Ever since he burst into the national spotlight as a high school star playing for St. Vincent’s in Cleveland, Lebron James has been simultaneously the epitome of the 21st century Black pro athlete and a lightning rod for criticism. Now in his early 30s, he’s unquestionably the NBA’s biggest star, though some would also deem him its most polarizing figure.
But James’ exploits are certainly the stuff of legend. He’s won four Most Valuable Player Awards, been on two championship teams (two time Finals MVP) and is a multiple All-League, All-Star, All-Defensive staple. The detractors who cite his four losses in championship series often neglect to point out that in most cases his team wasn’t the superior one, and fact that in several defeats he was easily the best player on either club.
Still, it can legitimately be argued that Lebron James’ importance aside from basketball far transcends his court achievements. Indeed it would be hard (though there are some folks out there willing to try) not to applaud the image James has off the court, and the many things he’s done to maintain ties with both the core Black communities of Akron and Cleveland, as well as the larger African-American nation.
First, James has maintained ties his entire professional career with childhood friends, and his representation is solidly Black rather than a large white multi-national company. He’s married to his high school sweetheart. As upsetting as his decision was to leave his native Cleveland for four years to play in Miami, the return is responsible for two more years of constant sellouts in downtown Cleveland. His presence has made the Cavaliers the lone championship contender among the city’s teams.
Besides his agent Rich Paul (his third after Aaron Goodwin and Leon Rose), James, Paul Maverick Carter and Randy Mims formed their own agent and sports-marketing company LRMR about three years ago. While he has endorsement contracts with everyone from Coca-Cola and State Farm to Nike, in his commercials James has always been careful to include lesser publicized and highlighted teammates.
He’s also done a lot of equally strategic things in the world of marketing. These include being granted a minority stake in the English Premier League soccer team Liverpool FC. When Apple acquired Beats Electronics in 2014, he reportedly enjoyed a profit of more than $30 million because he’d originally purchased a small stake in the company as part of an endorsement deal for promoting its headphones.
James’ lengthy list of charitable causes include being an active supporter of the Boys & Girls Club of America, the Children’s Defense Fund and another organization ONEXONE. His Lebron James Family Foundation, headquartered in Akron, announced a partnership with the University of Akron last year to provide scholarships for over 2,300 children beginning in 2021.
As if that weren’t enough, James’ broadcasting and media prominence continue rising. He’s hosted the ESPY Awards and Saturday Night Live. An acting cameo in the HBO series “Entourage” led to playing himself in the film “Trainwreck.” He’s now producing a sitcom for Starz titled “Survivor’s Remorse,” and his digital video company Uninterrupted has raised $15,8 million from both Turner Sports and Warner Brothers Entertainment as they expand athlete-created content for sports fans.
Ironically, while the James comparisons with Michael Jordan have often generated scathing and dismissive rebuttals from Jordan fans, an area where he far surpasses him by any measure is in his willingness to take controversial public stances. He was critical of the outcome of both the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases, and very vocal about the need for getting Donald Sterling out of the NBA following the release of Sterling’s racially bigoted remarks on tape. He and his then Miami teammates made a video to demonstrate their dismay about the Trayvon Martin case. He also donated $20,000 to one of the committee’s to elect Barack Obama during his first run for the Presidency.
But even all this has not fully insulated James from criticism. Recently the mother of Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old boy shot and killed by Cleveland police while holding a toy gun, criticized James for not being more vocal about the case. This despite the fact he had said the case “was much bigger than me,” and also urged both more investigation of police shootings and tougher laws against illegal guns and guns violence.
James’ outspoken desire to be a billionaire, his larger-than-life personality, and the fact his teams don’t win championships as often as Bill Russell’s Celtics or Jordan’s Bulls will always make him a target in some circles. However those willing to consider his track record objectively and look at the big picture on and off the basketball court will see a superstar who has mastered both the athletic and celebrity universes. No, he isn’t perfect. No one is. But there’s far more to like and celebrate about Lebron James than attack or lament. In today’s world, that’s saying something.
By Ron Wynn
Ron Wynn is the cousin of Robert Wynn, founder of ProSquared LLC