Thursday afternoon, LeBron James visited the White House with his Cleveland Cavaliers teammates for the final time while President Barack Obama, a man he had come to know well, remained in office. He had not yet decided whether it would be the final time he visited the Rose Garden, period, regardless of how many NBA championships he adds to the three he already has won.
James, who endorsed Hillary Clinton both at rallies and in a newspaper editorial, said Friday morning at Verizon Center he would have to consider whether to celebrate a potential future championship with President-Elect Donald Trump at the White House.
“I don’t know,” James said. “That’s something that we’ll cross. We’ll have to cross that road if we get there. We’ll see. I would hope to have to cross that road. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t want another championship.”
James, sitting underneath a basket before shootaround, chuckled as he finished the answer. The past three days have been hard on him. He had a personal stake in the election. Having waded into social issues for the past several years and helped more than 1,000 underprivileged kids enter college, James gave a full-throated endorsement to Clinton. “Only one person running truly understands the struggles of an Akron child born into poverty,” James wrote Oct. 2. “And when I think about the kinds of policies and ideas the kids in my foundation need from our government, the choice is clear. That candidate is Hillary Clinton.”
And then James’s home state played a significant role in her defeat. Just 44 percent of Ohio, viewed as a critical swing state, voted for Clinton. The loss stung James, a wildly popular figure failing so decisively in a popularity contest.
“It was difficult,” James said. “It was difficult watching it. Me and my wife didn’t go to bed until 4 o’clock in the morning. It was very difficult seeing what happened not only in our state, but in our country. Like I said, it is what it is. That’s in the past. We need to live in the present and make our future better.”
Across the NBA, a league in which the vast majority of players are black, players and coaches expressed despair about Trump’s victory. Pistons Coach Stan Van Gundy denounced Trump as “brazenly” misogynist and racist. “Words cannot express the honor I feel being the last team to visit the White House tomorrow,” Cavaliers veteran Richard Jefferson wrote in an Instagram post.
James vowed he would continue his advocacy and his community involvement, regardless of the presidential outcome. Friday morning, he wore a black cap with the phrase “Always Believe” in gold lettering above his personal logo. He insisted Trump’s victory would not fundamentally change the nation and called on fellow people who felt disappointment not to let the outcome diminish their civic participation.
“He’s our president,” James said. “No matter if you agree with it or disagree with it, he’s the guy, and we all have to figure a way to make America as great as it can be. We all have to do our part. Our nation has never been built on one guy, anyways. It’s been built on multiple guys, multiple people in power, multiple people having a dream and making it become a reality by giving back to the community, by giving back to the youth, doing so many great things.
“We always have a guy that has the most power, and that’s the President of the United States. But it’s never been built on one guy. We all have to figure out a way we can better our country. We all know, we all feel, that this is the best country in the world. We have to all do our part. It’s not about him. It’s not about him at all, especially not for me and what I do.”
Though the celebration came two days after Clinton’s defeat, the ceremony included typical moments of levity. Power forward Kevin Love handed Obama a jersey, the sleeved version the Cavaliers wore during their Game 7 victory, and Obama cracked, “These sleeves get tight. Can I tear these out? Can I rip them?” James is known in NBA circles for his propensity to tears the sleeves during games.
Love reconnected with Vice President Joe Biden, whom he had met two years ago filming a PSA for domestic violence. “Biden’s a guy you’d love to have a beer with,” Love said.“But the first lady is the star.” James took a selfie with Michelle Obama with teammate Channing Frye in the background.
“She’s so cool,” Love said. “She did the mannequin challenge with us. She took us to the basketball court. She made the joke that Kyrie [Irving] was hanging on to the Larry O’Brien Trophy too long, and she didn’t get to see it.”
The Cavaliers, James said, did not speak with Obama or his staff about Trump’s victory or ensuing presidency. But Obama told the crowd Thursday that James and several teammates had met with senior advisor Valerie Jarrett in the Roosevelt Room to discuss the relationship between black communities and police officers, an issue James has been outspoken about, particularly during a speech this summer at the ESPYs awards show.
“That’s an ongoing conversation,” James said. “That’s every day. We’re always having that conversation. It’s an open dialogue. Having that conversation, it’s an open dialogue. At this point, we just have to find ways we can all be better. It’s not just about one group or one person. It’s about all of us having a conversation, and then having a plan and executing that plan. That’s a conversation that has to go on.”
“These Cavs exemplify a growing generation of athletes that are using their platforms to speak out,” Obama said Thursday. “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.”
Thursday’s visit meant more to James, even more than the first two title ceremonies he experienced with the Miami Heat, because it would be the final one with Obama. “We made sure we was going to go before he was out of office,” James said.
In his 13-year NBA career, James has transformed from a high school phenom to perhaps the most prominent athlete on the planet. Obama praised him Thursday as one of the greatest basketball players of all time. His achievements, fame and political leanings have prompted a “real genuine relationship” with Obama, James said, which he called “surreal.”
James also promised his relationship with Obama would last beyond the day his term ends Jan. 20. He did not believe Thursday’s visit in the Rose Garden was the appropriate time to detail how it would continue.
“But we looked at each other, and we know there is a lot to still be done,” James said. “We will regroup.”