The best player on the planet sat at the podium, looking into the cameras and speaking into a microphone and, yet, when asked the most pertinent question of the day – one that had nothing to do with the NBA Finals – LeBron James didn’t really have an answer.
How do you explain something like that to your children?
How does anyone explain this to our children?
Only hours earlier, James learned that someone had scrawled racist graffiti – the disgusting N-word – on the front gate of his family’s offseason home in a wealthy neighborhood in Los Angeles. Police are investigating the matter as vandalism and a possible hate crime, which would add Brentwood to the lengthy list of cities, suburbs and rural areas stained by America’s original sin.
Even after all these years, all this progress, no place is immune. Several days ago, two men were killed while coming to the aid of a Muslim woman and her female friend riding the light rail in Portland. Several years ago, a downtown mural featuring former Kings forward Omri Casspi, the first Israeli to play in the league, was destroyed. Early Wednesday afternoon in Oracle Arena, when he should have been excitedly sharing his thoughts about the Cleveland Cavaliers’ rematch against the Golden State Warriors, an unusually somber James instead spent most of his media session addressing the incident that reportedly occurred in the morning.
“I think the most unfortunate part is that I’m here right now and I can’t be home (in Akron, Ohio) to see my boys right now,” James said. “This is kind of killing me inside right now. Obviously you see I’m not my normal energetic self. It will pass. That’s fine. I’m figuring it out. And at the end of the day, if this incident that happened to me and my family today can keep the conversation going and can shed light on us trying to figure out a way to keep progressing and not regressing, then I’m not against it happening to us again. I mean, it’s as long as my family is safe.”
But what does he tell his kids, except for the obvious?
“It just goes to show that racism will always be part of the world, a part of America,” he added. “Hate in America, especially for African Americans, is living every day.”
James said he thought back to the tragedy of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old African American who was tortured and lynched in Mississippi in 1955, and how the slain youngster’s mother insisted on an open casket to expose the hideous nature of the crime. As the Cavs star continued to reflect on racism and recent troubling incidents, on how Wednesday’s episode is affecting his family, on how it is detracting from the highly anticipated championship series, he elaborated in thoughtful but candid terms.
A young LeBron James who entered the NBA straight out of high school would have been far more cautious and less inclined to prolong the conversation. But the Akron native is 32. He is married with two sons and a daughter. He is a four-time MVP, two-time Olympic gold medalist, three-time NBA champion.
In what will forever be regarded as one of the most compelling sports stories of all time, the 6-foot-8 forward won two rings with the Miami Heat, then shockingly returned home and made good on his very public and pressure-packed promise. If delivering his city and his state an NBA title was his signature, crowning moment, his increasing willingness to openly confront racism and attempt to bridge the divide is a poignant part of his legacy.
Race and religion are the two social issues that invariably raise temperatures and turn polite discourse into overheated screaming matches. And when that happens, no one listens, no one learns. Even broaching the topics can be costly; just ask Colin Kaepernick.
But James knows his NBA history and he isn’t going back. While approximately 75 percent of his peers are black in a league long regarded among the most progressive in sports, he has heard about the discrimination his predecessors endured before and during the civil rights movement, among them Elgin Baylor, Lenny Wilkens, Wayne Embry, Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson.
Banned from restaurants, forced to stay at different hotels, denied access to restrooms. Conditions and relations undeniably have improved, with the NBA remaining among the forefront in that regard with its clinics, appearances and town-hall discussions that bring together youngsters of various religions, cultures and ethnicities, in a spirit of inclusion and acceptance.
Still ... there was James, the day before Game 1 of the NBA Finals, saying little about Stephen Curry, the addition of Kevin Durant to the Warriors, or the significance of two teams meeting in the championship series three years in a row for the first time in history. Instead, he talked about racism and the challenges that will continue well after the Finals are decided.
“We got a long way to go for us as a society and for us as African Americans, until we feel equal in America,” he said. “But my family is safe. They’re safe, and that’s most important.”