LeBron James Serves Up Great Reminder About the Power of Sports in Society

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistMarch 30, 2014

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Sports are more than just sports.

Everyone knows it, no matter whether they admit it. I know it. You know it. Even those who attempt to trivialize the existence of professional sports know it.

We all know it.

On Saturday, LeBron James reminded us of it.

Before the Miami Heat's victory over the Milwaukee Bucks, James invited Ebony Nettles-Bey, a 16-year-old hoops aficionado with cancer, to join his team in pregame warm-ups.

Nettles-Bey also lined up with the Heat, standing in front of James, during the national anthem:

Afterward, James posted pictures of himself and Nettles-Bey on his Instagram:

Here's what the caption of this photo read:

Tonight I had the privilege of meeting and making someone dream come dream. Basketball has put me in position that I will never take for granted. Being a hero to this girl Ebony is the reason that I keep going every single day! She was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer out of nowhere towards the end of last year and force her to be home schooled and away from her friends. But didn't stop her from doing what she loves more than anything and that's playing basketball at Verona High outside of Milwaukee. Ebony your strength, courage and energy is out of this world and u will win and defeat this. I just know it! Love you forever and I got your back and front! #EbonyMetLeBron #CancerWho #EbonyEqualsStrong #StriveForGreatness 

Some of you might remember Nettles-Bey from the popular Twitter campaign "#LeBronMeetEbony," which gained serious traction earlier this year and served as the foundation for the eventual meeting. It was yet another shining example of how powerful, how influential social media has become.

But the actual interaction between James and Nettles-Bey was a step above everything, more meaningful than the Twitter campaign itself. 

Meeting James was Nettles-Bey's dream. That's not hyperbole; it was actually her dream. That's what she, in her own words, lived for.

"Oh my God," she told ESPN's Rick Reilly in February. "I'd probably start crying. That would just about be everything I ever wanted. I mean, there's your life right there. That's what you live for." 

Remove Nettles-Bey's situation from the equation for a second—but only a second—and her words could seem silly.

Professional athletes are role models, a responsibility most of them have come to accept and those on the outside looking in have come to embrace. Yet there's still a tendency for others to judge those who ennoble them.

Athletes, however rich or famous, are people. They don't have superpowers. James is not a supernatural being sent to Earth from the heavens above tasked with saving the world.

Put simply, James is an incredible athlete and master of his craft in a position of power that reaches people of all ages on different levels. 

This is where any "silliness" dissipates into nothing. You don't need to share Nettles-Bey's infatuation or love of the game and James. You don't even need to understand it; you just need to accept it.

Accept that sports, on every level imaginable, can be an escape, an inspiration to fight harder and live better. As someone who coped with the loss of two parents before graduating high school by (poorly) hooping and spending hours upon hours learning and writing about the game of basketball, brazenly fantasizing about the opportunity to do what I do now, I'll attest to its profound importance.

For Nettles-Bey, it's been even more important.

Reilly's feature is worth a read. It details how Nettles-Bey's competitive fire has aided her fight against cancer. From playing games in between chemotherapy sessions to using basketball as a means to "never, ever" complain, her love of the game extends well beyond James.

But basketball's mystique—specifically at the NBA level—is at its best when those in the spotlight understand its orphic significance. For all the criticism he's engendered in the past, James has always helped cultivate the bigger picture.

Even when he was the Association's most reviled villain (2010), a sense of responsibility and desire to champion community projects never eluded him. His infamous decision was, in so many ways, narcissistic and revolting, the byproduct of an exuberant ego colliding with ESPN's ubiquitous hold on an already disquisitive NBA fanbase.

That same decision also generated millions of dollars for charity. Then of CNBC, Darren Rovell wrote that the show generated an excess of $2 million for the Boys & Girls Club of America. Later, per The Associated Press (via ESPN), that figure reportedly exceeded $3 million. James talked about the responsibility that accompanies his status as an NBA star:

I know a lot comes with being a professional athlete. That's also being a role model to a lot of kids that look up to me. This automatically comes with it. And I have nothing but time for kids. I could easily be at home and just relaxing. ... But the opportunity to be here and giving back to these kids, I'm happy to do it.


It's impossible to overstate what James does on the basketball court, but what he's done off it since arriving in Miami is equally impressive. Aside from his televised decision, James has found himself staging meet-and-greets that barely resemble traditional meet-and-greets.

In April 2012, James extended a personal invitation to Thiago D'Elia, another teenage cancer patient who idolized the King, to hang out with the Heat, per ESPN's Adam S. Reisinger:

In April 2012, he answered the door at his Georgia home and was greeted by two Miami Heat dancers. They presented the now 17-year-old Thiago with a DVD. When Thiago played the message, he saw James inviting him to spend time with the Heat in Miami.

