Up Next

Commentary

LeBron James continues to expand our concept of excellence

He is paid to win basketball games, yet after he wins or loses, he’s in front of the world talking about systemic oppression

Dear LeBron Raymone James,

Congratulations on winning your fourth title, a title many Americans did not want you to win for reasons that reveal just as much about them, as they reveal about you.

I despise public letters, but there’s no way for me to write about you honestly without writing to you directly. Growing up in Jackson, Mississippi, our team was the Jackson State University Tigers. I wish you could have experienced the Sonic Boom of the South and SWAC football in the ’80s and ’90s. Nothing on earth looked like it. Nothing on earth sounded like it. Nothing on earth moved like it. That was Black abundance.

As young people, we wanted desperately for ballers to show us love back then, but we didn’t expect it. One reason we didn’t expect it was because of the love we got from emcees. Cube, Chuck, Face and KRS made songs about their love of us. They defended us in interviews. Though flawed and drenched in hypermasculinity, they risked their careers telling the world what Black kids deserved.

Meanwhile, some of the ballers we loved told us Republicans buy shoes too. They told us they didn’t really like rap music. Some of my boys saw this as personal tastes. I felt this as personal decisions. I didn’t begrudge ballers for not using their voices and platforms to express love for us. I just didn’t understand why emcees specifically seemed committed to bringing their folks with them in every door.

I don’t want to make this letter too long. I don’t want to thank you for making yourself into the most complete basketball player I’ve ever imagined. I want to thank you for your decision-making. I’m not talking about your decision to bring a title to Cleveland or to revive the Los Angeles Lakers. Those would be lauded as monumental decisions no matter who made them. I’m talking about the decision you consistently make to love us and our children responsibly while modeling revision.

Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James reacts during the first half against the Miami Heat in Game 3 of the 2020 NBA Finals at AdventHealth Arena on Oct. 4.

Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

I rewatched the first game of your career against the Sacramento Kings the night after you lost Game 3 to the Miami Heat. You had 25 points, 9 assists, 6 rebounds in 42 minutes, numbers that were eerily similar to your last game against Miami, where you had 25-10-8. My head hurts trying to understand how one could be the greatest player on the court in the first game of their NBA career at 18, and the greatest player on the court 17 years later in the NBA Finals.

That’s just weird, bruh. Becoming the best in anything is partially due to a few genetic things outside our control, and mostly due to a heap of decisions made by that genetically gifted human, and the community that raised him.

I’m 10 years older than you, but we both grew up in a place where we were encouraged to reach for excellence. We were taught that consistent practice and an excellent understanding of right and wrong were how we might avoid our own premature death, or the premature death of people in our communities.

You expanded our conception of excellence and filled it with something bolder, Blacker, richer, fleshier, far more communally dynamic. I am paid to talk and write about systemic oppression and radical possibilities for a living. You are paid to win basketball games, yet immediately after you win or lose, you are right there in front of the world talking about systemic oppression and radical possibilities. You model revision and radical communal decisions for Anthony Davis and the younger players in the league. You also model radical decision-making that benefits the whole for oldheads like me.

You are not a member of some talented tenth. You are not a king. You are not the chosen one. All of those designations, while majestic to some, feel way too flimsy to hold what your decisions have dictated you’ve become. You are LeBron Raymone James, a radical sharer. Your decisions have made you incredibly good at love. You were created and cared for by a single Black mother and a complicated Black community, like so many of us. What Americans insist on seeing as a deficit, you remind us is part and parcel of our cheat code. You are Black abundance.

I was in my final year at Oberlin College when you were in the eighth grade. We had the potential to be a good Division III team, but we didn’t pass the ball. One day my coach, a former Ohio legend, told me about an eighth grader in Akron who was better than anyone on our team. I remember him telling me that the difference between that Akron kid and us wasn’t that he actually passed the ball in spite of his otherworldly talent, but that he wanted to pass the ball. Coach had this mantra that you play the game the way you live your life, so players who could drop 50 but wanted to pass the ball wanted to bring their boys with them through every door. They often wanted to do everything imaginable for the community that shaped them. They wanted to love Black children in this country when most of the nation had a hard time wanting to pass to them. Coach was clear that we had no chance at being abundant on and off the court unless we followed the model of this virtuosic eighth grader from Akron.

That was you, LeBron. It’s still you. Thank you for choosing us. Already.

Kiese