I have called my tiny community a world, and so its isolation made it; and yet there was among us but a half- awakened common consciousness, sprung from common joy and grief, at burial, birth, or wedding; from a common hardship in poverty, poor land, and low wages; and, above all, from the sight of the Veil that hung between us and Opportunity.
-- W.E.B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk, 1903
The arc of any group of people is fluid, never static, and never settled. A family can go from rags to riches in one generation -- and, vice versa -- depending on circumstance. To consider anything “complete” when it comes to a community’s success or failure is myopic in the extreme. A person with any sense of self and of his or her own shortcomings is never complete. Neither are people.
This is where we meet LeBron James this morning, by any material measure a man in full, wanting nothing -- or, perhaps more accurately, having access to anything he might want -- in the midst of his seventh straight appearance in The NBA Finals. He has, this season, broken still more records, including surpassing Michael Jordan as the game’s all-time leading scorer in the playoffs. He is going for his fourth ring -- only 26 men in the history of the game have won more.
He lives among the one percenters in America, the richest of the rich, his particular skill -- playing basketball -- valued along the lines of the nation’s top hedge fund managers and actors and doctors. And yet, someone felt compelled to spray paint the N-word (plural) on the gate of a home he owns in Brentwood, Calif., last Wednesday morning. None of his family members were at the home or even in the state; they were at the family home in his hometown of Akron, Ohio.
And so, on the eve of The Finals, James had to answer to a slur, and in the process, give it meaning, context, confirmation and power.
None of us, as of this writing, have any idea who wrote that on James’ home, or why. It could be as simple as a drunk whose inebriation unleashed his or her innermost demons. It could have been a handful of people who gained access to information -- “that’s LeBron’s house” -- through innocent or nefarious means. Their ability to bring further harm to James or his family could be nonexistent. It could have been anyone.
And this is what is unnerving about it.
We have seen, in the last month, a self-described white supremacist murder two people on a train in Portland -- two white people, who were coming to the aid of a Muslim women that the supremacist was verbally harassing. Another alt-right supporter killed a black U.S. Army lieutenant at a bus stop at the University of Maryland while the lieutenant was visiting friends. A 28-year-old man picked out and murdered a 66-year-old African-American after the younger man went to New York with the express purpose of killing a black person. And, there was a noose left inside the new National Museum of African-American History and Culture.
There’s no pattern there: just a series of seemingly random acts of physical and emotional violence, where race was most assuredly the catalyst. (And, yes, before some of you descend into Whataboutism, a lot of black people killed a lot of other black people in Chicago this weekend. There are lots of reasons for that continuing carnage, if you care to do some real research. If you’re an honest person, you may learn something.)
Yes, James is rich and has access to state-of-the-art security, both human and electronic. You can say the chances of something bad happening to him or someone in his family is beyond remote. And, that’s true. Until it isn’t.
Whoa, you may say. As far as we know, no one has threatened James with physical violence. True. Then let us consider Bill Russell -- who was, in 1971 dollars, very rich, and famous, when vandals broke into his home in Reading, Mass., that year, defecated in his bed and spread the excrement along the walls of the bedroom. No, that is not how everyone in Reading felt about Russell living in their neighborhood. That fact was of cold comfort to Russell, one imagines, as he cleaned up his home.
Wait, you say; that was three-plus decades ago! Okay. Consider Tiger Woods, who’s spent the better part of two decades identifying himself as “Cablinasian,” an amalgam of his white, black, Native American and Asian roots, which is his perfect right as a human being. No one should be forced to choose from among the different races and creeds of their ancestors to self-identify if they do not choose to do so.
Yet the arrest report from his DUI incident last week in Florida does not identify him as Cablinasian -- which is, again, the way he has specifically, and repeatedly, said he wants to be identified. As far as the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office is concerned, Woods is black.
Why is always a great question. It cuts through the noise, forces a resolution.
Fact: the clear sky is blue.
Because the white light produced by the sun contains all the colors on the spectrum. And those colors pass through the gases and air particles that are in the air. Those gases and particles act as prisms, separating the white light. And the color blue “scatters,” or is visible to our eyes, more often than the other colors because blue waves are shorter than the other colors’ waves.
So, why? Why did they paint the slur on James’s house? Of all the houses of all the (very) rich people in Brentwood, they/he/she went to James’ house, and used that word. Why?
We can only guess for now, of course. But James, being different than many who have excelled on the court over the years, could provide the clues.
For years, he has been more comfortable than just about any superstar of his wattage speaking out about non-basketball issues, from Trayvon Martin to Tamir Rice. He openly supported Hillary Clinton for president. He made the decision to leave Cleveland, sending that franchise and city roiling as he formed the SuperFriends in Miami, and made the decision to return to Cleveland, sending the team and city into ecstasy as he formed a second super team. Rarely has a player used his individual free-agent power so willingly and without apology.
And he has done so not only as the league’s best player for almost all of those years, but as someone who has does so with no concern for what could happen to his tentacles in the business and entertainment worlds.
For his part, James said when asked about it how he understood why Emmett Till’s mother insisted his casket be open at his funeral, so that people would be forced to see what a lynching victim looked like. He wasn’t comparing what happened to him with what happened to Till, though some who care more about hot takes than reasoned discussion went that way. The point James was making is that you can’t sweep racism under the rug. You have to confront it wherever it is and however it expresses itself, the way that Taliesin Meche and Rick Best did on that train in Portland.
It’s been more than a decade since James began the process of empowering his circle of close friends -- Maverick Carter, Randy Mims and Rich Paul -- three-fours of who constitute LRMR Marketing, James’ multimedia hub -- by not just giving them opportunity, but challenging them to continue learning in the business world in order to go out on their own.
