Over the last month or so, Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James has taken on, in some form or fashion, former NBA star and prominent television analyst Charles Barkley; New York Knicks president Phil Jackson, a New York Daily News reporter, a variety of social and educational causes, and a full schedule of teams trying to knock off the reigning NBA champions.
Both in substance and approach, some of those battles are not like the others. James is not like many other basketball players on the floor, in this era or any other. And over the last few years he’s spoken out on a variety of social subjects in a way few prominent athletes have, solidifying his role as arguably the most important and influential current black athlete in not just Cleveland, but in all of sports.
James built an empire by dazzling on the floor and reaping the rewards, endorsements, and celebrity that follow. He could’ve stopped there. Instead, in recent years he’s embraced his status and the weight his words carry. That’s not to say he’s won every battle he’s taken on in the media or the Twittersphere, or that he’s spoken out on every subject some feel he should have.
James knows he’ll be heard. He knows he’ll make headlines. By now, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest he thinks he can, and does, make a difference.
Before a game in early February, James was honored at midcourt as the NAACP’s Jackie Robinson Award winner. The award honored his philanthropic endeavors and efforts to encourage youth, and in accepting it, James cited Robinson and Muhammad Ali, among others, as pioneers and role models.
“I’ve got a long way to go to have the kind of impact these great leaders have been able to have,” James told The Hollywood Reporter after receiving the award. “I hope to continue building on the legacy they started.”
Legacy is a bit of a magic word. It’s a complicated word, too, especially with James at just 32 and showing no signs that the end of his basketball career is near.