The first time I ever heard LeBron James talk about anything “political, ” it did not reflect well on him. It was in February 2007, shortly after former NBA center John Amaechi, in his autobiography called Man in the Middle, became the first NBA player to come out as gay. While former point guard Tim Hardaway notoriously said “I wouldn’t want him on my team (he later not only apologized but became a gay rights advocate), most big NBA names, from Shaquille O’Neal to Grant Hill to Charles Barkley, supported Amaechi. But LeBron wasn’t one of them. “With teammates you have to be trustworthy, and if you’re gay and you’re not admitting that you are, then you are not trustworthy,” LeBron told ESPN , expressing what was widely considered the silent player consensus at the time. This was extremely early in LeBron’s career (he was only 23 and hadn’t even reached the NBA Finals yet; he has done so ten times since), and he was still figuring out his way in the NBA and in the wider culture. He was a great player in the league but he was not yet the league, and he didn’t want to make waves among his teammates. And, in a measure of how long ago 2007 was, he faced almost no backlash for his comments.
Seven years later, when Jason Collins became the first active gay player in the NBA, and James had won two NBA titles and four MVP awards, he had a clearer, more empathetic answer: “It was a strong thing to do,” James said. “I think it’s very cool, man … I’ve got the utmost respect for Jason.” The tides had changed in the NBA — when Collins announced that he was gay in Sports Illustrated, his jersey quickly passed LeBron’s as the top-selling in the league — but LeBron had changed too. He no longer stood quietly in the background on social issues; far from it. Just two years earlier, teammate Dwyane Wade and rest of the Miami Heat had posted a photo of the whole team wearing hoodies in honor of Trayvon Martin, and while there was considerable pushback (including, it is mostly forgotten now, from Kobe Bryant, who said, “don’t jump to somebody’s defense just because they’re African American. You sit and you listen to the facts just like you would in any other situation, right?”) It was widely considered a major step forward in athlete activism, in players understanding the power and reach their voices carried. It was the final step in LeBron’s personal evolution — his longtime business partner Maverick Carter said it was “the natural evolution and growth of a man” — but the beginning of a larger movement. The sports world hasn’t been the same since, and neither has LeBron.
This Wednesday, LeBron, under circumstances no one would have possibly imagined, will attempt to win his fourth NBA title, with his third team, when his Lakers take on the Miami Heat (with whom he won two titles nearly a decade ago) in the NBA Finals. LeBron will turn 36 years old in December, far past the typical expiration date for a basketball superstar. But he has arguably never been better, as evidenced by his jaw-dropping performance in the clinching Game Five of the Western Conference Finals, during which he scored 38 points and notched a triple-double. He’s still at the pinnacle of his incredible career, and he has a good chance of passing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the next couple of years to become the league’s all-time scoring leader, an even more remarkable achievement considering he is not an inherently pure scorer like Michael Jordan or Carmelo Anthony. (He’s also top ten in assists all time.) During ESPN’s airing of The Last Dance miniseries during quarantine, it became fashionable to say that LeBron would never be the player Jordan was, but as LeBron keeps playing, he extends his career lead over Jordan in nearly every major category … and he just might catch him in titles too.
But it’s off the court where LeBron has made his biggest strides over the last decade. He hasn’t just provided a model for athlete activism (and athlete entrepreneurism, for that matter), he has become a model for all philanthropy and celebrity activism. LeBron is probably the best basketball player ever. But that might not even be what he ends up being best known for. And over this next week and next month, the two major components of his legacy are coming to a head simultaneously.
Fox yakker Laura Ingraham once told LeBron to “shut up and dribble,” and that phrase so neatly summed up what he had been trying to avoid that he created a TV show for Showtime and named it that. LeBron has now been at the forefront of the social justice movement in sports for nearly a decade, from wearing an “I Can’t Breathe” shirt for Eric Garner before a game in 2014 (Kobe had gotten with the program by then and was wearing his own the next night) to calling for gun control measures in 2015 to hashtagging #BlackLivesMatter after the shooting of Philando Castile in 2016. But the rise of Donald Trump elevated social activism in the NBA just as it did in the rest of the country, and LeBron, who hosted a rally for Hillary Clinton in 2016, began to speak out even more, most famously calling Trump “U Bum” after the president pretended to uninvite the Golden State Warriors from the White House after the team had already said they weren’t going to visit. In many ways, this was merely an extension of his community activism, including his I Promise public school in Akron, which has been so successful that it has served as a model for public schools across the country. But after Trump’s election, LeBron became a serious political figure, even getting California governor Gavin Newsom to sign the Fair Pay For Play Act for college athletes on LeBron’s television program The Shop.”When Barack Obama spoke at the nationally televised “Graduate Together” program back in May, it was LeBron who was the host of the program, and he didn’t talk about basketball once.
It hasn’t all been perfect; criticisms of LeBron’s hesitance to stand up against the NBA’s dealings with China aren’t necessarily unfounded, even if they tend to be used by bad-faith actors to obscure the issue at hand. But that criticism speaks to his influence as well. LeBron has become a sort of boogeyman character to many figures on the right, who have accused him of “buying” votes (his “More Than A Vote” organization, which he launched this last June specifically to increase Black voter participation, is paying fees and fines of former felons in Florida who can’t vote otherwise) and have even claimed that one of the greatest physical specimens in the history of sports is a “woke coward.” (Trump has started going after him now too.) LeBron’s insistence on staying at the forefront of the political battles — his Twitter feed hasn’t mentioned anything about his NBA title run in more than a week but has pushed constantly for voter outreach efforts and outrage over the lack of an indictment of the officers in Breonna Taylor’s murder — makes him a target but has provided a clear on-ramp for other athletes to turn onto. LeBron wasn’t directly involved with the Bucks’ boycott of a playoff game last month, though he ended up guiding nearly everything that happened afterwards, including a phone call to Barack Obama. But it’s impossible to imagine that historic event, which led to postponements and boycotts in all sports, happening without him.
Ten years ago, being politically active and fighting for social justice were massive risks for any athlete, even one with the power and skills of LeBron. Now there are #BLM banners at baseball games in Minneapolis, WNBA players wearing shirts with bullet holes for Jacob Blake, and NFL commissioners actually saying the words “Black Lives Matter.” None of that happens without LeBron James’ evolution, and increasing comfort with using his influence to promote positive social change in a way no athlete has done in decades. Oh, and he’s still the best player in the NBA (at the age Jordan had already retired) and about to go out and win another title. He’s a dedicated, highly powerful political actor, a right-wing target, a global icon and, oh yeah, maybe the greatest athlete of our times. And he’s about to have the attention of the entire sports world as he attempts to do something unprecedented. LeBron has had the attention of the planet for more than 20 years, longer than he has been a legal adult. But he has never been more vital than right now. And the new Space Jam hasn’t even come out yet.