SOMERSET, KY – The epic story of the 2020 election is easy to frame. Belligerence vs. restraint. Respect vs. disdain. Decency vs. destruction. Competence vs. laziness.
Joe Biden won because the majority of voters chose the former over the latter. His victory was a rebuke of all Trump’s ruinous political tendencies and sadistic personal behavior. Other prominent figures, among them Kamala Harris, also represented the values most Americans hold for qualified and sympathetic leaders.
Still, in the not terribly distant future data analysts assessing the various metrics and trends that led to Biden’s victory will lay a clear path to LeBron James, who celebrated his 36th birthday yesterday. Though he’s spent all of his adult life as the center of attention in every room, stage, studio, and arena he’s ever entered, James climbed to new heights of visibility and historic significance in 2020. America changed for the better. LeBron James played an important role in making that happen.
Here is why. James was an influential voice in introducing another element that framed the election: Love vs. hate.
A surge of African American support in Detroit, Philadelphia, and Atlanta was essential in achieving the Biden-Harris victory. Motivated by simmering fury at injustice and the catastrophic years of Donald Trump, James leveraged his creativity, determination, and renown to help build that wave by persuading tens of thousands of African Americans to cast their first votes. Election data will soon confirm that first-time African American voters proved to be the tipping point for the Democratic ticket. Those same voters in blue counties in Georgia could also swing the January 5 run-off election in favor of the two Democratic candidates.
If that occurs it would be an exquisite convergence for LeBron James and for America. Such an outcome would represent a complete rejection of the malign indecency of Donald Trump and the unconstrained anarchy of his party. It would also celebrate the majesty of a heroic American story: How race, poverty, culture, and history converged to produce a consummate athlete and a cultural champion.
America’s men and women of history are born from a handful of endeavors –music, art, entertainment, politics and government, industry, and sports. Wealth, good looks, and effective media marketing – television in the 20thcentury, television plus social media in the 21st— are a huge help. With the same discipline and intelligence that he’s displayed in basketball, James mastered most of the prerequisites for historic longevity.
Soon after he joined the NBA as the top 2003 draft choice, LeBron James ascended to the pantheon of young leaders at the summit of the Millennial generation. His prowess as the NBA’s best player and devotion to winning led him there. On the court James is relentless and sometimes ferocious. He is the greatest player in NBA history, and that includes Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant.
Off the court he’s taught himself how to command every room and every platform with the deliberate and respectful way he speaks, and the thoughtful things he says. His warmth and charm. His love for his wife and children. His loyalty to coaches and teammates. These attributes have endeared him to vast legions of fans in the United States and around the world.
LeBron James represents the best of what American society is capable of producing. He is honest. Hard-working. Courageous. Outspoken when he needs to be. Disciplined and exceptional in his craft and his life.
People everywhere understand this. In late June 2013, after James won his second NBA title with the Miami Heat, I published an article in the New York Times about Goodyear’s decision to stay and build a $140 million world headquarters in Akron, where the company was founded in 1898. Two days later @KingJames joined my Twitter feed and retweeted the article. I thought that was pretty cool. LeBron James liked what the paper reported. I told my friends and family. Judging from the surprise, admiration, and enthusiasm expressed by young and old, it’s clear they thought the same thing.
There is an abundance of acts and events to admire about James. As head of the LeBron James Foundation, with nearly $9 million in assets according to the latest tax filing, he is working with city and public school authorities in Akron, Ohio to reimagine education and opportunity for underprivileged school children and their families. James built the I Promise School, and he is evolving into a developer to rebuild neighborhoods in his hometown.
“Any chance I get, you’ll hear me say it loud and proud: I’m just a kid from Akron,” James said. “And I say that because of the roots, the support, and the love my city has always given me. From my earliest days growing up in those streets, the community wrapped its arms around me. My mom and I had our challenges, but the people I was lucky to have around me would not let me fail.
“I want to do everything I can to be that for my kids in Akron coming up behind me who have incredible futures ahead of them.”
With his net worth exceeding $500 million, James has starred in two Hollywood movies and, like Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan, is proving to be a shrewd business investor. In James’ case, he’s constructing a multi-faceted entertainment conglomerate in Los Angeles.
Still, the distinguishing factor that separates James from some of the other eminent Millennial generation leaders is his activism. Like a ship captain clearly aware of the hazards of capsizing, James cautiously navigated the colliding waves of celebrity and national politics to emerge as a force to be reckoned with.
In 2014, following the death of Eric Garner, who strangled after a New York City police officer put him in a chokehold, James wore an “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirt in pregame warm-ups. In 2016 James appeared at the ESPY Awards with Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul and Dwyane Wade to call for athletes to leverage their stature to respond to racism, injustice and gun violence.
“We all feel helpless and frustrated by the violence,” he said. “We do. But that’s not acceptable. It’s time to look in the mirror and ask ourselves what are we doing to create change. It’s not about being a role model. It’s not about our responsibility to the tradition of activism. Let’s use this moment as a call to action for all professional athletes to educate ourselves. It’s for 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.”
