sports

The most notable US athletes of 2020: No 1 – LeBron James, a man for all seasons


Last month an old interview of LeBron James resurfaced that quickly went viral on NBA Twitter. The grainy footage was from a program called HBO’s On the Record with Bob Costas that was recorded shortly before James made the jump from St Vincent-St Mary High to the professional ranks. By then he was already a national sensation – Sports Illustrated had featured him on its cover more than a year earlier under the headline THE CHOSEN ONE – having spent his final season of high school basketball on a barnstorming tour that filled gyms and arenas around the country and sating the intense curiosity of a pre-YouTube world.

The clip is only 33 seconds in length, but it’s more than enough time to offer a sense of the extreme pressure this 18-year-old amateur faced on the doorstep of his destiny.

“How does it feel to know that if you’re not eventually a Hall of Fame-caliber player … a lot of people will say you’re a bust or overhyped?” Costas asks.

Six days after the interview aired, LeBron would be chosen by the Cleveland Cavaliers with the No 1 overall pick of the 2003 NBA draft. The rest, as they say, is history. Seventeen years on, it’s safe to say King James, the LA Lakers talisman, America’s most prominent athlete and the undisputed face of basketball, has managed to not only meet but exceed the positively absurd expectations heaped on those teenage shoulders.

He turned 36 on Wednesday, which means he’s spent nearly half of his life as an NBA player. He’s won championships with each of the three teams he’s played for. Barring a major injury or some other unexpected development, he will retire as the league’s all-time leading scorer while finishing at or near the top of several other major statistical categories. Yet it’s been clear for some time that James won’t be satisfied if basketball represents the totality of his impact.

His entry into the arena of social justice has been careful and measured over the past decade: a 2012 tweet that declared #WeAreTrayvonMartin; the I CAN’T BREATHE shirt worn before a 2014 game; the opening of a public school in his hometown of Akron. Then Donald Trump began co-opting US sports as a primary theater in the culture wars, launching his sensational broadside on Colin Kaepernick and jousting with Stephen Curry over his decision to rescind the Golden State Warriors’ unaccepted invitation for the White House visit traditionally extended to championship-winning teams. Rather than adhere to the almost pathological “Republicans buy sneakers, too” apoliticism favored by his predecessors, James leaned in. And he didn’t stop there.

This year James elevated his activism to new heights. With the sports world at a standstill due to the coronavirus pandemic and amid nationwide unrest over the police killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, LeBron teamed up with a group of prominent athletes and entertainers to launch More Than a Vote, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization aimed at informing, protecting and turning out African American voters. “We never told anyone who to vote for or who not to vote for,” he said. “We never said anything about one candidate or another candidate. We just wanted people to exercise their opportunity to vote and create change.”

It’s impossible to calculate whether the activism Trump induced in picking a fight with LeBron and co played a decisive role in his defeat. But it’s equally difficult to ignore the razor-thin margins in battleground states that have been flashpoints in the movement. When America went to the ballot box in November shortly after James spirited the Lakers to the team’s record-tying 17th NBA championship, more than 20 professional sports teams had converted their arenas and stadiums into voting centers at the urging of their players. James was at the fore of the push. In a race which saw Republicans trying to depress turnout as desperately as Democrats sought to expand it, the advantage was clear.

Few elite athletes have more misguided critics than James, whose life story embodies the American Dream. He grew up with his single mother in a modest apartment in Akron, worked thousands of hours to cultivate his craft, found gainful employment after turning 18 and has been fairly compensated for his skills. He’s come of age during a time when social media exploded in popularity – when if a celebrity so much as picks his nose it’s disseminated globally within minutes – yet he’s been a model of good behavior on and off the court. And now in the autumn of his career, he’s learning to leverage his platform like few athletes before him.

So how did 18-year-old LeBron feel about those expectations? Looking back at his response from half a lifetime ago, it’s no wonder he turned out OK.

“I don’t look at it as looking into the future,” James said . “I take every moment at the time because you’re not promised tomorrow. That’s what my mom brought me up on. I always say I just try to get better every day at what I do.”





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