Mr LeBron James: The King Who Could Be President
If there was an award for MVP of 2020, Mr LeBron James would be a worthy winner. On the court, King James led his LA Lakers to the NBA championship in honour of the late Mr Kobe Bryant, and after the most emotionally and politically charged of seasons. Off the court, he helped to channel the social unrest of the Black Lives Matter movement to decisively mobilise the Black vote in the US election. And, who knows, it may well one day power the player to the White House himself.
During peak lockdown this year, Mr Michael Jordan’s epic 10-part ESPN/Netflix documentary miniseries The Last Dance played to a global audience starved of live sport. It reignited the debate between the old guard and the new: who is the GOAT – the Greatest Of All Time – Mr Jordan or Mr James? It’s a close call, but with the benefit of 2020 hindsight, there is momentum with the latter and, having recently agreed a reported $85m (£63.6m) two-year contract extension with the Lakers, Mr James is not finished yet. Even though he turns 36 on 30 December, he’s still a formidable competitor. But Mr James has long said his greatest legacy will come from what he does beyond basketball. To borrow the tagline of his empowerment-focused storytelling platform Uninterrupted, he is “more than an athlete”.
Mr James has also drawn comparisons this year with another GOAT, Mr Muhammad Ali, for his outspoken activism and the way he transcends his sport. Mr James is one of the most recognisable, popular and powerful athletes in the world. With a combined following across Instagram, Twitter and Facebook of almost 150 million, he is his own media outlet. (To put that in some context, just over 137.5 million voted in the 2016 presidential election, which saw the biggest decline in Black voter turnout on record.) He has used the megaphone of his immensely influential personal platform to speak out about racial inequality – and to encourage others to do likewise – in order to effect meaningful systemic change.
For balance, it should be pointed out that this year, he has also used social media to give fans a portal into pandemic life chez James – like showcasing his fire game-day fits, sharing the #JamesGang TikTok dance routines choreographed by his kids, or proudly plugging his six-year-old daughter’s YouTube channel.
In pure sporting terms, 2020 has been yet another outstanding year for the preeminent player of his generation. On the eve of his 18th season of a remarkably consistent career, Mr James is one of the elder statesmen in the NBA, but still its iconic force. His go-go-gadget athleticism defies physiology: at 6ft 9in and 260lbs (113kg), he’s taller and bulkier than, for example, world heavyweight champion boxer Mr Anthony Joshua (6ft 6in, 237lbs/108kg). And he knows his angles, his audience and his cross-generational appeal, playing with the kind of chest-thumping, buzzer-beating showmanship that lends itself to YouTube and Instagram clips (which is increasingly how Gen-Z fans around the world watch sport).
“He’s the only player ever to have won championships with three different teams as Finals MVP”
Wherever Mr James has played throughout his career – be it the Miami Heat, the Cleveland Cavaliers (second time around), or, now, the Lakers – he’s won championship rings. Four of them, to Mr Jordan’s six. He’s been the NBA MVP four times and he’s now the only player ever to have won championships with three different teams as Finals MVP. He puts the word “dominator” into highest common denominator.
For all the success 2020 has brought, it has undoubtedly been a physically and emotionally draining slog at times. Back in January, at the start of this annus horribilis, Mr Kobe Bryant – a man synonymous with the Lakers in their heyday – died tragically along with his 13-year-old daughter, Gigi, and seven others when their helicopter crashed in heavy fog. As the basketball world mourned, Mr James vowed to win the championship for the Lakers in his close friend’s memory. “I promise to continue your legacy, man,” he wrote in a heartfelt Instagram post. He and the team duly delivered. After finally clinching the title – the Lakers’ 17th overall but the first since Mr Bryant last led them to victory in 2010 – Mr James wrote: “Hope I made you proud, my brother.” For all but the most partisan of rival fans, it felt fitting.
All that came after the NBA season was almost abandoned – twice. Firstly because of the pandemic that brought the country to its knees and forced all the remaining games to be played inside a Covid-safe “bubble” at Walt Disney World in Florida. And secondly, because of an NBA and WNBA player boycott at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests for social justice that saw athletes across sports take the knee in solidarity against racism and police brutality.
As former president Mr Barack Obama recently revealed on Mr James’ barbershop-themed HBO talk show The Shop, it took a midnight phone call between him, Mr James and a few other leading players to figure out how best to proceed with the boycott. The presidential advice was to utilise the power of the moment – a pivotal point in history – to turn a negative into a positive. He encouraged the players to use their collective platform and unite the league and the team owners in a firm commitment of specific action.
The plan took hold and it was a game-changer. Two days later, the players’ union, the NBPA, and the NBA jointly announced an agreement to establish a social justice coalition with a focus on increasing access to voting and advocating for meaningful police and justice reform. With November’s racially-charged US election fast approaching, the players secured a commitment from team owners to use basketball arenas as mass voting centres and for public service announcements about voting to be aired during subsequent playoff broadcasts.
With that pact in place, the playoffs continued. The message was loud and clear every night. Players wore T-shirts and masks marked with the words “Black Lives Matter”. And the NBA painted “Black Lives Matter” on the courts. Mr James’ pre- and post-game press conferences focused as much, if not more, on politics than basketball.
“Mr James was infamously told to ‘shut up and dribble’ by Fox News host Ms Laura Ingraham. Mr James has since used that line to fuel his fire”
The aims of this NBA pact aligned with those of an organisation Mr James had formed a few weeks earlier. In the days following the death of Mr George Floyd in May, Mr James knew he had to harness his anger and frustration and do something. The result: More Than A Vote – a non-profit organisation with the tagline “Change isn’t made by watching from the sidelines”. (Mr James and Mr Maverick Carter, his business partner and friend since childhood, know the importance of good branding.) This collective of Black athletes and entertainers teamed together to energise Black voters and thwart voter suppression in key cities around the country in the lead up to November’s presidential election.
While More Than A Vote was his most overt political statement to date, it was by no means his first. After calling President Trump a “bum” in 2017, Mr James was infamously told to “shut up and dribble” by Fox News host (and avowed President Trump acolyte) Ms Laura Ingraham. Mr James has since used that line to fuel his fire. Shut Up And Dribble became the title of a three-part documentary series he and Mr Carter produced on the role of athletes in the cultural and political conversation. (Incidentally, in June their company SpringHill celebrated raising $100m of investment to make more such documentaries.)
And two weeks after Mr Floyd’s death, Mr James used the line again in this powerful Instagram video punctuated by a basketball being dribbled, drawing a line from “shut up and dribble” to “shut up and lay still”. It concludes: “This is why we can’t just stick to sports. Do you understand now?”
Americans turned out in record numbers in November’s election and President Trump decisively lost the Black vote. Once the result was announced, Mr James tweeted a gif of himself smoking a cigar and tagged @morethanavote. When 2020 called, Mr James answered. As he enters the twilight of his playing career, could he be the MVP the world needs in the Oval Office?
Illustrations by Ms Oriana Fenwick