Four years ago, with the rise of Donald Trump, James elevated his voice. He endorsed Hillary Clinton and then introduced her at a Cleveland political rally two days before the 2016 election. A year later, James famously called the president a “bum.”
In a 2018 video on Uninterrupted, his online news and comment platform, James gave Trump some sauce: “The No. 1 job in America, the appointed person, is someone who doesn’t understand the people,” he said. “And really don’t give a f— about the people.”
Days later, after Laura Ingraham of Fox News said “It’s always unwise to seek political advice from someone who gets paid $100 million a year to bounce a ball. Keep the political comments to yourselves. Shut up and dribble,” James had two responses.
First, James told the TNT announcing crew at the NBA All-Star game, “I will not shut up and dribble. I owe it to my peers. I owe it to my fans. I owe it to the youth and I owe it to everybody that has laid the path for me to get to this point. It’d be the same as telling Jackie Robinson to shut up and slide into home base. Or Jessie Owens to suit up and just go triple jump. I can’t do that because so many people look up to me and so many are going to come after me.”
Second, James produced a powerful Showtime documentary series, “Shut Up and Dribble,” that illustrated the history of political activism by NBA players and coaches and the effects on the game, the league, and the nation.
In 2020, James made history happen. In June he helped organize More Than A Vote to work with voting rights organizations to register African Americans and give felons the right to vote.
“Yes, we want you to go out and vote, but we’re also going to give you the tutorial,” James told the New York Times. “We’re going to give you the background of how to vote and what they’re trying to do, the other side, to stop you from voting.”
In August, while leading the Los Angeles Lakers to a championship (his fourth title), James participated in a two-day boycott of playoff games, sought guidance from Barack Obama, and led a group of players in talks with team owners and Adam Silver, the league’s incomparably adept commissioner. They reached agreement to convert NBA arenas into voting sites and establish a social justice coalition to promote civic engagement, and police and criminal justice reform.
During the campaign, Trump and James traded barbs. In June Trump said he wouldn’t watch NBA games because of player activism. James responded, “I really don’t think the basketball community is sad about losing his viewership, him viewing the game. That’s all I got to say.”
In an October interview with Rush Limbaugh,in an uncharacteristically discreet attack, Trump blamed James for the low NBA Finals television ratings. James, Trump said, is “a spokesman for the Democratic party and a very nasty spokesman.” Acknowledging James as “a great basketball player,” Trump added, “People don’t wanna see a guy that way. They don’t want to see that. We have enough difficulty during the week, you don’t wanna sit down watching a basketball game and then watch somebody that hates your guts, okay, He’s a hater.”
In November James had the last word. Along with that of untold numbers of other activists, organizers, supporters, and 81 million voters, Trump was cast out of office. “At the end of the day, when you’re going through adversity or you’re going through anything in life, the one person that you believe you can count on is the person that’s in the captain’s seat,” James told Time Magazine, which named him 2020 Athlete of the Year. “He can always keep everything calm, make people feel like no matter what we’re going through, we’re going to make it through. And I believe, as Americans, we didn’t feel that over the last four years. We always felt like we were in the ocean, and the waves are crashing against our boat, and the thunderstorms are coming down. So I believe that our people just got tired of not feeling a sense of calmness, and they went out and used their right to vote.”
Every American is aware of how different, how difficult, how dangerous 2020 was. The year began tragically for James when his dear friend Kobe Bryant, and Kobe’s daughter Vanessa, died in a helicopter crash. Hardship followed when NBA Commissioner Adam Silver wisely shut down the season on March 11, the first sports league to suspend games as a result of the pandemic. No championship in any sport was harder to pursue than the more than three months that James and his team spent in the NBA’s virus-free Florida bubble.
That physical durability, mental stamina, and psychic grit is what heroes are made of. Where Trump and his allies displayed unconstrained malice, James worked hard to suppot a Democratic ticket that acts with courtesy and courage. When thousands of African Americans convinced themselves their votes didn’t matter, James said that was the wrong way to look at it.
“There’s a lot of people that want change in the black community,” he told the New York Times. “If you actually don’t put in the work or if you don’t have the mind-set, there’s never going to be change.”
The 2020 election was the sweetest event of a sour and dangerous year. James completely embraces the role he’s earned and now plays in our national life.
“We all have moments in our lives where we know who we are and we know what we’re about,” he said. “It’s about growth. I’ve grown over the course of my career. I’ve grown over the course of being an 18-year-old kid that came into the league in 2003, to a 35-year-old man that’s a husband and a father of three kids. I’ve grown to know who I am and what I stand for. And it’s not just about me, it’s about my people. That’s why I’m leading the charge.”
James added: “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. 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.”
Thank you LeBron James. Happy Birthday.
— Keith Schneider