If you've been under the impression that LeBron James is merely just one of the greatest basketball players of all time, then you haven't been paying attention.
He may be more visible than ever right now as an activist, putting his personal politics front and center and sharing in no uncertain terms what he thinks about the systemic inequality plaguing this country. But that was only the logical next step for an athlete who's proud to follow in the footsteps of past sports greats who used—and risked—their platforms to speak up on behalf of those who don't have a public voice and demand change.
"I'm inspired by the likes of Muhammad Ali, I'm inspired by the Bill Russells and the Kareem Abdul-Jabbars, the Oscar Robertsons—those guys who stood when the times were even way worse than they are today," James told the New York Times recently. "Hopefully, someday down the line, people will recognize me not only for the way I approached the game of basketball, but the way I approached life as an African-American man."
And he's not just talking. He's doing.
With the 2019-2020 NBA season on hold since March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, James and his fellow activist athletes have had more time to focus on their response to the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, considered by those crying out for change to be three more casualties of a virulent pattern of unequal, unjust treatment of Black people in this country.
In 2017, back when James still played for the Cavaliers, police responded to a call that the n-word had been spray-painted on a gate outside James' Los Angeles home.
"My family is safe. At the end of the day, they're safe and that's the most important," he told reporters before Game 1 of the NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors in Oakland, Calif. "But it just goes to show that racism will always be a part of the world, a part of America. And hate in America, especially for African-Americans, is living every day."
He counted himself in his synopsis, adding, "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, and we got a long way to go."
When he found out about what happened to Ahmaud Arbery, James was quick to express his anger and frustration.
"We're literally hunted EVERYDAY/EVERYTIME we step foot outside the comfort of our homes! Can't even go for a damn jog man!" he wrote about Arbery on Instagram. "Like WTF man are you kidding me?!?!?!?!?!? No man fr ARE YOU KIDDING ME!!!!! I'm sorry Ahmaud(Rest In Paradise) and my prayers and blessings sent to the heavens above to your family!!"
Arbery was killed in February while jogging in Brunswick, Ga., by 34-year-old Travis McMichael, who told authorities that he and his father Gregory McMichael, 64, confronted Arbery because he looked like a man suspected of some local burglaries and Travis shot in self-defense. The two men have been charged with felony murder; their neighbor William "Roddie" Bryan, 50, who recorded the fatal encounter, was also charged with felony murder two weeks later. The arrests weren't made until after Bryan's video was uploaded to a local radio station's website on May 5, prompting a national outcry for justice.
The McMichaels have pleaded not guilty, while Bryan—who, per NBC News, told an investigator that he heard Travis say "f---ing [n-word]" after shooting Arbery—has yet to enter a plea, though his lawyer told reporters that Bryan did not commit any crime and had passed a polygraph test that exonerated him.
And when Floyd died after Minneapolis cop Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes, another deadly confrontation caught on video shot by bystanders, James posted a screenshot from the fatal encounter (blurred as a warning that the image contained "sensitive content") juxtaposed with a photo from 2016 of then-San Francisco 49er Colin Kaepernick taking a knee while the national anthem played to protest police brutality—a move that led to Kaepernick being shunned by the NFL and turned him into a political lightning rod.
"Do you understand NOW!!??!!?? Or is it still blurred to you??" James captioned the image. (Chauvin has yet to enter a plea to second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. The three officers with him, Tou Thao, Thomas Lane and J. Alexander Kueng, have been charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. They have not yet entered pleas, either; Lane is currently free on $750,000 bail and his lawyer told the Minneapolis Star Tribune he planned to bring a motion to have the charges dismissed.)
James was solidly in Kaepernick's corner when the kneeling conversation turned into a loaded national debate and, during last year's NBA All-Star Weekend, James told reporters when asked about the still-unemployed quarterback who had just settled his collusion lawsuit against the NFL: "I stand with Kap. I kneel with Kap. I feel like what he was talking about nobody wanted to listen to. Nobody wanted to really understand where he was coming from."
Some still consider kneeling a slight against the national anthem and the American flag (though Kaepernick and now countless others have explained that that's not the intention, that it's a protest against police brutality and racial injustice), but the NFL has come around. Commissioner Roger Goodell, who two years ago called kneeling during the anthem "divisive," made a video earlier this month in which he stated that he and fellow league officials "admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest."
Critics pointed out that he didn't even mention Colin Kaepernick in his initial statement. A week later, asked about his position on the possibility of the former 49er returning to the league, Goodell told ESPN, "If he wants to resume his career in the NFL, then it's obviously going to take a team to make that decision. But I welcome that, support the club making that decision and encourage them to do that."
Though still divided, public opinion largely seems to be smiling in hindsight on the quiet knee in the wake of weeks of widespread protests, triggered at first by Floyd's death but which rapidly expanded to honor Arbery, Taylor and a long list of Black lives unnecessarily lost, as well as demand real systemic change.
The demonstrations have largely been peaceful, but clashes with police and instances of vandalism and looting have battled for the spotlight.
This month, James also re-invoked Fox News host Laura Ingraham's 2018 comment that James should "shut up and dribble"—an air ball when it comes to advice but which became the name of James' three-part Showtime series examining the changing role of athletes in the public arena in these fraught political times.
"You thought I would [zipped-lip emoji]??...I'm louder than EVER," James promised.
And he was already pretty loud, though in more of an actions-speak-louder sort of way.
In addition to the three NBA championships and four league MVP Awards, not a year of his already legendary career has gone by without James coming up with a new way to give back, pay it forward or otherwise help lift up the generations following in his wake with the tools they need to succeed. His vision started with the kids in his hometown of Akron, Ohio, where he was raised by a single mom and benefited from mentors taking him under their wing on his road to becoming, first, the best prep school basketball player in the country.
Long before he vowed to never just shut up and dribble, here's how he was already using his voice:
But the 35-year-old father of three is also fully aware that change doesn't happen overnight, nor does it magically arise from our sports heroes' Instagram accounts.
On June 10, James announced the launch of More Than a Vote, a nonprofit organization he and a group of fellow athletes and entertainers have started to combat voter suppression, raise awareness about voting rights, register eligible Black voters and encourage everyone to cast a ballot in the presidential election on Nov. 3.
James and Maverick Carter, his pal since childhood and partner in SpringHill Entertainment, are providing the first wave of funding for the group and calling upon their deep-pocketed friends and colleagues to keep the money flowing.
"Because of everything that's going on, people are finally starting to listen to us—we feel like we're finally getting a foot in the door," James told the New York Times, while discussing his latest venture. "How long is up to us. We don't know. But we feel like we're getting some ears and some attention, and this is the time for us to finally make a difference."