‘Lebum.’ ‘Lebrick.’ ‘Choke artist.’
It was fun rooting against Lebron James after he left the Cleveland Cavaliers to form the super-squad Miami Heat alongside future hall-of-famers Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh—especially after he predicted the Heat would win “not one, not two, not three, not four…” but several NBA Championships. He was the bad guy who took the easy way out, and instantaneously made himself a polarized figure.
But let’s face it: that time has ended. Lebron James has transformed and transcended the glorified idolization of just a basketball player. He is an iconoclast making his mark beyond the sport of basketball. Though he bleeds like every other man, and experiences bad games and embarrassing losses, his ability to see beyond the thin realm of momentary performances is what sets him apart as one of—if not— the greatest basketball player of all time.
Though the 2017-2018 NBA season may not be one of Lebron James’ best seasons statistically, it may be the season stamped with his signet to ensure that he be rightfully dubbed the “King James” of the NBA. For example, in a record-setting fourth consecutive matchup against the super-team Golden State Warriors, Lebron scored 51 points in game 1 of the 7-game series, almost single-handedly willing his team to win. His team fell short in overtime—yet his poise, leadership, and effort in that game began changing opinions about whether or not he is the greatest. Even after the game, when reporters tried baiting him into making one of his teammates look bad, James exhibited probity to avoid creating a nasty headline that would demean his colleague. He even challenged the reporter to “be better” as he walked out of the press conference.
Nevertheless, the naysayers continue heckling as they hold on to their childhood hoop heroes. Unfortunately, they are slipping into an abyss of history that will not deal kindly with them in the future.
The reasons James would be considered a legend, though, has more to do with his kingly character off-the-court than his on-the-court dominance—especially this season. He has been a faithful father and husband, and has kept his name out of scandals; ignored the drama surrounding Kyrie Irving’s abandonment of the Cavs before the season started; had “nigger” spray-painted on his Los Angeles home; drawn unusual criticism from news outlets; is fearlessly battling to protect his brand and ideas; and led a less-than-stellar Cavaliers team to an Eastern Conference Championship and the NBA Finals—his eighth consecutive appearance.
But amid his ongoing family life, on-the-floor trials, and off-the-court scrutiny, Lebron handles all of it with Black Panther-esque regality. He accomplished a goal to play all 82 games this season (his fifteenth season), is the first player with 30,000 points, 8,000 rebounds, and 8,000 assists, and has maintained an elite presence on the court, averaging 27 points per game during the regular season and almost 35 during this postseason. He’s done these things without compromising nor remaining silent about pressing on- or off-the-court issues, yet has illustrated how to address them straightforwardly and respectably. As all great king’s do, James balances his power and vulnerability for the betterment of the whole.
When you watch Lebron play, he dishes the ball as effortlessly as he scores. He is not a greedy scorer. He wants to win, and he knows he needs to trust and serve his teammates to achieve that goal. But James’ servanthood on the court is a reflection of what may be his greatest off-the-court quality: generosity.
He grew up plagued by a broken system, so he understands the ongoing systemic issues America is—or is neglecting to—deal with. Lebron consistently works to provide opportunities for impoverished individuals: He’s created a foundation “to positively affect the lives of children and young adults through education and co-curricular educational initiatives”; His school provides an opportunity for every student who completes his program to receive a free college education; and he sparingly spends his money, unless he’s using it to support historical monuments that exhibit the importance of social justice. He’s arguably one of the greatest because he is a servant—after all, it was Jesus who said, “The greatest among you will be your servant” (Matthew 23:11).
But it is not just Lebron’s charity that exemplifies him as a great. His humility to acknowledge the trailblazers who made his way possible is just another featured trait of those history would identify as legends. He follows the footsteps of the celebrated who used their platforms to call attention to the great inequalities of their day—even when it was a polemical. When Muhammad Ali refused to fight in the Vietnam War as a conscientious objector, Jim Brown, Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and a host of other well-noted athletes joined forces to show public solidarity for Ali’s decision at a time when it was highly controversial.
John Carlos, along with Tommie Smith, raised his fist on the medal stand in a symbolic display of Black empowerment after an influential interaction he had with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Later, Carlos and Smith’s action garnered wide-spread criticism. Brent Musburger publicly called the two “black-skinned storm troopers.”
Basketball player Craig Hodges won two NBA championships with the Chicago Bulls, and used one of his invitations to the White House as an opportunity to implore President George H.W. Bush to show more concern for disenfranchised African Americans. He also criticized his teammates, including Michael Jordan, for not using their platform to oppose systemic oppression. His efforts got him blackballed and arguably cost him $40 to $50 million.
Like these leaders—servants many consider heroes—Lebron has taken the opportunity to lead or take part in the discussions of civil unrest. He’s done this vocally and symbolically. He openly discussed with Kevin Durant and Cari Champion, his issues with Donald Trump and the political climate. His views drew the “just shut up and dribble” comments, which he respectably, but unashamedly addressed. “I will not shut up and dribble,” James said on the set of the Inside The NBA post-game show. “I owe it to my peers…fans…the youth…and everybody that has laid the path for me to get to this point.” He understands the responsibility that comes with the platform he has, and knows he is a trailblazer only in the sense that the aforementioned legends help create his path. He values the history of what Kareem and Russell went through in a time where they weren’t allowed to say the things he now has the liberty to say. For that a reason, he believes he “can’t sit here and allow that to happen because of what they went through…I can’t do that because it’s so many people that’s looking up to me, and it’s so many that’s going to come after me.”
Realizing he is a symbolic figure, James also uses the limelight to draw upon symbols that reinforce his views just as much as he speaks on the inequalities of our society. After Eric Garner was choked to death at the hands of law enforcement, Lebron, along with a host of athletes across various sports, decided to wear an ‘I Can’t Breathe’ shirt to draw attention to the unjust nature of Brown’s death. The following season (2017-2018), on opening night, he debuted the Nike “Equality” sneakers. He later announced that 400 limited-edition pairs would be available for purchase via a drawing that participants could enter an unlimited amount of times for a $10 donation. The proceeds were dedicated to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. When the announcement was made about the shoes, he posted a picture of the shoes with the caption: “Basketball is our vehicle but equality is our mission – stand for something positive and do what you can to make a difference!!”
Whether Lebron is the greatest basketball player of all time will be debated until he retires. But the magnitude of his spotlight coupled with the sacrifices he continually makes for the African American community, may be the reason we’ll remember him as the greatest. The greatness of an individual is rarely unanimously recognized during their careers. Admittedly, all we catch are snapshots in the moments of what might be greatness. But based on James’ collection of work thus far in his career, it seems inevitable that he will be remembered as one of the greats.
Perhaps before it’s too late, we can look at the body of work Lebron James has crafted and is crafting—on and off the court— and dispel of our reservations to withhold from him the title “greatest basketball player of this era”. Maybe this once in history, we can unanimously agree that a great basketball player walks among us now. Maybe we can do away with the endless MJ vs Lebron debates and enjoy the the beauty of James’ game and activism while we still have time to witness it in person. Maybe we can stop questioning his legacy and accept that he already is a legend. Considering how history tells the stories of athletes like Lebron, we ought to respect his greatness on this side of his career, rather than joining the bandwagon when he’s retired.
When asked if losing in the first round of the playoffs would effect his legacy, James commented, “My legacy is bigger than basketball…What I do in my community, and what I do with my foundation, and kids that I’ve continued to inspire, that’s my legacy. This basketball thing—it’ll come and it’s going to go. You know that.” And then he and the Cleveland Cavaliers went on to defeat the Indiana Pacers in the first round.