1953.

There were no opening jokes that night for Kennedy.

Just months after Democrat Adlai Stevenson lost in a landslide to President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Kennedy wasn’t feeling funny.

“The defeat that we suffered – our removal from positions of direct responsibility — must not be regarded as an unmitigated disaster,” he declared in opening his speech.

Kanye West and Kim Kardashian

Kanye West and Kim Kardashian may not be together any longer — not sure if you’ve heard? — but they still have the memories from their eight-year marriage, including some here in Delaware.

In the summer of 2014, they were in the region for West’s headlining performance at Philadelphia’s Made in America music festival. Before taking the stage to deliver hits such as “Jesus Walks,” they first came to the First State.

West has family in northern Delaware, and there just happened to be a family wedding being held at Wilmington’s University and Whist Club on that same weekend.

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So they brought 1-year-old daughter North West to the private dining club on the Saturday afternoon, attending the wedding ceremony and staying for lunch before leaving for his performance that night.

Later in 2014, he was seen making a winter weekend visit to the Stratosphere Trampoline Park on Wilmington’s Riverfront for his cousin’s son’s birthday party.

But these weren’t the first Ye sightings in Delaware.

He attended a family member’s graduation ceremony at the University of Delaware in Newark in 2011. West’s very public visit to Delaware Stadium caused a frenzy on Twitter with graduates and their families shooting off messages that West was in the crowd.

He probably was somewhat familiar with the sports complex. In 2004, West’s tour for his debut album, “The College Dropout,” brought him to the Bob Carpenter Center for a performance.

Denzel Washington

Denzel does Delaware? Yes, he does. Well, at least he used to.

Sightings of the two-time Oscar-winning actor at Delaware’s beaches became a bit of a regularity in the late 1990s and early 2000s. 

BET founder (and America’s first Black billionaire) Robert Johnson has a summer home in Bethany Beach, and he would sometimes entertain some of Hollywood’s stars right here in Delaware.

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In addition to others such as actor Wesley Snipes, Washington would join Johnson, even having drinks at popular clubs such as The Starboard and The Rusty Rudder in nearby Dewey Beach.

Washington seemed to be really drawn to the old Sydney’s Blues & Jazz Restaurant on Rehoboth Avenue, which delivered intimate live music in downtown Rehoboth Beach.

He would take in shows, drinks and sometimes take a photo with staff.

Harry Styles

It was about 4:30 p.m. at the Wawa on Pulaski Highway in Bear near Eden Square Shopping Center when former One Direction singer and pop star Harry Styles walked in. 

The “Sign of the Times” singer stopped by while traveling from Washington, D.C., to New York for a performance on NBC’s “Today” morning show.

That’s when Styles super fan and 21-year-old Wawa employee Natali Maldonado spotted him — and the precise moment she began hyperventilating and crying.

Just hours earlier, she had told a friend she was thinking about getting a tattoo of Styles and now he was right in front of her near the coffee counter.

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“I thought I was hallucinating. I asked a co-worker, ‘Are you seeing this or am I going crazy?'” she told Delaware Online/The News Journal at the time.

Maldonado, who moved from Puerto Rico to Delaware about 15 years before, told Styles she was a big fan, got an autograph and even a few photos thanks to a quick-thinking co-worker with a cellphone.

His Wawa order? A burrito, a tuna salad sandwich and classic turkey hoagie.

Have a story idea? Contact Ryan Cormier of The News Journal at rcormier@delawareonline.com or (302) 324-2863. Follow him on Facebook (@ryancormierdelawareonline) and Twitter (@ryancormier).

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