What athlete not named Serena Williams belongs in a POWER issue more than LeBron James? Save for a Golden State Warriors superteam that has stymied LeBron's ambitions for the past couple years, Akron's favorite son is still, by most accounts, the strongest force on a basketball court today. Off the court, King James' empire is vast, spreading into sponsorship deals and media ventures, including a TV show for which I once wrote. Now that LeBron has moved to Los Angeles, he seems to be preparing to stretch his reach further—into media and entertainment—once his knees finally can't take it anymore.
And yet there's still one question of dominance that seems to dog LeBron's every step, no matter where he plays: Is he better than Michael Jordan? This has become one of the sports world's favorite great debates among people who know the sport intimately and those who don't, like myself. The aficionados who regularly watch the NBA say that LeBron is magical on a basketball court; that it defies explanation that someone as big as him can move so quickly and so gracefully; that though his physical gifts are manifold, LeBron's greatest asset is his mind, which can outwit computer simulations of perfect defensive models; that we should feel lucky to live in a time in which we can watch him play the game.
I often choose not to weigh in, but I'm old enough that I can remember an era in which Jordan seemed otherworldly; when guys at my barbershop would get the Jumpman silhouette etched into their fades; when his name was shorthand for greatness and drive ("Be like Mike"); when kids playing pickup basketball would dribble toward the hoop with their tongues lolling out, emulating their idol in the only way their physical ability would allow. Jordan's mythical energy was so powerful that even a kid, such as myself, who got bored watching basketball, begged my parents for an authentic Jordan jersey. When they bought me a less-expensive, screen-printed jersey instead, I wore it all the time. To me, the garment transcended allegiance to the Chicago Bulls and even sports altogether; it signified personal proximity to eminence and grandeur. The amulet offered protection from mediocrity.
It's obvious that LeBron felt similarly in awe of Jordan. Not only has he—for most of his career, save for his brief stint in Miami—played in Jordan's iconic No. 23, he's said before that watching old tape of "His Airness" helped him get over his anxiety about failure. "I think the greatest thing about MJ was that he never was afraid to fail," LeBron once told ESPN The Magazine. "And I think that's why he succeeded so much." And yet if the life LeBron has modeled for himself was intended to mimic that of his idol, he has departed from the blueprint in one important way: speaking his mind.
Back in 2012, following the killing of Trayvon Martin, a black teenager in Florida, LeBron and his Miami Heat teammates posed for a group picture in hoodies. The gesture was a pushback to conservative commentator Geraldo Rivera's absurd assertion that Martin put his own life in jeopardy by donning a sinister hooded sweatshirt. Two years later, LeBron joined a troop of other NBA players in wearing T-shirts emblazoned with "I CAN'T BREATHE," Eric Garner's desperate last words, gasped out to the officer choking him to death. Two years after that, LeBron tweeted out support for Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, two other black men shot to death by police officers. "Sickens me and I shed multiple tears about it all," he wrote.
Throughout much of his playing career, and especially in recent years, LeBron has made it his duty to speak up on the issues of our time, particularly those affecting the black community. But he hasn't just used his own voice to push his own ideas; he's given his huge platform to others as a way to amplify voices that might otherwise be ignored. Earlier this year, for instance, James, who was on his annual postseason break from social media, turned over his Instagram account to young people so they could spread messages of their own—one hoped to solve the problem of rising sea levels in South Florida, another introduced to the greater public a clothing line geared toward making black kids feel good about having dark complexions. Empowering the youth—as well as engaging with politics and social issues—has become as much a part of LeBron's public persona as basketball, and it is perhaps what most distinguishes his career from that of Jordan's.
Decades after I'd lost my Jordan jersey and stopped wearing Nikes every day, I heard about an apocryphal quote attributed to Michael Jordan in a 1995 book. According to the book's author, Sam Smith, in response to a friend asking why he refused to condemn the vehemently racist North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms, Jordan remarked, "Republicans buy sneakers, too." The statement's veracity has been called into question throughout the decades since it was published, and Jordan himself has denied ever saying it. But his inaction on political matters throughout his playing career and into retirement speaks for itself, though what it says is uncertain. Perhaps Jordan did avoid politics in order to amass a larger fortune. Or perhaps he didn't think things were bad enough for him to intervene: In 2016, after decades of apoliticism, a spate of high-profile black deaths at the hands of police finally prompted Jordan to get involved. He pledged $2 million—$1 million to a community policing institute, $1 million to the NAACP—and penned an open letter saying he could "no longer stay silent."
It is true that Republicans buy sneakers. And it is true that LeBron's activism has probably cost him some fans and a few shoe sales, though with a rumored billion-dollar Nike deal, I doubt he or Nike cares much. If anything, LeBron seems even more politically inclined in the years since Donald Trump took office, criticizing and undermining the president whenever the opportunity presents itself. Like when his personal boycott of a Trump hotel in New York rippled out until the entire Cavaliers organization and even other NBA teams joined in.
Surely LeBron's most satisfying anti-Trump barb came in September 2017, when he attacked Trump for paradoxically rescinding an invitation to the White House from Steph Curry after Curry had already declined the invitation. "U bum @StephenCurry30 already said he ain't going!," LeBron tweeted. "So therefore ain't no invite. Going to White House was a great honor until you showed up!" It's maybe odd to call a tweet cathartic and wonderful, but it was those things to many people. Dismissive and thus devastating in tone, it also included a perfect deploying of the word "bum," which is too rarely used to describe the kinds of rich, non-contributing leeches who take from the world and give back very little.
Unsurprisingly, LeBron's political speech has raised the hackles of right-wing TV types. In February of this year, Fox News host Laura Ingraham dedicated a segment to attacking James for criticizing President Trump in an interview. After warning that it is "unwise to seek political advice from someone who gets paid $100 million a year to bounce a ball," Ingraham concluded with a pointed directive to LeBron himself: "Shut up and dribble."
"Shut up and dribble" is a stupid thing to say on a network that regularly solicits political opinions from people like Fabio and Ted Nugent. But it's perhaps the most explicit explanation yet of what many people want from their black athletes in America: silence, obedience and performance. A recklessness with their bones and ligaments, which get snapped and torn and eroded over the years, while being restrained with their thoughts and ideas. A complete exploitation of their physicality coupled with a complete subjugation of their mentality. A reverence for the sacrifices of our troops from people who gather on their couches on Sundays and don't see even a modicum of sacrifice in the young men on the football field giving themselves irreversible brain damage for the public's entertainment.
LeBron, of course, ignored Laura Ingraham's demands. He posted a photo on Instagram with the hashtag #wewillnotshutupanddribble, and in an interview about the Fox host, James said, "We will definitely not shut up and dribble. I will definitely not do that. I mean too much to society, I mean too much to the youth."
That quote reminded me of what Michael Jordan meant to me in my own youth. It reminded me of that authentic jersey I begged for when I wanted to feel strong. It made me realize that back then I didn't know what real strength looked like. Or more precisely, I was only concerned about a specific type of strength. Sure, strength and power can look like a man artfully leaping from the free-throw line and putting a basketball through a hoop. But, these days, I think strength looks more like a person who is willing to say what's on their mind, even in the face of those who would tell them to shut up. It can't hurt if that person can also dunk from really far away, though.
Cord Jefferson is a journalist and TV writer. His journalism has appeared in the New York Times and ESPN The Magazine. His TV work includes The Good Place and Master of None.
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