The Point

The Point: LeBron Brings His Game and Activism to a World Craving Both

by Kevin Ding
Senior Writer

The first game of the season’s continuation was done. It had offered at least some of the familiarity for which we’d been yearning. And midway through his first postgame press conference in Florida, LeBron James offered perspective.

James has as much right as anyone to be annoyed or resentful or even bitter about this COVID-19 curveball considering he had things going awfully well for himself and his team at the time.

Great leaders, however, aren’t self-serving or melodramatic.

“2020 is something that we’ve never seen before,” James said after the Lakers beat the Clippers last week. “We are in the land of the unknown, and things are happening for the first time. So you just take it for what it is. Don’t take the moment for granted, because we are still living and alive—and we’re back to doing what we love to do.”

The next two media questions to James would’ve been difficult for many to answer—inquiring about what James would say to those who felt antagonized by the players kneeling during the national anthem, and probing him about why he personally didn’t kneel before now.

James didn’t just hear the questions; he answered them. He did so with words that helped further understanding.

He was resolute with his first answer, speaking in the matter-of-fact manner of someone voicing his truth—an apt phrase he has taken to using. The gist was: “No matter what you do in life, you’re always going to have people that will try to pick apart whatever you do. But if you’re passionate and you’re true and you’re authentic to whatever your cause is, then it doesn’t matter.”

James was humble with his second answer, crediting Colin Kaepernick for teaching him “a lot” about the deeper purpose of kneeling, unrelated to the flag or any soldiers. Said James: “I wasn’t fully educated. Strengthening the mind, reading, listening, getting as educated as I can be on any situation, on anything that’s going on, that has been always who I am.”

Then came one final question—this one via Zoom webinar and the tech gizmos on the screen in front of him as opposed to the reporters physically surrounding him in Florida—requiring James to pivot that way and also nimbly return to discussing normal basketball stuff: winning, the Lakers-Clippers rivalry and game atmosphere.
“No matter what the cause is, no matter what the bubble is, no fans or fans, basketball is basketball,” James said, “and competitive spirit is competitive spirit.”

As diverse as the projects James is committed to doing might be, there are few things he is as adept at handling as this: media questions coming like arrows from all angles, the whole world watching, critics ready to pounce on any misstep and raise a torch if an opinion crosses a line toward controversy.

As long as the Lakers’ season lasts, James will have this opportunity to remind the world about social justice while being unflinching in his desire to win a fourth NBA championship. He will be the face of the greater NBA franchise and its players in the Black Lives Matter message that management and union agreed needed to be intentional.

For James, we call it an opportunity—because we trust he can make good on it. For just about anyone else on the planet, this responsibility would be stressful beyond belief.

“Play the game at a high level. Bring a championship back to L.A., hopefully. Also continue to push the envelope on creating change for my people.”

That’s how James had summarized his mission upon entering the pandemic-mandated NBA campus. Seemed simple enough. Doable, for sure.

Only because it’s LeBron.

LeBron James

The second game brought no questions about social justice, with reporters’ focus afterward on the Lakers losing to defending NBA champion Toronto and not enough three-point shots dropping. Despite having some thoughts about kneeling for the duration of both the Canadian and U.S. anthems and the uncommon physical commitment that takes, James understood.

He got to share those thoughts after the Lakers’ third game, when he chose a certain shirt to wear to the game, prodding everyone to remember George Floyd’s death from having a knee to his neck in police custody. In his media session, from under a black cap emblazoned with “I am more than an athlete,” James again volleyed back and forth from social justice discourse to traditional basketball chatter.

The mere fact that the majority of James’ media time after such a meaningful game—one that clinched the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference for the Lakers—was comfortably spent on non-basketball discussion is a testament to how people in and around the NBA are all on the same page in the current climate. It also reflects how much passion James has to pour onto this page.

“There were so many conversations before we got here that this right here, the bubble, us playing basketball, would take away from the main thing,” James said. “I think it’s been the absolute opposite of that. It’s given us the opportunity to every single day speak about, feel passionate about, whatever is going on in your personal life, whatever is going on in society. Us trying to make a change. Being dynamic. Being heard. And using this platform, which is the NBA, the most popular game in the world.”

One thing going on with James to make a change is orchestrating More Than a Vote, a nonprofit organization helping with voter education and eligibility.

“Leadership is a very dynamic thing. It’s key to anything in this world,” James said. “No matter if you’re talking about sports or politics or households and running a family, you have to have a leader that you feel confident in.”

LeBron James

We discussed last week how James’ candidacy for NBA MVP should be heightened by greater appreciation for his leadership and team-building skills that can’t be rated by sports statistics.

The good thing is that the intangibles James brings to the real world have become pretty impossible to miss. However much James credits Kaepernick’s strength to step out in 2016-17, it’s only accurate to rewind to 2012 and remember James’ own role further back in this chain reaction.

James’ decision to speak up after the death of Florida youth Trayvon Martin was instrumental in raising awareness back then. James posted to his Twitter account a photo of his Miami Heat team all wearing hoodies, including the hashtag “#WeAreTrayvonMartin.”

Martin was 17 then. James’ older son, Bronny, turns 16 in a couple months. James has said repeatedly that being a father has heightened the impact of world events on him.

James has also increasingly accepted the expectation that much of the world wants to hear from him about world events.

Two years later in Charlotte after a Heat playoff game, James came forward to address then-Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s 2014 racially charged recorded comments: “It’s unacceptable. It’s unacceptable in our league. It doesn’t matter if you're white, Black, Hispanic, whatever, all across the races. It’s unacceptable. And as a commissioner of our league, you have to make a stand and you have to be very aggressive with it. I don’t know what it’s gonna be, but you just can’t have that in our league.”

As James says now in brushing off how “there’s always going to be people who won’t agree,” no one can be all things to all people. But James being himself—and doing all the things he feels are right—is covering a lot of bases these days.

After the Lakers’ fourth game back Wednesday, James was more, not less, resolute about the need for social change.

“We just want better,” James said. “As a Black community, we’re literally not asking for a lot. For the (expletive) we went through for the last 400 years, the fact that we’re just asking for equality is like the lower tier of what we deserve, to be completely honest.”

2020 is the moment, as James said, and he is not taking it for granted.

He is aware how much people have been craving basketball, and he wants to give it to them. Before leaving Los Angeles and entering the isolation of the NBA campus in Florida, James said: “It never crossed my mind that we did not need to play this beautiful game of basketball that brings so many people together, that brings happiness, that brings joy.”

“I’m happy to have a platform where not only people will gain joy by the way I play the game, by the way our team plays the game,” James said, “but also for what I’m able to do off the court.”

It’s a delicate balance … basketball and activism at a time when the world is craving both.

But when you’re third all-time in points, eighth all-time in assists, you know how well you can multitask.

* * *

Kevin Ding is an independent sports writer, and the statements and views expressed by him do not necessarily represent the views of the Los Angeles Lakers.

To catch up on all of Kevin Ding's in-depth Lakers stories, visit The Point home page.

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