It was supposed to be a celebratory moment for LeBron James. The iconic best player in the world, on the eve of his seventh straight NBA Finals, a feat matched only by the revered Bill Russell, was anticipating casualness before game one pressure. But LeBron James was denied the opportunity to bask in the glow of his elite accomplishment as he met the media to discuss the highly anticipated series that begins on Thursday night in Oakland, California. The world’s ugliness pierced the NBA Finals bubble. Corrupting the moment were crime facts: around seven in the morning a call was received by the LAPD that someone had spray painted the n-word across LeBron James summer home, the place he and his family live during the off-season. It was a sobering reminder that the NBA is an entertainment delivery business on the court. The relevancy of race is muted for 48 minutes. But off the court, the agency of the sport, one of equality, fairness, and competition, devolves, particularly when pressed up against the framework of racial anger turned violent. LeBron James- millionaire, businessman, professional athlete, All-Star, champion, father, husband- isn’t immune.
As a rookie, LeBron James was tagged The Chosen One. Maybe that is truer than any Nike ad man knew at the time. Perhaps James has been chosen to take on the immorality of race hate, flinging it head first into the world for consumption and ridicule, and by default, becoming the moral authority for a sport that for the most part looks the other way, as if it is a secret the mostly black athletes of the NBA are defined, measured and judged by their skin color once they leave the safety of a NBA arena. Willing to have his shoulders weighed down with the race problem in America is more than most athletes on the eve of a championship final are willing to do. But James has always been a different kind of athlete, intertwining social justice, athletic achievement and economic empowerment.
The two pillars of LeBron James rare life, wealthy beyond measure and Akron-born black man, are often competing and conflicting forces that engender dreams and pain. On Tuesday, LeBron mentioned he wanted to be an NBA owner. That is the next step, once his career winds down. He has the economic capital to pull it off and the business acumen. Twenty-four hours later though the earth had turned. He was talking about what to tell his sons, who are close to being teenagers, about how their blackness will be received in a social and nihilistic world that reduces them to a slur when they walk down the street. It was a stunning paradox and a contradiction in terms. Economic prosperity one day. Hate the next. Equal to Bill Gates one day. Equal to Trayvon Martin the next.
In the 2017 NBA Finals, LeBron’s team is the definitive underdog, despite being the defending champion. It would have been understandable if he was defiant about the racist vandalism meant to harm him so close to a legacy making two weeks. But he was more resigned when he spoke about black men having a hard road, even those with money and fame and admiration. It hardly matters what the zeroes in the bank account are when someone hates your skin color. When they think that is all you are. When that creates intolerance and aggression.
Teenager Emmett Till was murdered in 1955 because he said , “hey baby” to a white girl in a country store in Money, Mississippi. Till had a cotton gin fan tied to his ankle to sink him and his 14 year old body was thrown in the Tallahatchie River. James recalled how Emmett’s mother, Mamie, had the casket open so the world could see what racism does. Till’s face was disfigured and misshapen, grotesquely altered by water damage sucking through open wounds, bloating him like a twisted balloon. You had to look. You couldn’t bear to look. Her message was hate as a secret is as much a crime as hate as a trigger. The world must know what the world has been reduced to.
What no one talks about because we are all convinced to soldier on is the sheer heartbreak that hate crimes engender for the particular individual who is targeted and for the community at large who suffer the tragedy six inches deep. The victim is being singled out and demeaned for his membership in a group that is crucial to his identity. That people can hate you without the benefit of knowing you creates psychic pain that lingers and for many it legitimizes anger. LeBron James hasn’t arrived at the latter yet.
He said, “Hate in America for African Americans is living every day even if it is concealed all the time. It’s alive every single day.”
He also said, “I sit here and it hurts.”