There may be 30 team owners in the NBA, but as we saw during the debate about whether or not there would be a conclusion to the NBA season after COVID first halted it, there’s one person more powerful than all of them combined — LeBron James.
Cut to last week.
After Jacob Blake was shot in the back seven times by a Kenosha police officer, the Milwaukee Bucks made an unprecedented move, deciding to boycott Game Five of their playoff series against the Orlando Magic. It was an act of protest against ongoing police brutality and systemic racism in America. Other NBA playoff teams still in the bubble followed suit — most notably, James’ L.A. Lakers. That night, a meeting was called by the players to discuss whether or not they should finish the playoffs. As Shams Charania, senior reporter for The Athletic, reported:
Speaking for himself, James tweeted:
James obviously isn’t the only athlete calling for social change. Colin Kaepernick sparked the recent wave of protests by athletes in 2016, which has spread to all of the major sports, and WNBA players have been similarly vocal, even protesting the co-owner of the Atlanta Dream (a sitting U.S. senator) for not supporting the Black Lives Matter movement.
But if for no other reason than what his level of fame and wealth can provide, James is on another level. He founded a charter school. He led an anti-voter suppression effort, promising millions of dollars of his own money to increase Black voter turnout. And he’s partnered with the L.A. Dodgers to turn Dodgers Stadium into a polling site for L.A. County voters in November. “Because of everything that’s going on, people are finally starting to listen to us — we feel like we’re finally getting a foot in the door,” James told the New York Times in June about his organization More Than A Vote. “How long is up to us. We don’t know. But we feel like we’re getting some ears and some attention, and this is the time for us to finally make a difference.”
There is, however, an obvious forebearer to James’ activism and off-the-court leadership. His name is Bill Russell.
Now 86, Russell is still arguably the greatest basketball player of all time. He’s definitely the most decorated. He won the NBA championship in his rookie season of 1956-1957, and again as a player-coach in his final season of 1968-1969. In between, he won nine others, for an astonishing total of 11 titles in 13 years. But more importantly, after Jackie Robinson, Russell was the first Black star athlete who spoke his mind and truth — unapologetically, and yet, always believing in America’s promise. (As this documentary from 1969 stated, “The most powerful and important Black athlete [is] Bill Russell, player-coach of the Boston Celtics. Russell presently holds the highest position in sports held by a Black man. Russell recognizes the exploitation but sets the limits on the nature of his commercialization.”)
“During the years that Bill was playing, he was one of the few Black athletes that those of us in the sport really truly looked up to,” his friend Billy Mitchell, a star for the Washington football team in the mid-1960s, relayed in the 2000 HBO documentary Bill Russell: My Life, My Way. “It was that he stood for types of things we needed to stand up for. We held on to the future, just merely by watching and listening to the Bill Russells, the Jim Browns and those people who were outspoken.”
To that end, in 1961, Russell led an NBA boycott of his own. On October 17th, the Celtics traveled to Lexington, Kentucky for a preseason game. At the time, Lexington was still very much segregated, which the Celtics discovered when they went to eat in their hotel restaurant. After two Black players were denied service, they talked with Russell, who then led them to their coach’s hotel room. The legendary Red Auerbach listened to his players, but he also didn’t want to miss out on the payday that the exhibition game represented. He asked the Black players to stay and play the game.
As his teammate K.C. Jones recalled, “Red said, ‘You want to go home?’ And Bill said, ‘Yes.’ Red said, ‘Wouldn’t it be better if you played the game and then really get some attention to this thing through the media?’ And Bill said, ‘Red, we’ll get more attention from the media if we didn’t play.”
That’s exactly what happened, which was an immensely brave thing to do in 1961.
Russell was the focus of the racist outrage and opprobrium that followed. His behavior was seen as “uppity,” and he was treated as an “angry Black man” who didn’t know his place. This was especially true in the South, but no less true in Boston. But regardless of how racists reacted, how his nation judged him, Russell didn’t believe he owed anyone anything, outside of basketball. And he demanded that he be treated as a human being — on and off the court.
Fittingly, it was in Cleveland where Russell cemented his legacy as a Civil Rights icon, when he called together a meeting among top socially-aware Black athletes to discuss with Muhammad Ali his refusal to join the U.S. Army. Ali was resisting the draft, saying, “They never called me a nigger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father. I’m gonna shoot them for what?”
Russell held a press conference where he, Ali, Jim Brown, a young Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, among others, addressed the press in a show of solidarity. Under the direction of J. Edgar Hoover, the U.S. had declared war against Ali, but Russell’s actions were able to protect and strengthen his fellow Civil Rights icon-athlete. In fact, it was the very thing that changed the dynamic around Ali’s brave stance.
Following Russell’s lead, many other Black athletes began to speak out, to protest, to march, to use their labor and platform to fight injustice and to overcome the violence of racism. In 1968, at the Summer Olympics, American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised black gloved fists to draw the world’s attention to the plight of Black Americans. It was an international show of Black Power.
Later, throughout the 1970s, Abdul-Jabbar would continue Russell’s legacy as an activist who is also an athlete. But as the 1980s dawned, and Michael Jordan became synonymous with the global face of basketball, outsized endorsement deals followed. Jordan learned such deals depended on staying apolitical, and he taught a generation of superstars how to stay out of the fray in order to secure that bag of endorsement cash. James, however, hasn’t feared the loss of endorsement money; instead, he’s followed Russell’s lead.
In his day, Russell’s power and influence afforded him the ability to speak out at injustice in ways that other athletes — and certainly other Black people — could not. James understands this same dynamic. He knows he’s in a unique position that allows him to provide cover for other athletes to speak out without fear of financial reprisal. He also knows that he has the pull to single-handedly influence the league, culture and even the course of the country. Barack Obama certainly took his call.
And so, now that he’s “the most powerful and important Black athlete,” James has demanded that we, Black people, always be treated as human beings — using every bit of his fame and wealth to make it happen. In the process, he’s settled one of the most enduring debates among sports fans over the last couple of decades — he’s not the next Michael Jordan, he’s the next Bill Russell.