Just nine months ago, LeBron James had it all, really. He was the NBA champion again and also had guided the league to the place he wanted in terms of social justice activism. And that was this: All in.
LeBron was the voice, face and conscience of the NBA. Its best player, too.
Tonight, he’s in such a different spot. He has become a polarized figure for his strong off-court stances and, wait, what was the other thing? Oh yeah, basketball. Tonight, James is facing elimination in the first round of the playoffs for the first time in his career, as the Los Angeles Lakers trail the Phoenix Suns 3-2.
Danny Ainge, outgoing Boston Celtics president, said the other day that NBA players need to “shut up and dribble.’’ Surely, he meant LeBron.
At this point, I’m wondering if maybe this is the time that we shut up and watch? At least, that’s what I’m planning to do. I mean, James is one of the greatest players of all time, and now he has his back against the wall, to use a cliché. He has that off the court, too.
It looks like LeBron’s co-superstar, Anthony Davis, isn’t going to play because of a groin injury. If he does, it seems unlikely he’ll be effective.
No, this one is on James. He’ll have little help from teammates. He had to do this kind of thing when he was younger, too, and with Cleveland the first time around.
An all-time great needs to have an all-time game. Two, actually. It’s on him. And you just know that if Michael Jordan had been in this spot, he’d take the game over all by himself.
“These shoulders were built for a reason,’’ James told reporters the other day. “And if it takes for me to put more on top of it, then so be it. Win, lose or draw. I’m ready for the challenge.’’
I really don’t want to get into James’ social justice stances here. I’ve written that I believe he is in this straight from his heart and that he wants to be impactful and relevant, which is better and more courageous than Jordan clamming up so as not to offend potential Nike customers. “Republicans buy shoes, too,’’ he famously said. (Note: Jordan is suddenly highly charitable.)
But I think Nike has partnered up with James on his causes and that’s just an impossible combination -- slick corporations and raw heart. Sometimes, it feels as if Nike is using him.
About a month ago, I wrote that he “messed up” with his tweet about a police officer who shot 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant of Columbus, Ohio. The officer is white and Bryant black. But Bryant was lunging with a knife at another black girl or young woman. James, I wrote, “tweeted a full-on photo of the officer with the words, ‘YOU’RE NEXT. #ACCOUNTABILITY’... which served to put a target on the police officer and also left some doubt as to what he even meant.’’
But whether you strongly agree with James or strongly disagree, that’s not really the point here. Is it really not possible to just stop and think about how fun sports can be? Yeah, this might be a good time to shut up and watch James dribble.
I have friends who say they’ll never watch an NBA game again out of anger because of his strong BLM stances. (Same with the NFL and the anthem.)
That’s a step beyond what I ever imagined. I knew the NBA lost TV ratings last year over its social justice obsession, but I thought that was because people wanted to watch games as a chance to get away from those kinds of issues.
There are no actors out there who you think are weird or bad people but you like their movies anyway? Maybe it’s just not that easy for some people to separate.
Sports is usually boiled down to make things easy for us: Good guy vs. Bad guy. Feel free to put James in whichever category you want.
But he’s 37 years old, maybe beginning the fade in his career. He has four championships and has openly said he’d like to catch Jordan with six.
Anyone who watched Jordan in person, or remembers him, or even saw “Last Dance’’ knows that James is no Jordan on the court. But that still seems to be a debate somehow. Jordan would have taken this on-court moment that James has right now as a challenge. And anyone who doubted that Jordan could do it would only be fueling his fire.
James has the doubters out there now, and because people can’t separate dribbling a basketball from social justice, the pressure will be on him. That’s OK. It’s his doing. It was his choice.
They’re his shoulders.
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