As he cemented his legacy in the greatest finals comeback in pro-basketball history, LeBron James made it beautifully clear he knows his place in the game and has chosen to stand for more than himself.
Through his tears and choked-up words after the Cleveland Cavaliers rallied from a 3-to-1 deficit to upset the defending champion Golden State Warriors on Sunday, James' intellectual substance and caring pierced through the television set. He talked about being an inspiration to Cleveland, which has seen difficult economic times and racial strife. James famously started his career in Cleveland right out of high school in nearby Akron, left to collect two titles in Miami, then came back.
He rattled off a detailed history of sports failures that left the city with no pro-sports titles since 1964. "Those emotions came out of me, just understanding what our city has been through over the last 50-plus years since Jim Brown," James said. "Then also people just counting me out. Throughout my 13-year career, I've done nothing but be true to the game, put my heart, my blood, sweat, tears into the game."
It is no accident that James cited Brown, who was one of the most independent-thinking black men in sports while a running back for the Cleveland Browns. When Brown turned 80 this year, James said, "Being an African American growing up in the times that he did, standing up for what he believed in during one of the toughest times in this world's history is something to admire."
James paid similar homage to the legacy of outspoken black athletes recently when Muhammad Ali died. James listed Brown, Oscar Robertson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell, and Jackie Robinson, who, along with Ali, "stood for something."
James has begun to stand for something himself. When unarmed and hoodied Trayvon Martin was killed by a neighborhood vigilante, James and his then-Miami Heat teammates donned hoodies in protest. When Eric Garner was choked to death by New York City cops, James wore an "I Can't Breathe" T-shirt during warmups, a move that prompted President Obama to say, "I'd like to see more athletes do that."
The burden on black athletes to speak out is inherently unfair as white athletes are under no such scrutiny. But the relative lack of black male role models in other professions makes athletes that more powerful when they choose to raise their voice.
How far James is willing to go remains in question as he oddly displayed no similar outrage over the Cleveland police killing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was playing with a toy gun. Rice's mother Samaria said in a television interview that she was not asking James "to sit out a game. I know his kids got to eat, too. But you can at least put on a shirt or something ... make a statement for us black people out here."
But on the whole, James is making a welcome statement. Rare is the superstar who returns from a jet-set city to win a title for fans in the Rust Belt, declaring to his teammates in a Nike commercial, "Everything that we do on this floor is because of this city. We owe them."
James, raised fatherless and in poverty, seems to understand his role in helping young black males beat the odds. He said during the finals, "I've spoken up on a lot of issues that other athletes may not speak upon, but I feel it's my duty to carry on the legacy of the guys who did it before me."
Any athlete who feels such a duty is to be celebrated. He helped a city exhale after a half century of sports futility. He is now primed to breathe life into the image of the athlete, standing up for the legacies of Brown, Ali, and Russell.
Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.