about racial injustice because he also plays basketball. I have been a journalist and book author longer than I played basketball, yet every time I publicly express an opinion, some people complain that my opinions have no validity because I was once an athlete. Because he is so articulate and revered, Lebron is helping to eliminate that stereotype.
I’m often asked whether there’s a significant difference between the black athlete activists of my era and those of today. In the ’60s and ’70s, there were fewer of us: Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Tommie Smith, John Carlos and a handful of others. Today, a lot more are speaking out. Sadly, aside from numbers, there’s not much difference because so little has changed. Athletes are still punished for using their constitutional rights, and the things we protested 50 years ago are still happening. And some members of the public are more outraged at being reminded that little has changed than the fact that little has changed. It would be easy for black athletes to give up in despair at such a response. But players like Lebron, Colin Kaepernick, Andrew Hawkins, Serena and Venus Williams, Eric Reid and many others keep fighting for justice.
There have been missteps, like a media exchange in 2017 after Charles Barkley called Lebron “whiny” and “inappropriate” for publicly complaining about Cavaliers management’s not securing better players. “I’m not going to let him disrespect my legacy like that,” Lebron said. “I’m not the one who threw somebody through a window. I never spit on a kid. I never had unpaid debt in Las Vegas. I never said, ‘I’m not a role model.’ I never showed up to All-star Weekend on Sunday because I was in Vegas all weekend partying.”
Part of the animosity seems to stem from Barkley not including Lebron in his list of five top NBA players of all time. I understand an athlete who plays for love of the game, or for adoration of fans, or even for money. But concern over one’s “legacy” seems shortsighted. I set a lot of records when I played, but I never played to set records. I didn’t concern myself with creating a sports legacy as much as I did with my legacy as a teammate, a social activist, a helpful community member. Lebron is all those things too, which is why worrying about his sports legacy seems petty.
Lebron’s legacy is assured. He will continue to break records, perhaps even my all-time scoring record. When he does, I’ll be there cheering him on, because every time a record is broken, humanity has pushed the boundaries of what we are capable of.
Last year, Lebron helped found the I Promise School in Akron, Ohio, for some of the city’s underprivileged children. More than providing academics, the school will also reach out to the students’ families to provide them resources to improve their lives economically, emotionally and educationally. This kind of dedication to community makes him more heroic than slamming a basketball through a hoop.
Finally, the GOAT question, which runs through the media like a nasty STD: “Who is the Greatest of All Time?” A month ago, Lebron claimed the title for himself during an ESPN interview, saying he deserves the title because he gave Cleveland its first championship in decades after an improbable comeback from being behind by three games to one. “That one right there made me the greatest player of all time,” he proclaimed.
It’s a little disappointing hearing him play this imaginary game, which is akin to asking, Which superpower is better, flying or invisibility? I get asked this question a couple times a week, and my answer is always the same: The game has changed so much over the years that there is no leveling rubric to take into account the variables. So, sorry, Lebron, you’re not the GOAT because it’s a mythological beast. It’s like asking, How big is the horn on a unicorn?
But Lebron James is the hero this generation has thrown up the pop chart. It’s a place he clearly has earned, and we are all better off for him being there.
Lebron’s dedication to community makes him more HEROIC than slamming a basketball through a hoop.