On and off court, LeBron James remains a voice of justice in the US

Keith Duggan: In strange season, Lakers star is insistent on justice for Breonna Taylor

Los Angeles Lakers player LeBron James warms up before playing the Los Angeles Clippers at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex restarting the NBA season in Kissimmee, Florida. Photo: Erik S. Lesser/EPA

On Thursday evening in Orlando, LeBron James dribbled the basketball and surveyed his options with 16 seconds left in the game which restarted the official NBA season, an all-Los Angeles affair between the Lakers and Clippers.

The game was tied at 101; a thriller. The sight of those Lakers uniforms on the television screens again must have been a balm for millions of Americans in a summer when the economic and unemployment figures shoot like a fireball in the sky and the occupant of the White House is muttering outright anarchy.

If the sports world ever needed a reminder that we are living in the age of LeBron James, this was it. The NBA is lucky in that the close-quarter camera work means the absence of the crowd is not as prominent as it is in wide lens sports like football – any form – or baseball. The game felt like the real thing and there is the added novelty of hearing some of the calls of the players.

James watched the clock and then made his move, crossing on to his left hand and then shooting a runner from the top of the key as the entire Clippers defence collapsed on him. The shot was short but the Clippers players committed the cardinal error of forgetting about the guy who had just shot the ball. Nobody put a body on James to block him out; everyone looked at the ball. James reacted sharpest to the rebound and scored on the put back. It was enough to win the game.


Achieving justice

Within the confines of the NBA, James is on a stated mission to deliver a championship for the Lakers. He is 35 this year and is in the last stage of an epic public sports life which was already fully underway when he was 15. But in the build up to the return to play, James was more interested – or, rather, politely insistent – in talking about achieving justice for Breonna Taylor than he was in talking about basketball.

“We want the cops arrested who committed that crime,” he told the media last week. He was referring to the killing of Taylor, a 26-year-old Louisiana woman who was shot eight times by police while in her home after the police entered on a no-knock search warrant. The shooting happened in March but only attained public attention in the wake of the protests that swept through American cities after the police killing of George Floyd. The appalling phone video footage of that killing provoked the vast marches of outrage that gripped America. There are no such images to graphically illustrate what had happened to Breonna Taylor, something that James alluded to. “I mean, is that what we need? To see a video of Breonna being killed for people to realise how bad this situation is.”

In practice games in Disneyworld, where the NBA teams are isolating in an attempt to complete the season without a Covid-19 outbreak, James had Taylor’s name written on his shoes. He has a long history of speaking out in blunt, informed terms about the various atrocities visited on black Americans, dating back to the killing of the 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by a civilian in 2012. You can only guess at how uncomfortable the police involved in the death of Breonna Taylor must now feel with America’s most influential sports figure publicly and repeatedly calling for criminal charges to be brought against them.

James is the player for whom all other NBA players regard as a kind of unofficial spokesperson. Coaches like Steve Kerr and Greg Popovich have been provocatively outspoken in their criticisms of Donald Trump. Several players publicly wondered if it was right to even play pro basketball in a summer defined by protest and marches in support of Black Lives Matter.

It’s clear that James is going to make the Taylor case his burning public mission for the remainder of this season. His impact is both localised and national - the Lakers, for instance, have taken on a UCLA professor to direct their racial equity programme. And there has been a conscious decision by all NBA teams to put the Black Lives Matter mission at the heart of their public profile for the rest of this unique season.

The first subject addressed by Mike Malone, the Denver Nuggets head coach, was to declare his support for praising the Lumineers musician Nathaniel Ratcliff in boycotting an arena in the Denver suburb of Greenwood Village. Residents there had adopted a bill which indemnified its police officers from a bill making them potentially liable for up to $25,000 of their own money in civil legal cases. It’s a niche protest but an example of the NBA’s willingness to engage with that world. James is at the forefront of this collective conscience.

It’s over two years now since Laura Ingraham, a Fox News presenter, took James to task for his criticisms of Trump in an interview he gave with Kevin Durant, the game’s other resident superstar.

“So keep the political commentary to yourself or as someone once said: shut up and dribble,” the presenter advised in a dismissive tirade that caused an avalanche of reaction on social media. Ingraham rejected the accusation that her remarks were racially motivated and feigned astonishment in her next show.

“I tell you something: if you were a white player and you said that stuff he said about Obama, you’d never play again.”

Diabolical rhetoric

In other words, her comments were completely based on race, whether she was conscious of it or not. And in the two years since, Trump’s diabolical rhetoric has spread across the republic like a slow, scentless poisonous gas. Racial tensions are as stretched as they have ever been. To black America, the eight years of the Obama administration must seem like a distant dream. The former president has been conspicuously and perhaps wisely circumspect in his comments on Trump’s wilder moments of misgovernance.

There are already signs of a brighter future for the US in some of its representatives – there is a growing energy behind the vision of Alexandria Ocasia-Cortez becoming the first woman president of the country in the 2024 election. However, that date seems a long way off.

In this alarming year, as America flounders under a president who is a menace, LeBron James’ consistent, even-toned and influential demands for change and justice sound and look all the more powerful and statesmanlike.

He might well win that championship and his fourth ring, which would be all the more remarkable given that his eye isn’t fully on the ball.