“Congrats @KingJames. Now get 100,000 #Ohio citizens out to vote.”
For 17 pulsating, if polarizing years, James has plied his trade magnificently on the hardwood. But going on a decade, the meaning of LeBron is now twofold, the ultimate dual threat: Ageless Basketball Superstar/Veteran of America’s New Culture Wars.
To engage only in the eternal Superman vs. Batman sports debate today — Michael Jordan or LeBron: Who really is the greatest of all time? — is to miss the whole of James’s career and legacy. He may ultimately mean more off the court than he has meant on it.
Long before anyone knew the names George Floyd or Breonna Taylor, or heard of places such as Ferguson, Mo., or Kenosha, Wis., in the year before Black Lives Matter was founded, James pioneered the renaissance of social conscience among athletes.
When James, Dwyane Wade and the entire Miami Heat team posed for a photo wearing black hooded sweatshirts in March 2012 to protest the killing the month before of Trayvon Martin, a new era of athlete activism had begun.
Not since the late 1960s and 1970s — when tennis legend Arthur Ashe used his platform to fight South African apartheid, and Muhammad Ali refused to enter the military draft during the Vietnam War, citing his religious beliefs, and Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City — had prominent sports stars shown moral and social conviction, putting themselves out there in a way that made sponsors and their organizations cringe.
James didn’t care about the consequences. He began focusing attention on the discord between law enforcement and the Black community, posting about the wrongs of society to his combined 120 million Instagram and Twitter followers. He befriended President Barack Obama and later found an enemy in President Trump, who began using James, the NFL’s kneeling-in-protest Colin Kaepernick and other athletes of color as referendums on patriotism.
James always had a serrated edge as an NBA player and power-broker. First the diva phenom who skipped college, then the ruthless businessman who played teams like violins during free agency, then persuading his talented all-star friends to join him on turbocharged teams that destroyed competitive balance.
But away from the game, James represented something even more abrasive. He risked polarization among his own fans and sponsors. He wasn’t a Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods, who, when they occupied center stage, were famously wary of wading into political issues.
And then everything changed.
Almost a decade after James and his teammates donned that hoodie, being woke no longer put athletes or their sponsors at risk of going broke. Listening to the oppressed, showing empathy for the most unfortunate among us, became a thing.
Nike and other multinational corporations put their fingers in the air to see which way the economic wind was blowing. Nike featured Kaepernick in an empowering social-justice commercial and gave him his own apparel and sneaker line. The company supported James’s convictions and causes.
In essence, Nike said to hell with the curmudgeons calling all these virtue-signaling athletes un-American ingrates. To hell with a president who seemed to think that James, Stephen Curry and other Black athletes were getting too outspoken for their own good.
Meanwhile, many in the next generation of consumers were protesting, embracing Black Lives Matter irrespective of their creed or color.
Because he has so many interlocking business tentacles, James was bound to step in it at some point. And he did, lecturing Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey for supporting Hong Kong’s independence against mainland China. James sided with a government known for its human rights atrocities, for running sweatshops of workers lacing up the next line of LeBron James-branded Nikes.
It was a bad look, hypocritical at best. After a year of China’s essentially boycotting the NBA and costing the league billions of dollars, its embargo was finally lifted just a few days ago. James and the league were financially bludgeoned, but he took his medicine and remained unbowed.
And there he was Sunday night, smiling and mugging for the cameras, bear-hugging teammates, saying he would never stop fighting for the right things. The pandemic had interrupted the season, which resumed amid a racial reckoning that the NBA and its players tightly embraced under quarantine conditions. At the end of it all, the culture warrior raised the championship trophy and the finals MVP trophy, finishing off the league’s longest season.
LeBron James is not just the NBA’s first Mr. October; he’s a player and a man for all seasons.