Inside West Hollywood’s Barber Surgeons Guild, LeBron James became quiet. His longtime friend Maverick Carter asked him about what he told his kids when someone spray-painted the n-word on the front gate of his Los Angeles home last year. Toward the end of the premiere episode of HBO’s “The Shop,” James, the Los Angeles Lakers superstar, clasped his hands together, leaned back in his chair and told a group of friends, athletes and entertainers what he said to his children about what the n-word meant and how being black in America will forever be difficult — even if your father is one of the most recognizable athletes in the world.
James recalled telling his kids that certain people would try to keep them down just because they are black and that sometimes might mean people using the n-word against them. The father of three said he told his children that it was on them to decide whether to accept bigotry and racism or to push back against those who hate them because of the color of their skin.
“No matter how big you can become in America, no matter how much influence you think you got or do have, if you’re African American, it doesn’t matter,” James said. “You’re still black. You’re still black in America.”
It was one of many striking moments in the Tuesday premiere of “The Shop,” HBO’s barbershop-style talk show featuring James in an expletive-laden, free-flowing conversation with some of the biggest names in sports and entertainment, from Candace Parker of the WNBA to Draymond Green of the NBA, from Snoop Dogg to Jon Stewart. The show also represented the first of James’s significant off-the-court media projects since signing with the Los Angeles Lakers, a sign of what might be in store for his blossoming production career.
“The Shop” ran through a gamut of topics over laughter and wine, mainly focusing on race, fatherhood and the culture wars. For James, who has been noted for being media savvy and polished, the show offered a rare, unfiltered glimpse of his belief that there is a double-standard among white and black athletes and how they are perceived in the media.
The example he used involved some of the most prominent NFL quarterbacks of the modern era, including Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and the retired Peyton Manning, all of whom are white. James said that if a situation arose in which he didn’t take kindly to a fan trying to record him and his family, he believed he would be treated worse compared to someone like Rodgers, even if they both said the same thing.
“Somebody’s going to be like, ‘Hey, you guys should respect Aaron Rodgers,'” James said. “They’re going to say to us, ‘You guys are [expletives].’”
Odell Beckham Jr., the star wide receiver for the New York Giants, took it one step further in his own assessment of life as a black athlete.
“I tell people this all the time, I really feel like a zoo animal,” Beckham said. “Like I’ve got people who call out, ‘Odell! Dance!’ . . . Like I’m a puppet, you know what I mean? And it’s like to me, that doesn’t feel good, but it’s like, damn, that’s what life became.”
In one of the more unique exchanges related to race, Snoop Dogg talked about how people have told him they were able to learn English by listening to his records. The rap legend said the global effect that people of color have is present seemingly everywhere in the world, except in the United States.
“Black people are more respected outside of America than they are in America,” Snoop Dogg said.
“That’s interesting,” said Stewart, the only white person featured in the first episode.
“That’s a fact!” Snoop Dogg exclaimed.
James echoed his barbershop brethren: “That’s a fact!”
For Green, James’s on-the-court nemesis with the Golden State Warriors, the topic meant something else.
“It’s more so of black people not knowing who they are,” Green said. “The reason we struggle as black people is because we don’t know who we are. And so, if you want to be quite frank about it, white people know who we are. That’s why they keep . . . kicking us.”
Tuesday’s premiere added to what’s been arguably the most fascinating, and busy, offseason of James’s 15-year career. On July 2, James announced through his agency, Klutch Sports Group, that he would be signing with the Los Angeles Lakers on a four-year deal worth close to $154 million. On July 30, he opened the I Promise School, a public school geared toward at-risk youth in his native Akron, Ohio. Thanks to $41 million donated by James’s charities, the 1,100 students already in the I Promise program will go to college on full scholarships.
But news of the school opening, and the press James did for it, got the attention of President Trump. Earlier this month, Trump insulted James’s intelligence following the basketball star’s interview with CNN’s Don Lemon during the school’s opening week. It was the first time the president had gone after James, nearly a year after the Lakers star called Trump a “bum.” The president concluded his Aug. 3 tweet by offering his basketball preference for Michael Jordan over James, simply stating, “I like Mike!”
Since then, the NBA community has rebuked the president’s criticism of James. Even Jordan, the Chicago Bulls legend referenced in Trump’s tweet, gave some support to James, telling NBC News, through a spokesman, “He’s doing an amazing job for his community.”
The evolution of James’s outspokenness on social issues, however, was something he admitted was years in the making, a process that started with his family — and Trayvon Martin.
“Me having my own kids and then seeing the Trayvon Martin thing, it hit home,” James said in the episode. “If I didn’t even have any kids at the time, who knows if I would have been able to speak up; it wouldn’t have made me feel the same. I can’t imagine if I sent my kid out and he didn’t return home. I couldn’t imagine that. I started thinking, I’m like okay, if I can get 25,000 to show up to a basketball game, I can reach so many more platforms when I talk.”
His willingness to speak up was applauded by Michael Bennett, an athlete who has allegedly experienced firsthand the issue of police brutality — one that has splintered NFL players, owners and fans. The Philadelphia Eagles defensive end, who claimed that two police officers used excessive force and “threatened to blow my head off” outside a Las Vegas nightclub in 2017, said James was the kind of athlete he wished he had in his life when he was a kid.
“When I was growing up, I was looking for Michael Jordan to say something and he never did,” Bennett said. “But now kids can look up and be like, ‘What’d LeBron say?’” Bennett said.
The talk show is the first of several projects that SpringHill Entertainment, James’s production company, has with HBO. Among those ventures is a multipart documentary on Muhammad Ali and “Student Athlete,” a documentary on the business of college athletics that’s set to premiere Oct. 2.
During one point in the show, Stewart likened James, and his ability to speak out on social issues, to Ali, the boxer whose documentary he’s producing. Stewart said to James that even Ali’s greatness couldn’t insulate the boxer from the social norms of the time. The former host of “The Daily Show” posed the question: Even with all your greatness, is what you do and say going to matter in shaping social conversation and norms?
“When I decided I was going to start speaking up and not” caring “about the backlash or if it affects me, my whole mind-set was, it’s not about me,” James said. “I think Ali already knew it wasn’t about him. . . . Ali’s whole mind-set was like, at some point somebody is going to take what I did and I sense that. My popularity went down. But the end of the day, my truth to so many different kids and so many different people was broader than me personally.”
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