"Thiago rarely is speechless," Laura said. "I know my son well, and he gets to a point where he's not only speechless, but he has to say something just to say something. He was so beyond himself that night."

D'Elia went on to join the Heat at practice and sit courtside at a game against the Detroit Pistons. James gifted him with a headband, a pair of his signature shoes and a signed basketball and jersey.

After easily defeating the Pistons, James capped off his gesture by removing the shoes he was wearing, grabbing a Sharpie and signing the "sneakers for Thiago before the two said their goodbyes."

"When they were leaving, they all gave him a really strong hug," D'Elia's mother said. "LeBron was very humble; he really embraced Thiago more than once—several times throughout the game, as he was being interviewed postgame. It was really warm and touching."

Last January, James, along with teammate Dwyane Wade, granted a similar wish to Joey Cawyer, who suffered from terminal brain cancer, according to KREM.com's Adam Lewis:

"Where’s Joey? Where’s Joey?"

LeBron James walked past the throng of fans who stood hoping for an autograph. The Miami Heat had just blown a 13-point halftime lead in a 92-90 loss to the Portland Trailblazers on Jan. 10. But something else was on James’ mind.

"I have to meet Joey," he said.

James saw Joey Cawyer, a 23-year-old from Cheney, Wash., confined to his wheelchair. James bent down and gave him a hug. He turned to the man’s mother and told her to stay strong.

Beyond The Buzzer provided pictures of the occasion, along with a screenshot of the Facebook message that facilitated James' union with Cawyer:

LeBron James and Dwyane Wade transcended basketball and used their celebrity in the most positive light on Thursday night. Thinking it was a longshot, Nicole Peterson posted on LeBron James’ Facebook page on Wednesday night asking the superstar if he could grant her friend, Joey Anderson, a dying wish. Suffering from brain cancer and told he doesn’t have much time left, Anderson, the ultimate Miami Heat fan, just wanted to see a game live. LeBron not only saw the message, but he delivered, and even brought along his BFF, Dwyane Wade, after the loss to the Blazers and took photos and signed autographs for Joey.

Less than a year ago, James, once again with Wade, paid tribute to Bella Rodriguez-Torres, who was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer at only fours years old. She passed away last May at the age of 10. Soon after, James and Wade scrawled "#LiveLikeBella" across their sneakers for Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Indiana Pacers, per Yahoo Sports' Dan Wetzel.

"You have a little girl, or any kid that loses her life over an illness," James explained, via Wetzel. "It's very sad. It's very sad…what happened to Bella puts everything in perspective."

I could go on. James has reached out to fans on so many different occasions, using his celebrity to touch those less fortunate than himself, who are often laboring through hellish, inconceivable struggles.

Reilly even noted that James receives "thousands" of requests like these every year. And before James even met Nettles-Bey, sources told Reilly it was going to happen, that James was going to make her dream come true.

That's power. That's James using his power, constructively channeling the dynamism of basketball.

None of which is to say James is a saint, or that he's the only player making himself available to those in need. He's not.

Like many others, I also cannot pretend to comprehend what kids like Nettles-Bey, D'Elia, Cawyer and Rodriguez-Torres went through or continue to go through. I understand what the game can mean to those left behind, but cannot relate to its importance to ones actually battling potentially fatal diseases, among other horrifying circumstances.

But I do know the game of basketball holds clout, that one of its greatest powers is its ability to inspire and—often more importantly—distract.

Remember, this isn't so much about James as it his position. Basketball has enabled him to embolden these kids, to trigger hope in so many others. And it's not the points he scores, the assists he dishes or the championships he wins that make him so appealing. Not entirely. It's the stage on which he plays, the spotlight in which he lives.

It doesn't take life-altering hardships to recognize this. Rooting for your favorite team or player in any sport, or playing any sport, can run interference for job- or family-related stress, or something simpler. Or it can do what it did for Cawyer, what it's doing for Nettles-Bey.

Pleasant interferences also aren't limited to sports. Anything that incites passion can become a productive distraction during trying times, providing what you need, whatever it may be.

The beauty of basketball and sports in general is that they can be among those many things, satisfying any number of needs, serving a variety of purposes for different people. There's nothing trivial or superficial about that, nothing immaterial about the transcendent impact James can have and continuously chooses to have.

There's nothing inconsequential about sports when they relate to life off the court, field, rink, pitch—whatever.

"It never gets old," James told the AP in 2011.

Fostering hope never does. 

Parenting hope never will.


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