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The Nike LeBron 15 ‘EQUALITY’ sneakers find a home at the Smithsonian

A day after opening his new school, James gives his statement kicks to NMAAHC as part of two-day experience for 59 kids from across the country

WASHINGTON — In a single-file line, they trickled into the Oprah Winfrey Theater on the ground level of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) and took their seats. A group of 59 students from across the country, who had journeyed to the nation’s capital in the heart of the summer at the invitation of Nike, and the brand’s most impactful athlete.

The young men and women, ages 12-17, were handpicked by Nike’s community partners from Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles and New York for a unique two-day experience that included a tour of the monuments, a visit to Capitol Hill to meet with representatives from their respective congressional districts and a special surprise that they awaited after squeezing into five rows in the museum’s auditorium.

LeBron James had helped bring this trip to life for the kids in the audience donning white shirts with “EQUALITY” sprawled across their chests in gold lettering. But the newly minted superstar of the Los Angeles Lakers, who takes pride in being “more than an athlete,” had an important scheduling conflict that kept him from being at the NMAAHC. Less than 24 hours before the event, James opened his I Promise School, a public institution for 240 third- and fourth-grade at-risk students in his hometown of Akron, Ohio.

On his left foot, he wore the shoe in white. And on his right foot, he wore the shoe in black. Each shoe featured the powerful word.

The Nike LeBron 15 “EQUALITY” sneakers are currently on display at the NMAAHC. Both Nike and James are founding donors to the museum.

Courtesy of Nike

“He really wanted to be here, and we were working to get him here,” said Nike’s Melanie Auguste, the director of James’ signature brand, who spoke at the museum on behalf of the King. “The opening of his school is something that’s been in the mix for so long, and it’s so powerful. But he made sure to carve out some time for these kids.”

Auguste introduced a personalized video that she says James recorded right before cutting the ribbon at his new school. A graphic of a lion donning a crown popped on the screen in the theater, before James appeared with a smile to the contrasting sounds of gasps and cheers. “LeBron came out the blue and started talking!” said 14-year-old Detroit native Edrick, who’d never been on a plane before traveling to D.C. with Nike through the PeacePlayers organization. “That shocked everybody.”

The video included a specific message — James told the story behind his game-worn pair of shoes that sat onstage in a glass case in front of the screen. Back on Dec. 17, 2017, while still a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers, James made a statement with these same kicks during Cleveland’s final scheduled meeting of the 2017-18 NBA regular season against the Washington Wizards in D.C. He wore his signature Nike LeBron 15 “EQUALITY” sneakers — but with a bit of a strategic twist. On his left foot, he wore the shoe in white. And on his right foot, he wore the shoe in black. Each shoe featured the powerful word, which James and Nike seek to embody, embroidered in gold across the heel.

“I watched the game when he wore them,” said Dakari, 14, who also hails from Detroit. “And those shoes mean way much more than just hooping.” Months after the game, in February of this year, Nike announced the limited-edition release of 400 pairs (200 black, 200 white) of the LeBron 15 “EQUALITY.” And via an online drawing, available exclusively in the United States, more than $400,000 in donations was raised to directly benefit the NMAAHC. Both Nike and James were founding donors of the museum, with the brand presenting $2 million and the King giving $2.5 million to specifically support the “Muhammad Ali: A Force for Change” exhibit.

“I used this shoe as inspiration. I want you guys to use this shoe as inspiration, as a voice. The word ‘Equality’ speaks volumes. It just speaks volumes for all of us, no matter your skin color, no matter your race, no matter if you’re male or female,” James said in the video. “We are in the land of the free, and we all should feel like everyone’s equal. And I believe it all starts with our nation’s capital. That’s why I decided it in Washington, D.C.”

The kids watched intently as James announced that he’d be gifting the shoes to the NMAAHC. They were the first to see them inside the museum. According to spokeswoman Lindsey Koren, the kicks will go on display this fall in the basketball case of the sports gallery on the building’s third level.

“It means a lot to me to be able to have something in such a historical museum. This will be able to live forever. Long after my life. Long after my kids’ lives. I just want you guys to know how important it is to make a stance,” James continued in the video. “Whatever you believe in, whatever you’re passionate about, speak from the heart, because it matters. You have so many people that’s looking up to you guys in your communities … I want you to use your voice as well. Be passionate and have no regrets about what you believe in.”

Damion Thomas, sports curator at the NMAAHC, officially accepted the shoes on behalf of the Smithsonian. Thomas says the meaningful LeBron 15s, like any other artifact belonging to the museum, had to undergo a screening process and be approved by a committee to be included in an exhibit. Yet deliberation on these shoes, he added, was steadfast.

In addition to their private tour of the NMAAHC, the students’ trip also included a tour of the monuments and a visit to Capitol Hill to meet with representatives from their respective congressional districts.

Courtesy of Nike

“What we try to do in this museum is not only highlight the important roles that athletes have but also think about their contributions off the court. We try to both celebrate athletic accomplishment and situate sports in a much larger social and political context — and LeBron James is one of the most socially active athletes,” Thomas said. “These shoes are now a national treasure. And it’s important that we’re able to share LeBron’s story … the story of Nike … and the role of sports and basketball in creating a better world.”

“These shoes are now a national treasure.”

At the request of James, all 59 students received an opportunity to take pictures with the encased sneakers to post on social media before the shoes were whisked away by gloved museum staff members to be stored until they make their exhibit debut. Thomas, and other docents, then led the kids on a private tour of select galleries in the facility. Despite living a short drive away in Baltimore, 16-year-old Wesley and his younger sister Monique had never visited the NMAAHC until now. He and other students, who had no idea that James was the benefactor behind their experience before the video started rolling, expressed their appreciation for the man they couldn’t help but affectionately refer to as the King.

“I love the fact that LeBron could shut an entire gym down, but it’s about the aspect of how he reaches out and touches people,” said 15-year-old Darnell, from Detroit. “He’s not stingy with his time. He really spends time in the community.”

As they strolled through a gallery called the “Michael Jordan Hall: Game Changers,” Thomas gathered his group’s attention and pointed above cases dedicated to sports legends Wilma Rudolph and Arthur Ashe, where a quote from James was inspired. “It doesn’t even have to do with sports,” Thomas advised as youthful eyes rose high up the wall. The two sentences read:

I feel my calling here goes above basketball. I have a responsibility to lead in more ways than one, and I take that very seriously.

On this trip to the museum, LeBron James’ responsibility was fulfilled.

Aaron Dodson is an associate editor at The Undefeated. Often mistaken for Aaron Dobson, formerly of the New England Patriots and Arizona Cardinals, he was one letter away from being an NFL wide receiver.