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LeBron James, the most important athlete in America, explained

How the world’s best basketball player became a political force for racial justice.

LeBron James Laura Ingraham Donald Trump Michael Jordan Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Dylan Scott covers health care for Vox. He has reported on health policy for more than 10 years, writing for Governing magazine, Talking Points Memo and STAT before joining Vox in 2017.

LeBron James is quite possibly the best basketball player who’s ever lived.

I am, of course, hardly an objective party. I have rooted for LeBron James since I was 15 years old, when he first joined the Cleveland Cavaliers.

But even for those who haven’t, James has compiled a résumé that rivals any player in the history of the NBA — up to and including Michael Jordan, widely regarded as the greatest player in the sport’s history.

James has won three championships and four most valuable player awards, for starters, in his 15-year career. In 2018, he surpassed Jordan for the longest streak of games with at least 10 points scored. During last year’s playoffs, when James hit a game-winning three-point jumper to beat the Indiana Pacers, it was instantly compared to one of Jordan’s iconic shots.

LeBron James surpassed the NBA double-digit scoring record with a dunk agains the New Orleans Pelicans in Cleveland, Ohio, on March 30, 2018.
Getty Images

But the 34-year-old James is much more than a living sports legend. He is an actor, a media mogul, and a cultural icon. He rose to the top of his sport at the same time that America was forced to confront its systematic violence against black people, especially young black men, and James has taken up that cause as one of the most famous young black men in the nation. He is perhaps the most socially and politically influential athlete since Muhammad Ali.

When Fox News host Laura Ingraham told James to “shut up and dribble,” it became a national news story. When James called President Donald Trump a “bum” on Twitter, defending players who bucked the tradition of championship teams coming to the White House, it was a headline on the front page of the New York Times. He held a campaign rally for Hillary Clinton during the 2016 campaign.

The 2018 summer reminded us of LeBron’s gravitational force. He signed with the Los Angeles Lakers, the NBA’s biggest franchise, and rebalanced the league. He opened a new public school in his hometown of Akron. Then that very same week, the president insulted this young successful black man’s intelligence on Twitter.

James — LBJ, Bron, the King — has used the platform afforded him as the best player in the NBA at a time of unprecedented popularity for the league to speak out about racial injustice and other political issues. SB Nation’s Tom Ziller wrote that we were living in “the decade of LeBron James.” ESPN ranked him the most famous American athlete (the second most famous in the world) and called him “the most powerful voice in his profession.”

Workers finish hanging a mural of LeBron James on a building in Cleveland on October 30, 2014.
Mark Duncan/AP

So even if you’ve never watched a single second of a professional basketball game, LeBron James is an unavoidable presence in American life. Given his ambitions to build a lasting media empire and the budding speculation that he might someday pursue public office, he will likely stay there for years to come. James is still at the height of his powers whenever he steps onto the basketball court — but his career long ago became a story much bigger than sports.

LeBron James versus Michael Jordan, explained

James was born in Akron, Ohio, to a single mother who was forced at times to move herself and her son to different beds on a regular basis. From an early age, it was clear he had a gift. James was the subject of unprecedented hype while he was still in high school. He was the star of his team at St. Vincent-St. Mary, and their games were shown on ESPN. Sports Illustrated dubbed him “the Chosen One.”

The original Fab Four during freshman season at St. Vincent-St. Mary in 1999-2000. From left: LeBron James, Sian, Willie McGee, and Little Dru.
Phil Masturzo/Akron Beacon Journal/TNS via Getty Images

James was selected by the Cleveland Cavaliers with the No. 1 pick in the 2003 NBA draft. He was 18 years old.

Over the course of his 15-year professional career, this is what he has accomplished:

  • Won three NBA championships, including the first professional sports title for a Cleveland sports franchise in more than 50 years
  • Named the MVP of the NBA Finals three times
  • Collected four regular-season MVP awards
  • Selected to 14 NBA All-Star games and named to 13 All-NBA teams
  • Currently No. 7 in all-time points scored and No. 11 in all-time assists

Heading into the 2018-2019 season, James was still considered the best player in the league. He could very well end up as the top scorer in league history before he retires, as the Ringer’s Zach Kram detailed, and he’s also on track to finish in the top five in assists — meaning he has proven equally excellent at scoring points himself and setting up his teammates to score.

As Deadspin’s Barry Petchesky memorably put it, James is someone “for whom everyone predicted historic greatness” and he then went on to achieve “the even greater greatness displayed by fulfilling every prediction.”

