Column: LeBron James is in Orlando with a message, and it won’t be on the back of his jersey
He’s all in.
He’s not worried about his health. He’s not concerned about the layoff. He has no fears that his fight for social justice will get lost in the battle for a loose ball.
Addressing reporters for the first time since the beginning of the most tenuous period in American sports history, speaking on a video conference call from inside a Disney World quarantine in Orlando, Fla., LeBron James left no doubt Saturday that this oddest of endeavors might be his most serious of missions.
Energized by the idea of leading the Lakers to a championship while continuing to spread his message of equality, James is practically bursting in that bubble.
“No, it never crossed my mind that we did not need to play this beautiful game of basketball that brings so many people together, that brings happiness and brings joy to the households, to so many families,” he said.
He has rarely sounded this committed. He spoke with unusual passion and persistence. He delivered a message as giant as his task.
“I am more than an athlete” read the words on his black cap.
Lakers all-star forward LeBron James says he’ll keep working on social reforms but putting a preapproved slogan on back of his jersey will not be one.
This is about more than a title, he eloquently explained.
“I’m happy to have a platform where not only people will gain joy from the way I play the game, from the way our team plays the game, but also what I’m able to do off the floor as well,” James said. “Being able to use my platform, use the NBA’s platform to continue to talk about what’s going on because I will not stop until I see real change for us as Black America, for African Americans, for people of color.”
He added, “And I also believe I can do both, though — I can bring happiness to a lot of homes with the way I play the game and with the way the Lakers are going to play the game, and I will continue to push the envelope and continue to keep my foot on the gas while creating real change for us as people of color in America.”
The Lakers had not held their first full practice and already James is applying the pressure. He revealed during Saturday’s news conference that he would not wear one of the NBA’s 29 approved social justice messages on the back of his jersey, which will just read, “James.”
It’s not that he doesn’t agree with the messages, which include words and phrases such as “Black Lives Matter,” “Justice Now” and “Enough.”
It’s clear, instead, that he wanted to use a phrase that was not included in a list by the league and union, and he doesn’t like being told how he should protest. It’s about controlling your narrative. It’s about owning your voice. He won’t settle for less.
“I commend anyone that decides to put something on the back of their jersey, it’s just something that seriously didn’t resonate with my mission, with my goal,” he said. “I would have loved to have the say-so on what would have went on the back of my jersey — I had a couple of things in mind — but I wasn’t part of that process, which is OK. I’m absolutely OK with that.”
He’s obviously not OK with that, and, seriously? No active athlete has contributed more to the fight for social justice than James — from a building a school to forming a voting rights group — and he’s not part of your messaging process?
“I don’t need to have something on the back of my jersey for people to … know what I’m about and what I’m here to do,” he said.
He’s here to enlighten, entertain and, yeah, win. Don’t think James is coming back so strongly only to make a social statement. He is coming back to earn a ring. At age 35 and with some gray in his beard, James knows he might never have a better championship chance for the rest of his career than right now, with a Lakers team that was the league’s best when the season was interrupted.
“You don’t get opportunities like this … you don’t get teams like this,” the Lakers’ Danny Green said to reporters recently. “If you have a special group, you better take advantage of it this year. And [James] knows it too.”
Lakers third-year forward Kyle Kuzma thinks this next portion of the NBA season will be important for his own legacy, so ‘that’s why I’m taking it so serious.’
James knows the volume has been turned up, the spotlight is hotter, the attention more directed. He’ll never have a better chance to both educate off the court while he dazzles on it. The time is right for a win-win. He has entered that bubble amid his perfect storm.
“A lot of people still don’t get it and a lot of people are still afraid to talk about it, but the racism that goes on in America, especially for my people, people of color, it’s still here,” he said. “But we have some ears. We have some ears. And we will continue, like I said, to push the envelope and let people know that we are human as well. No matter our skin color, no matter how we look, no matter how we sound.”
He added, “We don’t want to just be used for our God-given abilities as far as our talent on the floor, our talents in the music industry, our talents in the industry as far as clothing and things of that nature. But we also want to be recognized for our talent with our brains because that’s what we are, just like everybody else. And we should be treated that way.”
Teams have truckloads of equipment arriving at the NBA headquarters in Orlando, including photos and other items to make it feel like their home facilities.
Of course, the NBA postseason could collapse while surrounded by the surging coronavirus numbers in the Orlando area, but James didn’t sound worried.
“I believe in our franchise that we’re doing everything that we can to stay safe,” he said. “So I have no concerns, unless concerns started to happen and we’ll cross that bridge if it happens. But I’m here 100% in great health and I’m looking forward to getting back onto the floor.”
Can’t wait to see him do that. Maybe now more than ever.
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