Preaching social justice and playing basketball at the highest level would be a real delicate balance to handle for most people. LeBron James isn’t most people. When James blurted out “We’re built different, dawg! We’re built different!” during the Los Angeles Lakers’ 111-88 win against the Portland Trail Blazers in Game 2 of the teams’ first-round playoff series, he was referring to himself as well as his teammates.
A look at what James and the Lakers have had to overcome as a team speaks volumes about the resiliency of this ballclub. And it’s been a lot to deal with. There was the tragic and unthinkable loss of a Lakers legend. The COVID-19 pandemic altered everyday life. And because of the virus, the sports world came to an abrupt halt, including the NBA.
If that wasn’t enough to bear, Black America had to relive the terror of being hunted and murdered as coldly as a dog eating slop. The alarm bells went off when three white men plotted and killed Ahmaud Arbery for no other reason than the fact that the 25-year-old was Black. Then the unforeseen killing of Breonna Taylor by police happened. And then the breaking point came.
When a Minneapolis police officer decided he wanted to play judge and jury by issuing George Floyd an immediate death sentence when he callously squeezed the life out of the 46-year-old Black man by kneeling on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, he didn’t know he would be the catalyst to set in motion a wave of activism not seen in decades. Stampedes of protests took over the nation’s streets for weeks.
Before the Lakers engaged the Toronto Raptors on Aug. 1, the two teams took a knee during the playing of the national anthem from both the United States and Canada. James, in a postgame press conference after the Lakers defeated the Utah Jazz 116-108 on Aug. 3, reflected on those four minutes as the anthems played in comparison to the seemingly endless timetable that would eventually cost Floyd his life.
“I was thinking about the other day when we played the Raptors and we kneeled for two national anthems and I think was it was a little bit over four minutes,” James said. “We actually as a unit, as a team, had to switch our knees over from one knee to the other knee because they started to get sore, started to like…kind of started hurting a little bit. And that’s just a little over four minutes. And you think about eight minutes and 46 seconds of an officer having a knee on someone’s neck for that long. Video or no video, it doesn’t matter. No one deserves to lose their life when it could have been prevented…from what I’ve seen and from what the world has seen.”
The ride called life has been a wild one this year for James and the Lakers. And yet, the Purple and Gold have managed to fare pretty well in the face of what seems to be a daily firestorm of adversity. And yet the end goal remains the same for James and the Lakers as it did at the beginning of the season: win a championship.
With their top perimeter defensive player deciding to opt-out of playing in the NBA’s restart and seeing their most consistent ballhandler outside of James go down because of an injury, the Lakers still managed to win their first Pacific Division title since the 2011-12 NBA season and earn the No. 1 playoff seed in the Western Conference.
— NBA (@NBA) August 23, 2020
Built different? That achievement in itself is a testament to how this Lakers team is wired.
“I really don’t compare us to anybody in the league,” James said. “It’s not what everybody else does; it’s not the time everyone [has] put in. I just know what type of season we’ve had this year. It’s been three or four seasons in one. It started from training camp to preseason to traveling abroad to entering a new year to the tragic death, obviously of Kobe and those victims on that helicopter to the stop of the season to players getting injured. [Rajon] Rondo going down for a big piece of the year to the restart and not having our brother Avery Bradley here…and so on and so on. I don’t even know. It feels like it’s just been three or four different seasons. So, I know what we’re capable of. I know how we’re built. I don’t compare us to anyone. I compare us to us.”
For the Lakers, all roads lead to and through James. That covers everything from basketball to non-basketball related stuff. That means dropping social accountability shoutouts for Taylor. That means James taking a self-taught history class by reading the Autobiography of Malcolm X. That means speaking out on No. 45 and all of his wackiness. It means wearing Black Lives Matter shirts and taking a knee in peaceful protest.
Built different? It’s one thing for James to take a team and carry them on his broad shoulders all the way to an NBA title. It’s another thing to be calling shots in another arena. So far, James has been able to juggle both worlds without a hiccup. He’s proven he is the best basketball player on the planet. When it comes to philanthropy and being out front on social justice messaging, James is just as powerful as a spokesperson there is.
When he speaks, everyone listens.
And he has been talking a lot lately, from addressing the Floyd and Taylor killings head on to dismissing some of the things coming out of the mouth of the current occupier of the Oval Office. During a press briefing on Aug. 19, President Donald Trump called for a boycott of Akron, Ohio-based Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company.
