Less than a week after he stumped for Hillary Clinton in Cleveland, LeBron James was standing in front of the White House, dressed in a black turtleneck. Donald Trump won the election Tuesday, and now, events at 1600 Pennsylvania were supposed to go on as planned. Which meant just hours after the president-elect was in the Oval Office, the Cleveland Cavaliers were stopping by for a visit.
All the usual pomp and circumstance that accompanies the championship-visit tradition played out: handshakes, photo shoots, light jabs and jokes from the basketball-loving president. But then, Obama made a point of praising James and his teammate Kevin Love for something entirely different than talent on the court.
“These Cavs exemplify a growing generation of athletes that are using their platforms to speak out,” Obama said. “We’ve seen Kevin on combating campus sexual assault. LeBron on issues like gun violence and working with Michelle to help more kids go to school.”
It’s common for the president to praise athletes’ charity work, but this compliment was different: Obama was giving kudos to players for speaking out about issues that are complicated and often controversial.
Throughout his career, James has been extremely hesitant to play that role, despite his unparalleled level of influence. Endorsing Hillary Clinton, and mentioning violence against the African American community as a reason for doing so, was out of the ordinary. And although James waited until one of the last possible days to campaign with Clinton in Ohio, it was seen by many as a signal that the 31-year-old superstar might finally be more comfortable taking a stand.
But then Clinton lost. And in Ohio, where James had so earnestly told voters she was the only candidate who “understands the struggles of an Akron child born into poverty,”she earned only 44 percent of the vote.
For a man whose reputation is centered on winning, what comes next? Does he double down on the issues that matter to him until he’s won? Or does he retreat back to a his place of comfort, where basketball comes first and community involvement stays confined to issues everyone can clap for?
Perhaps Loretta Lynch knows the answer. Obama told the crowd that earlier in the day, James and his teammates met with the attorney general and senior adviser Valerie Jarrett to “discuss steps they are taking to help build understanding between law enforcement and the Cleveland community.” The meeting took place behind closed doors, and Coach Tyronn Lue was vague when describing it to reporters after the ceremony.
“We just discussed some issues that have been happening in our communities and our environment,” he said, “and the guys had a lot of great things to say.”
So it’s unclear whether the meeting was merely a perfunctory get-together as part of the NBA’s initiative “to build stronger communities” or a chance to assemble a real plan of action on an issue Cleveland is desperately struggling with.
Of course, with President-elect Trump on his way to the Oval, any plans made by Jarrett and Lynch aren’t for the long-term. Uncertainty of the coming Trump presidency was certainly in the air Thursday, as audience members discussed whether future championship teams will be invited — or will agree to — carry on the tradition of bringing the sitting president a jersey.
Trump is known to be a sports fan, but the NBA took a far louder stand against him than other leagues. Along with many players, coaches including the Detroit Pistons’ Stan Van Gundy and the Golden State Warriors’ Steve Kerr openly criticized Trump before and after the election. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver donated to the Clinton campaign. And, as Lue pointed out to reporters while explaining why it was important the Cavs visit the White House while Obama was still in office, the majority of NBA players are minorities.
Late Wednesday, the Cavs’ Richard Jefferson posted on Snapchat: “Words cannot express the honor I feel being the last team to visit the White House tomorrow.” But Lue said if Trump does carry on the tradition, he would happily return to meet him.
“I hope so. I think it’s great,” Lue said. “We have a long season to play and if we were able to win, I would love to come back.”
Such a feat is a long way off, and with an unpredictable president it’s impossible to foretell what the political climate will be. But surely, LeBron would think twice about hob-knobbing with a man whose “locker room talk” he openly denounced.
James’s only public reaction to the election results didn’t mention Trump by name; instead, he posted a surprisingly-uplifting message on Instagram.
“We will BE ALRIGHT!!” he wrote. “Parents and leaders of our children please let them know they can still change the world for the better! Don’t lose a bit of faith!”
In a nod to his future plans, he wrote that he would continue to mold his children — likely referencing his three kids and the children who benefit from his family foundation — into “the greatest model citizens they can become.”
“To all the youth out there I PROMISE I’ll continue to lead u guys every single day without no hesitation!!” he continued.
There’s no doubt that will entail being active in his charity, which has programs to support children of all ages and pays for more than 1,000 of them to attend the University of Akron. James serves not as a figurehead but as an active mentor to the students involved and regularly writes them encouraging notes signed from “Mr. Lebron.” (“You going outside in the cold without a coat is like me showing up for a game without a jersey. That just won’t work,” he recently wrote to them.)
President Obama clapped for these efforts but seemed to be calling on LeBron to do more, especially by mentioning gun violence. James has at times teetered on whether he has a duty to be the face of such a complex issue. Sometimes he’s been on board; others, he’s demurred.
In July, James stood beside fellow NBA stars Carmelo Anthony, Dwayne Wade and Chris Paul at the ESPY Awards to speak against gun violence and the shooting of black men by police officers. James’s previous messages on the issue — wearing an “I Can’t Breathe” shirt in honor of Eric Garner, or a hoodie for Trayvon Martin — had been in a similar fashion. He makes these statements with both his teammates and other NBA players, and usually not until there is a call to do so. After a grand jury declined to indict the white police officer who shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Black Lives Matter organizers called upon James to boycott a game in protest. But all James said about the matter was, “To be honest, I haven’t really been on top of this issue, so it’s hard for me to comment.”
“It’s not just a responsibility of government, it takes all of us,” Obama said after complimenting LeBron. “Businesses, nonprofits, athletes, role models working together to achieve the progress that we seek.”
Cavs General Manager David Griffin elaborated on the scrutiny someone with a profile like James’s can face when it comes to social and political issues.
“LeBron is in a unique position because his opinion matters more than most,” Griffin said after the White House visit. “I would want him to continue to carry himself exactly like he does. He does a masterful job of wielding the influence he has.”
The White House set up a microphone outside the West Wing so that Lue, Griffin and the players could speak to the press after meeting the president. A press release indicated that James, Love and point guard Kyrie Irving were likely to attend. The hoard of reporters waiting for them to appear debated what James would say. The moment was inherently political. Ohio Governor, and former Republican presidential candidate, John Kasich, who attended the ceremony, walked up to the press to give a message to Americans to “come together.” Trump and his family had left the building just hours before. On Pennsylvania Avenue, protesters were chanting “Not! My! President!”
The cameras were rolling, ready to give James his moment.
But he never showed. There was a basketball game to prepare for, and he was already back on the team bus.