The main blemish on James’s NBA career came in 2010, when he held a much-maligned television special to announce he would leave Cleveland and join the Miami Heat. But he then won two titles with Miami and returned to Cleveland, where he broke the city’s 50-year sports curse by winning the 2016 NBA Finals with a historic comeback against the Golden State Warriors, which had won a league-record 73 games that year.

James has been so good, in fact, that over the past few years, sports pundits and casual fans have begun to ask whether he is even better than Michael Jordan, the six-time champion in the 1990s with the Chicago Bulls, who had been until now universally regarded as the best basketball player of all time. Even Trump couldn’t avoid the comparison when he mocked James on Twitter.

It is, in some ways, a matter of taste. Jordan has twice as many championships and never lost an NBA Final; LeBron’s teams went to eight straight finals, losing five of them, and yet Cleveland’s comeback win against Golden State — in which James led every player on both teams in every significant statistical category — may be more singularly impressive than any of Jordan’s individual titles. Over time, with good health, James is likely to accrue much higher career totals in scoring and other categories than Jordan did — and growing acceptance of advanced statistical measures has further bolstered his case.

The point is, when it comes to James’s performance on the court, the fact that this is a debate even worth having is a testament to his basketball greatness. His record is beyond repute. But James has made his career about more than basketball.

James has become an outspoken critic of racial injustice in America

James grew gradually into a more politically active athlete. He had famously declined in 2007 to sign a letter being circulated by a teammate addressing the Darfur genocide, stating that he did not have enough information. That comment drew criticism, given his extensive business interests in China, the target of the letter. James was also, to be fair, 22 years old at the time. He also later spoke out about the crisis, as ESPN noted, because “he realizes that his voice is powerful and he will be heard.”

In the intervening years, James has been one of the foremost athletes to address politically explosive issues, particularly when the issue is racial injustice and state violence against young black men. In 2012, James and his Miami Heat teammates wore hoodies as a silent protest against the killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman.

In 2014, he called for Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, who had been caught on tape making racist comments, to be forced out of the league. Later that year, James and a few of his Cavaliers teammates, including All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving, wore T-shirts for game warm-ups that said “I Can’t Breathe” to protest Eric Garner’s killing by a New York City police officer.

At the 2016 ESPY awards, a sort of Oscars for sports, James went onstage with some of the NBA’s other biggest stars — Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony, and Dwyane Wade — with a message of social consciousness. James closed the segment directly invoking Ali, perhaps the most politically outspoken athlete in US history:

Tonight we’re honoring Muhammad Ali, the GOAT. But to do his legacy any justice, let’s use this moment as a call to action to all professional athletes to educate ourselves, explore these issues, speak up, use our influence and renounce all violence and, most importantly, go back to our communities, invest our time, our resources, help rebuild them, help strengthen them, help change them. We all have to do better.

This is another way James has distinguished himself from Jordan, who was notoriously reluctant as a player to wade into controversies, though he has more recently talked publicly about the scourge of police violence. And James has occasionally still been criticized for not being forceful enough on particular issues, like the police shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland.

In the Trump era, James has stepped up his political actions. After white nationalists marched in the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, last summer, James pinned the blame directly on Trump, who claimed there had been violence “on many sides,” thereby equating a counterprotest preaching racial tolerance with unrepentant racists.

James took another direct jab at Trump a few weeks later. He came to the defense of Warriors all-world point guard Steph Curry — one of his fiercest rivals on the court, whose team has beaten James’s in three of the past four NBA Finals — after the president criticized Curry over his reluctance to come to the White House to celebrate Golden State’s most recent NBA title. James’s tweet made the front page of the New York Times.

Of course, being a prominent black man who speaks out on racial inequality can make anyone, including James, a target for backlash. In 2017, the Los Angeles Police Department reported that a racial slur had been spray-painted on the front gate of James’s home in the city.

“No matter how much money you have, no matter how famous you are, no matter how many people admire you, being black in America is tough,” James said. ”We got a long way to go for us as a society and for us as African Americans until we feel equal in America.”

Then last February, Fox News host Laura Ingraham attacked James for his criticisms of Trump, using racially charged language to call the basketball star “ungrammatical” and “unintelligible.” She instructed him to “shut up and dribble.”

Those words quickly became a rallying cry for other athletes and fans who sided with James. They also did not have Ingraham’s desired effect on him.

LeBron James is also an actor, businessman, media mogul — and maybe, someday, politician?

