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.
When Barkley and James had their recent public spat based on comments Barkley made criticizing James’ competitiveness, James fired back with a long list of publicized mistakes Barkley has made and said he couldn’t allow Barkey “to disrespect [his] legacy.”
Deep down, James knows that people are watching, listening, clicking, and sharing. When he brings up his legacy, he shows that he still hopes that people are watching closely, noticing his stances and contributions. He’s always chosen his words and his battles carefully, and when he uses words like “platform,” he’s generally not talking about the end of the Cavs’ championship parade last June.
James announced in the summer of 2015 that, through a partnership with the LeBron James Family Foundation and the University of Akron, more than 1,100 Akron Public Schools graduates will have the chance to attend the University of Akron tuition-free.
He called the scholarship program “probably one of the best things I’ve ever been apart of” because “as a kid growing up in the inner city and as an African-American kid, you don’t really think past high school because it’s not possible or because your family can’t support you. For us to be able to do something like this … is very special. It means so much.”
In addition to the college scholarships, the his family foundation funds programs such as “Wheels For Education” and the “I Promise Network,” based on James’ promise to Akron Public Schools students that he will “always be there for you guys.”
Through the foundation’s work, third graders have attended technology camps, University of Akron students have received specialized training to help mentor “I Promise” students in Akron middle schools, and Akron Public Schools students of various ages have participated in field trips, community events, and leadership programs all while being provided equipment, clothing, and technology they otherwise would not have had.
James believes in leading by example.
At last summer’s ESPY’s awards, James and longtime NBA friends Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul made a public call for change and social justice. All four spoke, with Anthony first saying that we “can not ignore the realities of the current state of America.” After Paul and Wade called for athletes to use their platforms to fight prejudice and racism, James said he was making “a call to action, to educate, speak up, use our influence and renounce all violence.”
All that was different for James that night is that he was reading from a teleprompter, wearing a tuxedo and following the show’s time guidelines. James has spoken out against police violence, gun violence, racism his children may face as they grow older and, most recently, against President Donald Trump’s ban on immigrants and refugees from certain countries.
“We should all continue to speak up and fight for ideas that bring people together regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, religious beliefs or any other differences,” he said recently.
If James was just a middle of the road player, or even an occasional all-star, some of his quotes and chosen causes would go unnoticed. But he’s been making news with every sneeze, every sixth dribble, and just about every opinion he’s shared for 15 years now, and especially since he returned to Cleveland in 2014 following a four-year vacation in Miami that included winning two NBA titles with the Miami Heat.
This is a player who has always been careful and calculated down to the letter in which he announced his return to Northeast Ohio. Perhaps you’ve read it. He embraced his home region, the business left unfinished upon his departure and said he’d thought of himself as a kid looking up both to the player and person he’d become. He addressed the state of the Cavs and his growth on and off the court, but lost in the jubilation of the moment and his return were some words about the bigger picture.
“I feel my calling here goes above basketball,” James wrote. “I have a responsibility to lead, in more ways than one, and I take that very seriously.”
James has stayed true to his word, and he shows no signs of slowing down. After he steps out of his playing prime, he’ll stay firmly entrenched in the prime of his ability to make a positive impact on the community around him.
Even more than his freight train impression coming down the lane for a layup, James’ true power rests in embracing and taking on what comes next.