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‘Being black in America is tough’: LeBron James responds to racist vandalism incident

Video: LeBron James responds after a racial slur was spray-painted onto one of his properties. (Video: Anthony Slater/Bay Area News Group)

OAKLAND, Calif. — LeBron James issued a searing and personal response to the discovery of racist graffiti spray-painted outside his Los Angeles home early Wednesday, using a news conference to deliver a somber soliloquy about race in America on the eve of the NBA Finals. James explicitly placed his social standing as the world’s best basketball player ahead of preparation for perhaps the most anticipated series of his career.

“I think back to Emmett Till’s mom, actually,” James said. “That’s one of the first things I thought of. The reason she had an open casket was that she wanted to show the world what her son went through as far as a hate crime, and being black in America. No matter how much money you have, no matter how famous you are, no matter how many people admire you, being black in America is tough. We’ve got a long way to go, for us as a society and for us as African Americans, until we feel equal in America.”

Police said the n-word had been spray-painted across the front gate of a home James owns in Los Angeles. The LAPD said it would investigate the vandalism as a hate crime and examine security camera footage from nearby homes to identify a suspect. James lives in the house in the offseason, and he and his family were not living in the home at the time.

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James said his family is safe, “and that’s most important.” But the crime visibly rattled him. At his news conference at Oracle Arena, where his Cleveland Cavaliers will open their title defense in a third consecutive Finals meeting with the Golden State Warriors on Thursday night, James appeared shaken but resolute. He wore a white T-shirt emblazoned with a photo of Muhammad Ali’s face. He measured his words and frequently paused to swallow hard.

“Obviously,” he said, “you see I’m not my normal energetic self.”

James also seized upon the incident as an opportunity to prove how extensive racism remains in America. If somebody of James’s stature is not immune to a potential hate crime, James reasoned, the graffiti showed the pervasiveness of hate. In that way, he welcomed the opportunity to shine a spotlight on the maliciousness.

“As I sit here on the eve of one of the greatest sporting events that we have in sports, race and what’s going on comes again, and on my behalf and on my family’s behalf,” James said. “But I look at it as, if this can shed light and continue to keep the conversation going on my behalf, then I’m okay with it. … It just goes to show that racism will always be a part of the world, a part of America. Hate in America, especially for African Americans, is with them every day. Even though it’s concealed most of the time, people hide their faces, say things about you. When they see you, they smile in your face. It’s alive every single day.”

“Surprising, no,” James later added in an interview with ESPN. “I still understand how race plays a part in America. For me to be here and have to answer questions about racism, it just lets me know that it’s still here, and we should all know that. If it takes for someone to spray my gate, and use that derogatory term, that hate, on my family to shed a light on what the real issue is in the world, then so be it.”

While James has become a willing megaphone for social causes in the second decade of his career, he had difficulty processing the potential effect on his family. The primary source of his consternation, he said, was being away from his three children, a daughter and two sons.

“The most unfortunate part is that I can’t be home right now,” James said. “I can’t be home to see my kids. My little girl is actually too young to understand it right now. I can’t sit in front of my boys right now, and I won’t be home until next week. It’s kind of killing me inside right now. My wife is unbelievable, my mother, my mother-in-law, my sister-in-law, they’re going to do a great job when they get home from school today.

“At the end of the day, I’ll be focused on, on our game plan, and focused on these games. I’m at a point in my life where my priorities are in place, and basketball comes second to my family. I will be as focused as I can be on the job at hand. This is a situation where, it puts me back in place as far as what’s actually more important. Basketball is not the most important thing in my life.”

Teammates asserted their belief the incident would not affect James, who willed the Cavaliers to Cleveland’s first championship last season by reversing a 3-1 series deficit against the Warriors.

“I know Bron. I know how locked in he is,” Cavaliers forward Tristan Thompson said. “Nothing like this is going to affect his psyche in terms of the Finals. Obviously, the world is crazy nowadays. People have bad intentions. We just got to be there for him and know he’s a tough guy.”

“It’s unfortunate,” said Cavaliers forward Richard Jefferson, one of the league’s most respected veterans. “He does such a great job of not letting those things be a distraction. It sucks, not only for him as a grown man. I think he can handle that. But that feeling of wanting to make sure your kids feel safe, that your family feels safe, I think that is the part that is most frustrating as a man.

“We deal with these types of things on a daily basis. The things that we’ve seen and had to deal with, a lot of times, they might not even get picked up on.”

On Wednesday, James was both downbeat and an eager messenger. He also vowed his focus would be on basketball by tip-off Thursday night.

“It will pass,” James said. “That’s fine. I’m figuring it out. I’m thinking about my kids a lot.”