LeBron isn’t all basketball and socially conscious tweets. He has developed a taste for show business, with mixed results. An animated series called The LeBrons came and went back a few years back without leaving much of an imprint.

But he found more success in a supporting role in Trainwreck, the 2015 romantic comedy written by and starring Amy Schumer and directed by Judd Apatow. The film made $110 million and earned James some rave reviews.

“James, playing a gently bizarro version of himself, steals the show,” the New Yorker’s Ian Crouch wrote.

To date, a long-rumored, much-speculated-about sequel to Space Jam — the 1996 cult favorite starring Michael Jordan playing basketball with Looney Tunes characters against monstrous invaders from outer space — has not yet materialized. But it appears to finally be in the works after LeBron joined the Lakers.

James is also working behind the scenes. He has designs on becoming a mogul and a triple (or quadruple or quintuple) threat businessman. As ESPN documented in a lengthy feature, James and his team see his career’s second act being “a global entertainment icon.”

He has launched Uninterrupted, envisioned as a first-person media platform for athletes, and founded SpringHill Entertainment, a TV and movie production outfit. These ventures are overseen by Maverick Carter, James’s high school teammate turned business partner.

ESPN attempted to capture the full breadth of the King’s Hollywood ambitions:

Survivor’s Remorse, SpringHill’s first show, a scripted drama, renewed for its fourth season on Starz, about a basketball player balancing fortune and family. Then there’s The Wall, the prime-time NBC game show that premiered in January to roughly 7 million viewers and has already been picked up for 20 more episodes. There’s Cleveland Hustles, an unscripted CNBC series, renewed for a second season, in which Ohio entrepreneurs compete to revitalize distressed neighborhoods. There’s the oft-discussed Space Jam 2, in development at Warner Bros. There’s a feature-length documentary about Muhammad Ali coming for HBO. There’s a comedy in development for New Line Cinema about a guy who pretends to be an NBA draft pick. And there are three other scripted series -- a Cleveland-based family comedy and a sports medicine drama, both sold to NBC, and a comedy about assistants at a sports agency sold to CBS.

There has yet to be a true home run (to mix sports and metaphors) in the entertainment business aside from James’s relatively modest role in a mid-budget romantic comedy. But the star — who could still be in the NBA for another six or seven years, whose shoe and clothing contract with Nike could eventually exceed $1 billion, and who has said that he wants to own an NBA team someday — clearly wants to position himself as more than an athlete.

All this could be a prelude, however, to the big question: Is LeBron James going to run for political office someday?

He’s already waist-deep in politics with his commitment to racial justice. He donated to and hosted events for Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns. He introduced Hillary Clinton for a campaign event she held in Cleveland during the 2016 race. NBC News host Chuck Todd speculated James could become a politician at some point.

In the context of actress Cynthia Nixon’s run for New York governor, Slate’s Jamelle Bouie floated James as a future candidate:

James has dismissed the idea before — though, to be quite honest, it sure sounds like he has given it some thought. From a GQ interview that called him “the greatest living athlete” in no small part because of his social awareness:

“I say no because of always having to be on someone else’s time. From the outside looking in, it seems like the president always has to be there – gotta be there. You really don’t have much ‘me time.’ I enjoy my ‘me time,’” the three-time NBA champion said. “The positive that I see from being the president. … Well, not with the president we have right now, because there’s no positive with him, but the positive that I’ve seen is being able to inspire. Your word has command to it. If you’re speaking with a knowledgeable, caring, loving, passionate voice, then you can give the people of America and all over the world hope.”

There is a reason media outlets seek James’s opinion not just on the Eastern Conference playoffs but also on the most pressing social issues of the day. He gained his platform by being the greatest basketball player in a generation, but he has kept it by proving a thoughtful commentator willing to take a stand on the issues he cares about.

By speculating on a future presidential run, we’ve gotten a few steps ahead of ourselves, obviously. What would James say about Medicare-for-all? Or increasing taxes on the top 1 percent, of which he is a member? Or strengthening environmental protections? Or our diplomatic posture toward North Korea?

For now, the biggest question facing James will always be whether he can win a fourth championship — and a fifth, and a sixth, to match His Airness, Michael Jordan.

But that is far from the end of LeBron James’s story.

LeBron James makes it way through the crowd lining the Cleveland Cavaliers’ NBA Championship parade route in downtown Cleveland on June 22, 2016.
Gene J. Puskar/AP

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