LeBron James Bigger Than Sports

LeBron James, the most important athlete in America, explained

How the world’s best basketball player became a political force for racial justice.

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LeBron James is quite possibly the best basketball player who’s ever lived.

I am, of course, hardly an objective party. I have rooted for LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers since I was 15 years old.

But even for those who haven’t, James has compiled a résumé that rivals any player in the history of the NBA — up to and including Michael Jordan, widely regarded as the greatest player in the sport’s history.

James has won three championships and four most valuable player awards, for starters, in his 15-year career. Earlier this season, he surpassed Jordan for the longest streak of games with at least 10 points scored. On Wednesday, when James hit a game-winning three-point jumper to beat the Indiana Pacers in a must-win playoff game, it was instantly compared to one of Jordan’s iconic shots.

LeBron James surpassed the NBA double-digit scoring record with a dunk agains the New Orleans Pelicans in Cleveland, Ohio, on March 30, 2018.
Getty Images

But the 33-year-old James is much more than a living sports legend. He is an actor, a media mogul, and a cultural icon. He rose to the top of his sport at the same time that America was forced to confront its systematic violence against black people, especially young black men, and James has taken up that cause as one of the most famous young black men in the nation. He is perhaps the most socially and politically influential athlete since Muhammad Ali.

When Fox News host Laura Ingraham recently told James to “shut up and dribble,” it became a national news story. When James called President Donald Trump a “bum” on Twitter, defending players who bucked the tradition of championship teams coming to the White House, it was a headline on the front page of the New York Times. He held a campaign rally for Hillary Clinton during the 2016 campaign.

James — LBJ, Bron, the King — has used the platform afforded him as the best player in the NBA at a time of unprecedented popularity for the league to speak out about racial injustice and other political issues. SB Nation’s Tom Ziller wrote that we were living in “the decade of LeBron James.” ESPN ranked him the most famous American athlete (the second most famous in the world) and called him “the most powerful voice in his profession.”

Workers finish hanging a mural of LeBron James on a building in Cleveland on October 30, 2014.
Mark Duncan/AP

So even if you’ve never watched a single second of a professional basketball game, LeBron James is an unavoidable presence in American life. Given his ambitions to build a lasting media empire and the budding speculation that he might someday pursue public office, he will likely stay there for years to come. James is still at the height of his powers whenever he steps onto the basketball court — but his career long ago became a story much bigger than sports.

LeBron James versus Michael Jordan, explained

James was born in Akron, Ohio, to a single mother who was forced at times to move herself and her son to different beds on a regular basis. From an early age, it was clear he had a gift. James was the subject of unprecedented hype while he was still in high school. He was the star of his team at St. Vincent-St. Mary, and their games were shown on ESPN. Sports Illustrated dubbed him “the Chosen One.”

The original Fab Four during freshman season at St. Vincent-St. Mary in 1999-2000. From left: LeBron James, Sian, Willie McGee, and Little Dru.
Phil Masturzo/Akron Beacon Journal/TNS via Getty Images

James was selected by the Cleveland Cavaliers with the No. 1 pick in the 2003 NBA draft. He was 18 years old.

Over the course of his 15-year professional career, this is what he has accomplished:

  • Won three NBA championships, including the first professional sports title for a Cleveland sports franchise in more than 50 years
  • Named the MVP of the NBA Finals three times
  • Collected four regular-season MVP awards
  • Selected to 14 NBA All-Star games and named to 13 All-NBA teams
  • Currently No. 7 in all-time points scored and No. 11 in all-time assists

Heading into the 2018 season, James was still considered the best player in the league. He could very well end up as the top scorer in league history before he retires, as the Ringer’s Zach Kram detailed, and he’s also on track to finish in the top five in assists — meaning he has proven equally excellent at scoring points himself and setting up his teammates to score.