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Column: LeBron James’ steady hand leads Lakers to wins and NBA to social justice efforts

The Lakers' LeBron James reacts to a play against the Portland Trail Blazers.
LeBron James scored 36 points and had a triple-double in the Lakers’ 131-122 win over Trail Blazers on Saturday night that wrapped up the first-round series in five games.
(Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

This isn’t over.

The players know who they’re up against.

People like President Trump’s Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, whose family owns the Orlando Magic.

Or the various franchise stakeholders who have made financial contributions to conservative organizations.

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So, as much as the players celebrated the promises they extracted from team owners to support their social justice and racial equality efforts, they did so with a degree of caution.

“We do have leverage,” Lakers forward Anthony Davis said. “After the meetings, we’re very confident that they will [keep their word].

“If they don’t, then we won’t play again. It’s as simple as that.”

The statement has to be considered when evaluating LeBron James’ performance Saturday night, when the Lakers closed out their first-round series against the short-handed Portland Trail Blazers with a 131-122 victory.

After three days days of no basketball and emotionally charged meetings, the Lakers collected themselves and ousted the Trail Blazers with a Game 5 win.

Against the backdrop of the most important 72-hour period in NBA history, in the middle of what is essentially an active negotiation with well-connected billionaires, James scored 36 points and recorded a triple-double.

If James was fatigued from the central role he played in the players agreeing to resume the season, he didn’t show it.

If he was stressed about the possibility of the owners living down to their reputations, he didn’t let it affect his play.

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James is a monster.

He embodies the most complimentary definition of the word. He doesn’t have the same level of viciousness that vaulted Michael Jordan to greatness, but don’t be fooled by that. His mental fortitude is as worthy of admiration as his athleticism or on-court intelligence, his skill or general comportment.

That’s not his reputation, of course. He’s never completely shaken the image he developed earlier in his career when he passed in key moments instead of taking contested shots or teamed up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami.

But it wasn’t as if Saturday was some kind of revelation. James’ psychological strength has been on display since these playoffs started.

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His purpose in Orlando has been twofold — to keep the country mindful of racial inequalities and to win a championship. Each of these objectives on its own would overwhelm most people, including many professional athletes. James has managed to compartmentalize them. He remains dominant on the court, but the moment the game is over, he switches from player to activist and speaks passionately about society’s problems. He’s done this game after game.

The Lakers' LeBron James scores against the Portland Trail Blazers on Aug. 29, 2020.
The Lakers’ LeBron James scores Saturday night. If he was fatigued from the central role he played in the players agreeing to resume the season, he didn’t show it.
(Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

“He’s the best leader I’ve ever been around,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said.

Game 5 against the Trail Blazers had the makings of a classic trap game, the Lakers entering the contest with a 3-1 lead in the series and their opponents missing star guard Damian Lillard because of injury.

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The Lakers were a two-man team, prompting Vogel to declare of James and Davis, “We don’t win the game without them doing what they did tonight.”

That was a polite way of saying most of the other players stank, a reality that didn’t slow down James, whether he was scoring 24 points in the first half or creating shots for Davis in the second.

Davis finished with 43 points, including 31 in the second half.

James wouldn’t say it, but the events of the previous three days only increased the burden on him. As the NBA’s signature player, his platform is more visible than anyone else’s. The players’ collective message is most amplified when he delivers it. And in order for him to continue doing that effectively, the Lakers have to remain in this postseason. In other words, they have to win.

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The Trail Blazers were down to nine active players, so more difficult showdowns will be ahead. But not all of them will necessarily take place on the court.

There’s a reason several players mentioned the owners gave them “their word.” With billionaires viewed more suspiciously than ever before, the players don’t know what their promises are worth. By making the pledges public, the players can shame them if they fail to honor their agreements.

“All you can do is give me and give us your word,” James said. “I’m going to hold that with the utmost respect.”

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In addition to making team-controlled arenas available as vote centers for the upcoming presidential election, the NBA agreed to establish a social justice coalition consisting of players, coaches and owners that will work on “increasing access to voting, promoting civic engagement, and advocating for meaningful police and criminal justice reform,” according to a news release.

The sincerity of some owners has to be questioned, considering they previously supported policies and political candidates philosophically opposed to the coalition’s objectives. But as Davis said, the players have leverage. They can refuse to play, which would prevent the owners from collecting broadcasting rights fees, as well as deprive TNT and ESPN of valuable programming. Such action would have significant financial repercussions for the players, of course. If the owners feel as if they are being strong-armed into doing something they don’t want, they could dare the players to engage them in a game of chicken.

James said he didn’t think it would come to that.

“If the word you’ve given me is not fulfilled, then we’ll tackle that moment,” James said.

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He smiled.

His point was made. Whatever happens, he’ll be ready, both on the court and off.

Hernández reported from Los Angeles.


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