NBA Finals: LeBron James Matters

LA Lakers star and league MVP strikes the right chord on and off the court

A constant theme follows LeBron James as he passes through life in and outside the NBA. It doesn’t matter if he’s a teenager from Akron who’s just been drafted into the NBA or a league veteran 17 years later, who yesterday was named the NBA 2020 Finals MVP at the age of 35 – there has always been a sense of burden that he has had to carry.

And that weight over the years has increased. They don’t just expect him to be the greatest basketball player, but also the voice of his often marginalised community in these polarised times in the US.

Since his rookie days, James was supposed to be the answer to the question, ‘Who’s next after Michael Jordan?’ Rarely are athletes able to carry that level of responsibility upon their shoulders at that early an age. And yet, he sits in Orlando, smoking a cigar and drenched in champagne after his fourth title this time for the LA Lakers, knowing that he has surpassed anything anyone could have ever imagined about him – on the court and off it. James has also spoken his mind on prickly issues, unlike several popular sporting stars.

On Sunday, the Lakers beat Miami Heat 106-93 in Game 6 of the 2020 NBA Finals to complete a 4-2 win for the NBA Championship. Like soccer empress Megan Rapinoe during the FIFA Women’s World Cup last year, James had brought his ‘A’ game on both fronts.

MOST VOCAL PLAYER TOO

James at the start of his career was not someone associated with being political. And yet, his growth as a player has been less impressive compared to his growth as an influential representative of his community – a calling that has only gotten stronger over the past few years as the country goes through intense racial turmoil. This COVID-19 bubble and election campaign though – has seen the makings of James as a leading voice advocating and creating pathways for change.

“People get tired of hearing me say it, but we are scared as Black people in America,” James said to reporters after their Game 4 win over the Portland Trail Blazers. The comments were in response to the shooting of Jacob Blake by Kenosha police officers in Wisconsin and have been one of the several sound bytes made by James in the NBA bubble, in favour of the Black Lives Matter movement.

“Because you don’t know. You have no idea how that cop that day left the house. … You don’t know if he woke up on the wrong side of the bed. You don’t know if he had an argument at home with a significant other, if one of his kids said something crazy to him and he left the house steaming. Or maybe he just left the house saying today is going to be the end for one of these black people. That’s what it feels like,” added the Ohio-native. Embodying and vocalising this fear on behalf of his community was a choice James made, knowing any slip-ups on the court could snap the attention he commanded of millions, as NBA’s biggest star right now.

Immediately after the killing of George Floyd which triggered the Black Lives Matter movement to a crescendo, James created the “More Than A Vote” group – a platform that looks to mobilize black voters and fight voter suppression. In the bubble, the group has been working towards turning NBA arenas into voting booths and voter-related activities. The Georgia primaries where many Blacks couldn’t make it to the polling booths fearing for their safety or due to crowding constraints at the peak of the pandemic had been a bruising trial for the November presidential elections.

Now, twenty NBA teams have given their arenas to either become a voting precinct, an early voting site, a polling site or a voting centre, the nudge coming from the top stars in NBA, with James crucially lending his name.

Outside of it, the group donated $100,000 to register disenfranchised voters from Florida who couldn’t vote because of felony records by paying their outstanding fees. It helped 1.4 million former felons regain their right to vote.

V FOR VOTE

Ninety per cent NBA players have been registered to vote this time around, with 15 teams showing 100% registration, according to OKC guard and National Basketball Players Association president Chris Paul.

“(We have to) continue to understand how important voting is. For us to be able to have the NBA arenas as polling sites for a lot of communities, that is unbelievable. We want to continue that. November is right around the corner and we all know how big that is,” James said to reporters during the NBA Playoffs.

Even before today, where the Black Lives Matter movement has become the force that it is, James’ work in his community is what has set him apart from some of the greatest athletes of all time. He has on regular occasion come out in support of justice for black people who have been shot or killed in America.

He has provided millions in support to the city of Akron in Ohio through funding tuition for countless college students and opened his own school called, ‘I Promise’ for ‘at risk’ third to eighth grade students.

James has now not only surpassed what anyone thought he was capable of on a basketball court, but has become a social justice icon the likes of which most of his peers could never fathom. He has advocated higher voting numbers and put his money and his mouth for the cause of campaigning to an end to police brutality, unlike any athlete in American history. And as the euphoria of a hard-fought NBA Championship victory dies down, his real-world contributions will continue to shine. It’s a burden only someone the likes of James could carry and fulfill.

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