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The spectacle of his late career will be as much about watching the emergence of LeBron the cultural figure as the twilight of LeBron the player
At the end of each preview for The Shop, LeBron James’s new discussion show on HBO, appears the tagline, “I am more than an athlete.” On a purely factual basis this is difficult to dispute: James, like all of us, contains multitudes. But James is going after more than mere facts. In the same way that Barcelona fancies itself not only a football club but a symbol of Catalonian identity, James wants to stake a claim in the public consciousness on something that goes beyond sport. In his mind, he is més que un atleta. As this generation’s greatest basketballer embarks on what will likely be the final big challenge of his playing career – restoring a faded Lakers franchise to its perch atop the NBA – the question is: how much more?
James has shaved on-court expectations, stressing the inexperience of his supporting cast this season. The Lakers have been bad in recent years, though under young coach Luke Walton they’ve at least begun a mild recovery from 2015-16, when they went 17–65 to record their worst season ever. Thanks to favorable draft picks, there’s now plenty of raw talent. Brandon Ingram, who gets about the court with the languid elasticity of a semi-animated linguine, has set himself the goal of being an All-Star this season, which is perhaps unrealistic in the hyper-competitive Western Conference but at least shows ambition. Lonzo Ball, the roster’s other starlet, will help share some of the burden in driving offensive play – a luxury James missed in his draining final season with the Cavs.
But in truth the Lakers, for whom James will make his regular-season debut on Thursday night, are probably one star-player away from a genuine shot at the championship. But let’s not forget that James is only 33. Karl Malone, with a similar build to LeBron, was almost 36 by the time he collected his second MVP award, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was a title winner into his early 40s. Providing LeBron’s body holds up – and it’s proved remarkably resilient over the years – there’s still plenty of time left to add to his already absurd record of achievement in the sport.
Indeed, the spectacle of his late career will be as much about watching the emergence of LeBron James the cultural product as the twilight of LeBron James the player. How James juggles that handover will be the defining dilemma of his final years on the court. How much more than an athlete can he be while still maintaining his peak of athleticism? When James announced he was joining the Lakers, the move was almost immediately seen through the prism of his post-basketball aspirations. It was a Hollywood play, in the literal sense: a move that got him closer to the film industry, in prime position for a lucrative post-playing career on screen. The July announcement of a deal with HBO to produce The Shop offered early confirmation of that thesis. Then last month came news that James will star in Space Jam 2. James has always been acutely conscious of Michael Jordan’s shadow, but the decision to helm a sequel of Jordan’s 1996 hit seemed a little ostentatious, as if James was trying just a little too hard to outdo the master – even off the court.
The Space Jam reboot, a chat show that aspires to authenticity but rarely gets there: where is James going with all of this? With the final chapter of his playing career in sight, he seems torn between a desire to make a real difference as a political and social actor and the commercial demands of LeBron The Business. From the day as a high school sophomore that he took Jordan’s 23 as his shirt number, James has always measured himself against the Chicago Bulls legend.
Though the debate to decide the better player remains vigorous, there’s little contest when it comes to figuring out who’s been the more consequential cultural figure. Whether he did or did not once say that “Republicans buy sneakers, too,” as is claimed, Jordan was famously apolitical throughout his career. He steered clear of commentary on the racial outrages of the day, and managed his image with a painstaking anxiety not to piss anyone off.
James, in contrast, has become more engaged with social issues as his career has progressed, displaying a growing confidence in navigating the different registers of political discourse. His activism has taken in the work with his foundation and the I Promise school for disadvantaged kids in Akron, Ohio as well as more populist interventions like the silent pre-game hoodie protestfor Trayvon Martin and the “u bum” tweet directed at Donald Trump. “U bum” was not only a brilliantly succinct putdown – it also had the merit of exploding misguided calls from some on the left to “go high” in the face of a White House going so low it’s stationed permanently in the gutter. It was a moment of true cultural clarity, and cemented LeBron’s status as the rightful heir to Bill Russell and Muhammad Ali.
It’s important to give this achievement the recognition it deserves. James is part of a rare generation of global sporting superstars that includes Roger Federer, Serena Williams, Lionel Messi, and Cristiano Ronaldo. All of them have emerged at (roughly) the same time, and each has a legitimate claim to being the greatest to ever play their chosen sport. James alone has systematically used his exalted athletic status to amplify issues beyond sport. No doubt the attention given to LeBron’s political interventions is in part a function of America’s unique global cultural influence, but it’s also a reflection of temperament. It would be tough to imagine any other member of this generation of superstars doing what James does. Federer is so doggedly apolitical and inoffensive you’d be hard pressed to get him to express an opinion on anything stronger than milk; his reaction the day after the Brexit vote was to note, “Us Swiss guys, we’re going to follow it.” Ronaldo is an accused rapist; Messi hardly says anything off the pitch. Serena comes closest to matching LeBron’s cultural clout – on issues of race and gender inequality, for example, she’s opened up conversations in ways that few other athletes could – but her religion mandates a strict political neutrality.
But how far can James’s transcendence go? To what end will he put his new-found moral authority? Again, the parallels with Jordan are instructive. Retired, Jordan has stayed mostly true to neutral type. In 2016, however, he finally broke character and spoke out on the issue of police brutality. “I have been deeply troubled by the deaths of African Americans at the hands of law enforcement and angered by the cowardly and hateful targeting and killing of police officers,” he said in a statement. Jordan took a moment of unique outrage against the police and used it to pledge $1m each to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the Institute for Community-Police Relations. His reckoning with police brutality was to conclude that everyone was at fault. Finally, after decades on the fence, Jordan committed politically – to bothsidesism. Jordan’s disappointingly apolitical entry into the political fray illustrates the difficulties of the post-career pivot. Jordan’s identity – as a wealthy retiree who avoids ruffling partisan-political feathers and mostly communicates in public through a spokesperson – is set, and nothing much that happens from here will change that.
Once the act is in train, it’s difficult to set it on a different course: there is a cautionary tale here for James, who is still figuring out what he will be once he stops playing. This presents both a danger and an opportunity. The danger is that he’ll half-ass his politics; that he’ll become a gauzy do-gooder who traffics in lazy Hollywood comedies and the kind of ready-to-wear inspirational quotes that already gum up every corner of the internet, pausing only to offer routine smackdowns on the occasional social injustice. The opportunity is for him to go beyond symbolism and use the work he does through his foundation to engage more meaningfully with politics, to not simply be another rich guy but to join the political fight to remedy the deep causes of poverty and racial injustice.
It would be the easiest thing in the world for him to coast through his late career and into retirement – one foot in Hollywood, the other in Akron. But is that really what he wants? That, surely, would represent an abdication of the very LeBronness that has defined his playing career: his determination not simply to be the best, but the best in a radically original way. You don’t declare yourself “more than an athlete” only to reinvent yourself as a t-shirt salesman.
Apart from Snoop Dogg, Draymond Green was perhaps the only guest on the first episode of The Shop who met the show’s self-description as “unfiltered”. (Sample quote: “Jews look out for Jews.”) At one point Stewart asks James whether he thinks he’s earned the title of “best ever”. Green interjects: of course he has. “I think Bron over the last four years became LeBron James,” he continues. “And it wasn’t nothing to do with winning, it wasn’t nothing to do with stats. He found himself. People didn’t start to view him as they view him now until he became that force, that man to say, ‘I’m here.’” The foundation, the political platform, the social media following, the deal with HBO, a final tilt at a ring with the Lakers: James got himself here. What happens now is up to him.