Carter, still James’ business manager, is now also CEO of SpringHill Entertainment, which produces content for television, films and digital platforms -- including the shows “Survivor’s Remorse” and “The Wall”. Carter is just as comfortable doing content deals at Warner Brothers, where he has an office and with whom SpringHill has a multi-year deal, as he is sitting courtside at Cavaliers games.
Paul started Klutch Management in 2012, and when James left CAA to become Paul’s client, the howls were audible throughout the league: Paul’s company was a vanity project with a clientele of one, and he was wholly unqualified to represent James, much less anyone else.
But Paul engineered James’ return to Cleveland in 2014 -- as seamless and successful a gambit as James’ departure to Miami in 2010 was botched from a PR standpoint. Today, Klutch not only represents James, but has a wide and varied client list – Washington Wizards guard John Wall, Phoenix Suns guard Eric Bledsoe, Cavs center Tristan Thompson and guard J.R. Smith, Philadelphia 76ers guard Ben Simmons and Detroit Pistons guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope are among his players.
“The smartest person in the room is the guy that knows what he doesn’t know. Even Ali had a coach, and he was the Greatest.”
The company has negotiated $544 million in new contracts in a three-year period, including deals for Bledsoe ($70 million), Thompson ($80 million) and Smith ($57 million) that few thought were possible, even in the NBA’s exploding market.
Did being James’ agent help Paul get other clients? Most assuredly. Did being Michael Jordan’s agent help David Falk get more clients? Same answer.
“The one thing I knew was what I didn’t know,” Paul said during an interview with Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas that will run this week on NBA TV. “The smartest person in the room is the guy that knows what he doesn’t know. Even Ali had a coach, and he was the Greatest.”
Yes, James’ excellence got Carter, Mims and Paul audiences with the likes of Warren Buffett. But they didn’t take the knowledge that Buffett gave them and do what so many who come into sudden money and fame do -- the record label, the quick score. They didn’t settle. They learned. And, now, they are capable of making big moves on their own. Paul hasn’t been on James’ payroll in more than a decade.
“Where there’s opportunity, you have to be capable of actually doing it,” Paul told Thomas. “’Cause it’s a lot of work. Somebody can give you center stage, and the mike. But if you can’t sing, the crowd’s going to boo you. And those boos (represent) millions of dollars in this business.”
Yet the relationship is not one-sided -- at least not in the way you might imagine.
"We’ve been around this whole thing. We’ve seen it all. We kind of grew up together. To know that they’re not going to sugar coat anything with me, no matter whether I like it or not, it means everything.”
“The biggest thing that Randy, Maverick and Rich has given me is someone that, if I’m messing up, they’ll say, ‘what the hell are you doing?,’ ” James said Saturday. ”’What are you doing? You need to snap back. Whatever it is you’re doing, that’s not the way we do things.’ And when you have people around like that that’s not just along for the ride and just saying ‘yes,’ saying you’re doing well even when you’re not, that shapes you. It shaped me to become who I am today. Because they stay on me constantly. If it’s something they don’t see that’s in my right judgment or something that we’ve worked so hard (on), then they’ll tell me.
“We have that open dialogue and we have that respect for one another as men that allows me to not only be a better basketball player, but a better man, a better husband, a better friend, things of that nature. And a better dad … they’ve allowed me to be comfortable being me.”
Ruminate on that last sentence for a moment. All of us, no matter our station, present different personas to the world, depending on where we are at a moment: confident, curious, humble, alpha, frightened, and on and on. Rarely do we feel comfortable enough around others to show them who we really are. We do so with our real friends. And when you have friends like that, they’re priceless.
And, yes, LeBron James needs friends like that, too.
“I’ve known Maverick since I was five,” James said. “I’ve known Randy since I was 8. And I’ve known Rich since I was 14, 15. We’ve been around this whole thing. We’ve seen it all. We kind of grew up together. To know that they’re not going to sugar coat anything with me, no matter whether I like it or not, it means everything.”
The droning, inane debate about whether James is better than Michael Jordan reached fever pitch last week, before The Finals began. Again: you can’t compare people who played in different eras, under entirely different rules, in any meaningful way. Just “adjusting” for the 3-point line, for example, misses the point entirely. The 3-pointer wasn’t a major part of the NBA game during the majority of Jordan’s career. We have no idea how he would have incorporated it into his game if it had been, or how many more layups and dunks and free throws he would have made in today’s small-ball era, with next to no rim protection and hard fouls all but eliminated from the game.
It’s a pointless, unproveable argument. And what James has accomplished, and what he represents -- a wholly self-made person, who has helped others like himself become the best version of themselves, too -- is so much more important than whether the Cavs come back from their 2-0 Finals deficit. They may. They may not. But LeBron James is already one of the all-timers, and it’s time we stop acting like this is still somehow up for debate.
Team Of The Week
Golden State Warriors (2-0): The crazy thing is, Cleveland has had a lot of good moments in the first two games of The Finals, but it hasn’t mattered, because Kevin Durant has been that dominant. “He’s championship basketball,” Shaun Livingston said late Sunday night. “That’s what he’s been playing. You can tell he’s a man on a mission. Offensively, that’s what the world sees. But what I see is defensively, he’s changing the game defensively…he’s the reason we’re able to be the way we are.”
Team Of The Weak
All non-Maryland Lacrosse Foes: The Terrapins captured both the men’s and women’s NCAA national championships last week: the women with a 16-13 win over Boston College; the men with a 9-6 win over Ohio State that was the team’s first national title since 1975.
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