LeBron James rewrites playbook on athlete activism on way to legendary hoop greatness

LeBron James rewrites playbook on athlete activism on way to legendary hoop greatness
LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers smiles as he is interviewed at the end of the game after passing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to become the NBA's all-time leading scorer, surpassing Abdul-Jabbar's career total of 38,387 points against the Oklahoma City Thunder at Arena on 7 February, 2023 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo: Harry How/Getty Images)

James surpassed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to become the NBA’s all-time leading scorer on Tuesday, scoring 38 points in their 133-130 home loss to Oklahoma City Thunder to set a record of 38,390.

LeBron James broke the all-time NBA scoring record on Tuesday, adding another line in the history books as he bats aside a code of silence pressed upon famous athletes to remain apolitical in order to maintain broad appeal.

Three decades after Michael Jordan famously quipped “Republicans buy sneakers too,” basketball’s new “Greatest of All Time” is taking a new approach as his sport’s preeminent figure.

“He squashed the notion that was around during the MJ years that if you did speak out, it would hurt your marketability,” said Etan Thomas, a former NBA player and author of We Matter: Athletes and Activism.

“LeBron showed that it’s not going to affect anything …. It was really important for him to do that because for a while, the reason why you saw so many people quiet was because the top person, MJ, was quiet.”

LeBron James

LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers drives to the basket during the second half of a game against the Oklahoma City Thunder at Arena on 7 February, 2023 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo: Harry How/Getty Images)

Thomas spent about a decade in the NBA after going in the first round of the 2000 draft and was a vocal critic of the US invasion of Iraq.

He said other players would approach him during his years in the league to discuss his activism — quietly.

“They didn’t feel comfortable saying anything themselves,” he told Reuters. “That was floating around still, that you would be hurting yourself if you do.”

James became a leading voice in support of the Black Lives Matter movement following the murder of George Floyd in 2020.

But his activism began to take shape years earlier, as he backed Democrat Barack Obama’s successful presidential campaign in 2008 and in 2012 joined his then-teammates on the Miami Heat in a protest over the shooting death of an unarmed Black teenager, Trayvon Martin.

The four-times MVP took aim at Republican then-President Donald Trump in 2018, saying Trump had emboldened racists in the United States. Later, he opened the “I Promise” school for at-risk students in his hometown of Akron, Ohio.

In response to his criticism of Trump, Fox News commentator Laura Ingraham told him to “shut up and dribble”. Trump slung a barbed tweet questioning James’s intelligence.

Most recently, James challenged the media when a resurfaced 1957 photo of Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones standing in a crowd blocking Black students from entering an Arkansas high school got little attention from reporters.

LeBron James

LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers poses for a picture with his family at the end of the game, (from left to right) Bronny James, Bryce James, Zhuri James Savannah James and Gloria James, against the Oklahoma City Thunder at Arena on 7 February, 2023 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo: Harry How/Getty Images)

“It’s a kind of once-in-a-generation individual that we’re seeing right now,” said Doug Hartmann, a professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota and expert in the history of athlete activism.

Hartmann compared James’s impact to that of boxing great Muhammad Ali, while also noting that James, whom SportsPro listed among 2022’s most marketable athletes, had kept speaking up without seeing his wildly popular personal brand erode.

Forbes ranked James as the second-highest-paid athlete in the world in 2022.

“He kind of maintained as broad of a consensus appeal, not only because of his activism, but also because of the way he’s kind of done marketing and business and commercialisation,” said Hartmann. Reuters/DM

LeBron James

LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers reacts after scoring to pass Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to become the NBA’s all-time leading scorer against the Oklahoma City Thunder at Arena on 7 February, 2023 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Reaction to James becoming the leading scorer in NBA history

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Los Angeles Lakers great

“I thought it had every chance of being broken. It just had to have someone that the offence focused on continually.

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“LeBron’s career is one of someone who planned to dominate this game. And it’s gone for almost 20 years now. You have to give him credit for just the way he played and for the way he’s lasted and dominated.”

US president Joe Biden

“LeBron, congratulations. With your whole heart and soul you broke a hell of a record. You elevated the game. More than that, like Kareem, Bill Russell and others who came before you, you challenged and inspired the nation to be better, do better and live up to our full promise.”

Magic Johnson, Los Angeles Lakers great

“I never thought that Kareem’s scoring record would be broken by anybody. It means more to myself and to our fans because you’re wearing that purple and gold and broke it as a Laker.

“This historic moment is so special because we will never see another LeBron James.”

Darvin Ham, Los Angeles Lakers Head coach

“It was a blessing and an honour to be able to be a part of it … I know what Kareem meant to this league. He was one of the pillars who helped build this league.

“What LeBron has done transcends even basketball, he has become a global icon. All the work he puts in on and off the floor, his businesses, him speaking out on social issues, his leadership.

“He is an example for not just young basketball players but young human beings, domestically and internationally, for how to be a professional, how to have passion, how to be persistent and productive and never to be satisfied.”

Adam Silver, NBA Commissioner

“Congratulations to LeBron on breaking one of the most hallowed records in all of sports by becoming the NBA’s all-time scoring leader.

“It’s a towering achievement that speaks to his sustained excellence over 20 seasons in the league. And quite amazingly, LeBron continues to play at an elite level and his basketball history is still being written.”

Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors guard

“Your sustained level of play for 20 years, reaching this pinnacle of scoring in basketball, it is unbelievable.

“Way down the road, when we’re reflecting back on our careers, we’ll be able to be at that level knowing what it was like to battle at the highest level.”

Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers forward

“It’s definitely well deserved. He has put a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into this game. I’m just honoured to be able to witness it live.

“He has been a big part of our team’s success and my success. A leader in all facets of the game, on and off the floor.

“A great human being, family guy — he checks all the boxes.”

Kevin Durant, Brooklyn Nets forward

“It’s even funny to just even say that, you know coming from where you have come from, how hard you grinded for this long. It’s been an inspiration since day one.

“Much love and keep setting the bar high.”

Gregg Popovich, San Antonio Spurs Head Coach

“LeBron, he’s a confident man. He knows he’s a hell of a player. He knows what he’s accomplished. But he still has his humility. He hasn’t lost it.”

Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors forward

“Such an incredible, incredible feat. Just speaks to who you are as a person and obviously who you are as a player.

“To have an opportunity to play against you in some epic battles … it’s been an honour to witness what you’ve done.”

Compiled by Reuters.


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