“Well, I’m not happy with Goodyear because what they’re doing is playing politics. And the funny thing is the people that work for a Goodyear — I can guarantee you I poll very well with all of those great workers in Goodyear,” President Trump said. “And when they say that you can’t have “Blue Lives Matter,” you can’t show a blue line, you can’t wear a MAGA hat, but you can have other things that are Marxist in nature, there’s something wrong with the top of Goodyear. And what the radical left does is they make it impossible for people to do business if they’re Republican or if they’re conservative. They put out all sorts of effort: “Don’t shop there.” They do vicious things, not so different than what you saw on the streets of Portland two nights ago.”
When asked what kind of boycott he would recommend against Goodyear, President Trump sounded as if he doesn’t know himself.
“Oh, I don’t know. That’s up to people,” President Trump said. “But I wouldn’t recommend it. If they — if they want to hold a political speech, if they want to let you not do what everybody is doing; if they want to wear a MAGA hat or if they want to wear a “Blue Lives…” You know what “Blue Lives Matter,” right? That’s policemen and women. That’s a terrible thing. That’s a terrible thing.”
“So they’re using their power over these people, and these people want to wear whatever it is that we’re talking about,” President Trump continued. “You know that. And so I would be very much in favor if people don’t want to buy there. And you know what? They’ll be able to get a good job — because we set a jobs record over the last quarter, as you know. The most jobs ever in the history of our country. You’ll be able to get another good job. I think it’s disgraceful that they did this.”
James, who grew up in Akron, gave a blowtorch response to President Trump’s boycott rhetoric.
“I know my people of Akron, and I know what Goodyear means to our city…one thing about us, we don’t bend, we don’t fold, we don’t break for nobody, so I’m not worried about that,” James said. “Not only has Goodyear been great for my city, for the history of my city, but the country and what they represented. It’s an unbelievable brand, unbelievable history. We stand strong and we always unite, especially my city. We’ve always felt like we’ve been counted out being a small city, and that’s what rallies us even more and makes us even stronger.”
Built different? Yeah, you might say that the three-time NBA champion is cut from a special piece of fabric, the kind of material where people don’t Kowtow to bullies or yield to authoritarian figures. It is because of what he stands for that James can speak out without reservation and with authority about the pain the Black community to struggle with when it comes to police violence and enduring structural and systemic racism.
This is nothing new for James. As a member of the Miami Heat, James was prominent in speaking out against the killing of Black teenager Trayvon Martin by a neighborhood watch member. There was the whole Donald Sterling fiasco that James spoke out on. Months after the death of Eric Garner, James and other NBA players wore “I Can’t Breathe,” t-shirts to emulate the dying words of the married father, who died by a police chokehold. And then there is More Than a Vote, the voting rights group James is part of that is set on voter participation and fighting systemic racism.
So, this isn’t James’ first rodeo when it comes to implementing his brand of activism.
That activism has now carried over into the bubble format created by the NBA as the league looks to salvage its 2019-20 season. Whether it’s making a fashion statement with a ripoff replica of MAGA hats that calls for justice for the 26-year-old Taylor who was killed by police on March 13, James and his teammates have put words into action.
“Justice for Breonna Taylor,” James said in July. “We’re going to continue to harp on that.”
The Lakers have done just that. Since the restart, James and his teammates have not let up in bringing attention to Taylor’s case.
The story behind Taylor’s murder stems from police representing the Louisville Metro Police Department executing a no-knock warrant on her apartment and going ballistic crazy and started shooting up the place, killing the black emergency technician and wounding her boyfriend. Officers served the warrant alleging possible drug trafficking out of Taylor’s apartment.
No drugs were ever found at Taylor’s home. Police reportedly shot blindly into Taylor’s apartment from the outside of the building. Three police officers have been placed on administrative leave. Eight bullets ripped into Taylor’s body. Five months later there still have not been any charges brought forth or arrests made.
Prior to their Game 1 playoff game against the Trail Blazers, the Lakers tossed gasoline on the fire by wearing bright eye-catching red hats that bear the MAGA phrase with a twist. Instead of the hats reading “Make America Great Again,” James and the Lakers wore the caps that read “Make America Arrest the Cops Who Killed Breonna Taylor.”
Built different? James and the Lakers are answering the bell with their creative forms of protest.
“It’s something that we keep putting our foot on the gas, continue the pressure,” James after the Lakers’ Game 1 100-93 loss to the Trail Blazers. “You know the situation that’s going on in Louisville, Kentucky…an innocent woman being killed by the name of Breonna Taylor. A woman who had a bright future and her life was taken away from her. And there’s been no arrests. There’s been no justice. Not only for her, but for her family, and we want to continue to shed light on that situation because it’s unjust. That’s what it’s about.”