01:49 - Source: CNN
LeBron James laughs off Trump's criticism of NBA players

Editor’s Note: Peniel E. Joseph is the Barbara Jordan chair in ethics and political values and the founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is also a professor of history. He is the author of several books, most recently “The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.” The views expressed here are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.

CNN  — 

LeBron James’ latest triumph is a victory not only for athletes but also for freedom-loving people everywhere.

Sunday night, the Los Angeles Lakers won their 17th NBA championship, led by the virtuoso James, who was named the series MVP for the fourth time. For those counting, this represents James’ fourth ring, with three different teams – a first in NBA history.

James’ fourth championship now places him in the pantheon of the sport alongside the likes of Michael Jordan, considered by many to be the greatest basketball player of all time. While Jordan, during his own playing heyday, famously eschewed getting political, James has confidently taken up the struggle for Black dignity and citizenship, emerging as the athletic superstar that America might not deserve but so desperately needs.

Peniel Joseph

His rise as a force for social justice marks a generational passing of the torch of sorts from other towering players such a Bill Russell, who fiercely championed civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, whose Muslim faith and name change (he was born Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor Jr.) made him a Black Power era icon in the late 1960s and early 1970s, one who helped pave the way for contemporary players.

But to fully appreciate what makes James’ virtuosity historic, it is also important to remember that this year’s NBA Finals almost didn’t happen – and why.

On August 26, the Milwaukee Bucks boycotted a scheduled playoff game in protest against the shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin and racial injustice that had received increasing attention after the killing of George Floyd. This action inspired a league-wide boycott (as well as stoppages by teams in other professional sports) and players debated whether the playoffs should continue.

James, the NBA’s biggest star and among the most outspoken and eloquent athletes of his generation on matters of racial justice and equity, helped to forge a compromise. Playoffs would continue, players would be allowed to wear T-shirts and emblems expressing their support for Black Lives Matter and social justice causes and the league would donate money to social justice organizations and turn NBA arenas into polling places for the upcoming election.

James’ outspoken words in support of social justice are connected to important deeds, including leading an effort to attract more than 10,000 volunteers to serve as poll workers in November.

James cared about Black lives before it became popular, wearing a hoodie to memorialize Trayvon Martin and sporting “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts after Eric Garner’s death. While Colin Kaepernick will be forever remembered for sacrificing his NFL career by peacefully kneeling during the National Anthem, LeBron James deserves America’s gratitude and respect for risking his endorsements and reputation to support the – at the time – controversial idea that Black Lives Matter.

On the court, partnered with his most talented ever teammate in Anthony Davis, James has been absolutely brilliant. At 35 years old, having completed his 17th season after coming to the NBA straight from high school, James is in perhaps the best shape of his life. His leadership and on court exuberance, which gave him the nickname “King James” as a teenager, have become more apparent with each passing year.

With the ratings for the NBA playoffs down this season, no less than the President of the United States himself has weighed in on the proceedings, calling James a “hater” whose thirst for equality has (according to this line of rhetoric) turned off MAGA-loving fans. From the earliest days of the Trump administration James called out the President’s racially divisive rhetoric on social media, tweeting, “Hate has always existed in America. Yes we know that but Donald Trump just made it fashionable again!”

In many ways James and the NBA represent the anti-Trump. The league’s decision, supported by players, to confine its season to a bubble in Orlando and to follow stringent safety guidelines proved a stunning success. Not a single player tested positive for Covid-19, in contrast to the NFL – which, along with Major League Baseball, has been forced to postpone games and shut down certain team facilities due to outbreaks.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver took pains to listen to James and other players as they offered a vision of how the NBA could partner with local communities to reimagine public safety, promote voting rights and build thriving communities for all, while paying special attention to the truly disadvantaged.

James leads the voting rights group More Than a Vote, which has signed up thousands of volunteer poll workers.

James’ biggest rebuke of Trump has been in his support of voting rights for all Americans, especially Black and communities of color who have been targeted by the President and his allies for voter suppression. Twenty NBA teams are allowing their arenas to be used as polling centers, voting precincts and early voter sites during the upcoming election, a mutually agreed upon decision that came in the wake of BLM protests against racial injustice around the nation. Trump, meanwhile, has stoked fear and mistrust of the very process of voting itself, going so far as to call from the presidential debate stage for poll-watching, historically a method of voter intimidation.

James has been as outspoken in his efforts to increase democratic participation pushing back against conservative critics who contend that NBA players should just “shut up and dribble.” Instead, James has used his considerable star power, resources and platform to encourage active citizenship and civic participation to the millions of young people who look up to him as a role model and inspiration. That such leadership could be viewed negatively in some quarters says more about our polarized times than the quality of James’ personal and political example.

If James’ personal sincerity can be gauged by his profound love for the game, it is his political integrity that has been so astounding to witness – remarkable in a sports world that, despite being based on Black talent, is still ruled by White wealth.

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    In finding his voice on the need for America to recognize the humanity of Black folk, James has helped an entire generation of millennial athletes and celebrities find their own.

    In this way, despite his boundary-shattering athletic brilliance, James’ most important legacy is the one that is shaping up off the court. His commitment to voting rights, educational excellence and anti-racism makes him much more than an NBA champion, Finals MVP and otherworldly celebrity.

    King James, the Akron, Ohio, basketball wunderkind turned social justice icon perfectly represents the tumult and opportunity of this historic moment in America. Because of LeBron James, so many other Black athletes understand that, without their talent, the NBA and other professional sports leagues could not exist and that justice is what public expressions of love, at their best, look like.