When LeBron James agreed to join the Los Angeles Lakers last month, I was not surprised, but also not mad. A lot has changed since the last time LeBron left Cleveland.
When that happened, he did it in a tone-deaf nationally televised special where he broke up with the team that drafted him and took his talents to South Beach. Since then, there have been a hundred examples of how loyalty in sports, while something fans expect and demand from their players, but is only extended to the players when it is convenient. Isaiah Thomas played through his sister’s death and a worse than reported injury, but when Kyrie Irving became available, the Celtics traded him in a heartbeat. Dwyane Wade was a Finals MVP early on in his career on a team that also had Shaq and Alonzo Mourning and was instrumental in getting LeBron and Chris Bosh to come to Miami, but when he wanted to get paid after years of taking hometown discounts, the Heat said “thanks, but no thanks.”
There is no loyalty in sports, but only one side ever gets penalized in the court of public opinion. Kevin Durant didn’t trade James Harden to the Rockets. Nor did he replace Scott Brooks with a very successful college coach who had never coached in the NBA the year before he was going to hit free agency. Also, Durant had a choice in his mid-20s between living in Oklahoma City and staying with a roster that had not gotten over the hump and moving to the Bay Area, working with some of the best and brightest in his field, and doing so on his terms. In any other line of work, we don’t begrudge the 20 something for making that choice, but in sports we have this antiquated ideal that the uniform they wear is more important than the individual. On one hand, I get it. I am a fourth generation Red Sox fan. But I also realize that players can only do this for a finite amount of time, and they owe it to themselves and to their families to earn as much money and make as many connections as they can in the time they have, and if that means leaving Cleveland for Miami or leaving Oklahoma City for Golden State, so be it. The ideal of loyalty in sports should have died the day the Cardinals tried to trade Curt Flood, but LeBron is the one who normalized player empowerment… and in the time that this debate evolved, LeBron went back to Cleveland.
LeBron James delivered the city of Cleveland their first (and so far, only) championship since the Johnson Administration in s thrilling seven game comeback against a Golden State Warriors team that won 73 games but was so shaken by their Finals collapse they signed Kevin Durant and broke competitive balance in the NBA for a couple years. LeBron’s dominance in that series caused the Basketball Avengers to assemble. But beyond the series, LeBron’s four year second stint with the Cavs was important because the kid from Akron, Ohio came home to lead Cleveland to glory. He made it clear in his 2014 Sports Illustrated announcement that he didn’t want kids in northeast Ohio to think that the only way to succeed was to leave. That sentiment was met with cynicism at the time, but LeBron has made it clear that even if his loyalty is not with the Cavaliers organization, it certainly is with the people of Ohio, and that is a deeper kind of loyalty.
LeBron can play basketball anywhere, and in 2018, Los Angeles makes as much sense as any NBA city. He is joining a roster with a fascinating mix of young players with upside and cantankerous veterans. Even if they are not the favorites to come out of the Western Conference, which they are not, the possibility of Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram turning into special players and the possibility of Rajon Rondo fighting Lance Stephenson on the bench in the middle of the game is equally compelling. Being a Laker gives LeBron a chance to learn firsthand from Magic Johnson as he plots his career ventures in life after basketball, and LeBron James Jr. will get to play with and against stiffer talent as he enters high school. Basketball is his job, but when he left Cleveland for Los Angeles, he did not abandon Ohio.
LeBron backed up his commitment to Ohio by opening a school in his hometown of Akron. This is objectively a great thing, and ranks high among the works done by celebrities to make the world a better place. But this is 2018, so naturally it was met with harsh criticism by the most ignorant, arrogant, and divisive forces in the country today.
This isn’t about whether or not CNN’s Don Lemon was right or wrong to bring up the president in an interview about LeBron’s work in the Akron community. This isn’t about Donald Trump’s reflexive impulse to criticize media members and athletes, especially when they are black. We already knew that. This especially isn’t about the LeBron vs. Michael Jordan debate, which Trump half-heartedly frame the the argument ( if you can even call his tweets framed arguments).
Trump is threatened by LeBron because he is better than he is. At basketball, at business, and at life. Of course the man Trump University is named for would be jealous of someone who is actually doing good in the world, and doing so without the socioeconomic advantages Trump was born with. And with all due respect to Michael “Republicans buy sneakers, too” Jordan, LeBron has been fearless in speaking his mind, thoughtfully and eloquently, on the issues that matter to him.
Five or six years ago, I found myself wondering if we would ever get back to the world of superstar activist athletes. The 1960s gave us Bill Russell, Jim Brown, Curt Flood, Muhammad Ali, John Carlos, and Tommie Smith. In the 1970s, the model became to not get involved with politics, with a few exceptions like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton, to avoid loss of potential income as a result of the backlash. Billie Jean King didn’t get to come out as lesbian. She was outed, and she lost endorsements she was depending on as she headed into retirement just for the revelation of who she was. The apolitical athlete, from O. J. Simpson to Michael Jordan to Tiger Woods to Derek Jeter to Tom Brady appeared to be the model. LeBron, along with Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul, Serena Williams, Malcolm Jenkins, Colin Kaepernick, and others, has proven that there is more than one way, and that is a great thing.