On the morning of May 31st, 2017, the Los Angeles Police Department responded to a report of racially charged vandalism. Someone had written the n-word on a gate leading to the Brentwood home of an NBA superstar.
Some days, it is impossible to stick to sports. Especially when cowards spray a racial slur on a home belonging to the greatest basketball player in the world the day before the NBA Finals.
For me, LeBron James is the greatest basketball player America has ever seen.
We can argue championships and MVP awards, leadership and the ability to make tough shots in clutch situation. But when I look at a person’s ability to maximize their talent on the basketball court and the unthinkable fact that in the age of social media, their only misstep is how they announced where they would take their talents in the summer of 2010, LeBron James towers over Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton, Magic Johnson and, yes, Michael Jordan. Oh, and unlike Jordan, he is not afraid to be unapologetically black.
There are questions about whether Jordan actually said, “Republicans buy sneakers too.” Looking at Jordan’s legacy, I wouldn't put it past him because his is a life that’s been spent trying not to offend. For example, even when he gave money to combat institutional racism, he gave not only to organizations fighting on the side of those marginalized by the prison industrial complex, he also made a point to give to police officers.
“When everyone was talking about being like Mike, crack, police and prisons were tearing our communities apart…and Mike said nothing,” says Kiese Laymon, professor of English at the University of Mississippi and author of How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America and the forthcoming memoir Heavy. “They beat Rodney King. Mike said nothing. They let the cops go free. Mike said nothing. I have no respect for a black man with no platform who refuses to speak honestly about this country. I have negative respect for someone with the stature and power of MJ who literally didn't help us when we needed it most.”
James is not as equivocating.
In his own way, James has spoken out about racial injustice. There was the “I Can’t Breathe” shirt, and the time he, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul and Dwayne Wade made a statement about gun control and social justice at the 2016 ESPYs. James is not quite as outspoken as John Carlos or Muhammad Ali, but he is an athlete that follows their tradition of the activist/athlete; therefore, when his home was vandalized, he did not mince words:
“My family is safe. At the end of the day, they’re safe and that’s most important…But it just goes to show that racism will always be a part of the world, a part of this country… Hate in America, especially for African-Americans, is living every day. And even though it’s concealed most of the time, we know people hide their faces and will say things about you. When they see you, they smile at your face. It’s alive every single day.”
He concluded by saying, “No matter how much money you have, no matter how famous you are, no matter how many people admire you, being black in America is tough. And we got a long way to go for us as a society and for us as African-Americans until we feel equal in America.”
LeBron James is the quintessential rags to riches story. He worked hard. He pulled himself up by his bootstraps. He did not forget where he came from. He achieved amazing success—and his $21 million home was not enough to protect him from being called the n-word.
The day before the beginning of the NBA Finals, we are reminded that success cannot shield black folks from the reality of race in America.
Lawrence Ware is a philosopher of race at his day job and a curator of dopeness when time allows. Words in The New York Times, Slate Magazine, The Root and others. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He is the kind of Steelers fan that enjoys watching the Cowboys lose.