September 25, 2020

LeBron James speaks on resumed NBA playoffs, racial justice after win

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In a special edition of Weekly Pulse, Mackenzie Salmon is joined by USA TODAY Sports reporters Mark Medina, Jeff Zillgitt, Nancy Armour and Jarrett Bell for a roundtable discussion on the meteoric changes that could take place in America as a result of a historic week in sports.

USA TODAY

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — For a player that considers himself more than an athlete, there’s no need for Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James to stick to sports.

Now is not the time to dwell too deeply on the Lakers’ 131-122 win over the Portland Trail Blazers on Saturday to finish their five-game first-round series, even if it marked Los Angeles’ first postseason series win since 2012. Now is not the time to dissect Anthony Davis (43 points) and James (36) becoming the first Lakers duo in 10 years to each score 30 points in a playoff game, even if coach Frank Vogel called them “the two best players in the world.” Now is the time for James to spend the majority of his postgame press conference speaking about more worldly matters.

“Hopefully the past couple of days is a change for the greater good and future,” James said. “Hopefully we see change happening where you can look back and say that was the moment that it happened.”

The topics?

What he made of the Milwaukee Bucks boycotting their playoff game against the Orlando Magic to protest police shooting Jacob Blake, an unarmed Black man in the team’s home state. Why James initially leaned against resuming the NBA playoffs before deciding otherwise. What James thinks of the NBA’s increased commitment to racial justice initiatives.

What James made of President Obama’s advice, former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick offering support and actor Chadwick Boseman dying of cancer at age 43. And James admitting he has pondered an escape route from the Disney campus.

“I had numerous nights and days of thinking about leaving the bubble,” James said. “I think everyone has, including you guys. I don’t think there hasn’t been one person that hasn’t thought in their mind, ‘I got to get the hell out of here.’ Not because of what transpired, but it probably crossed my mind once a day.”

That did not fully prepare James, however, for what happened Wednesday afternoon. The Lakers were in the middle of a pregame nap when the Bucks refused to take the floor for their game against Orlando. So James eventually called together an emergency meeting to strategize what the Lakers might do.

James insisted he “wasn’t upset at all” that the Bucks did not alert other teams beforehand about their plan. He added, “I’m not here to judge or categorize what Milwaukee did.” But though the Bucks then spent three hours in the locker room talking to state leaders about passing police reform and offering justice for Blake and his family, the team had admitted the protest happened more by spontaneity and less on any strategy.

So when NBA players from all 13 remaining playoff teams met on Wednesday night, James lost patience.

“My mind began to figure out what is the plan going forward. If we don’t have a plan, what are we talking about? Why are we still here?” James said. “That’s where my mind went to. At one point there was no plan of going forward. There was no plan of action. Me personally, I’m not that type of guy. I’m not a guy that doesn’t have a plan and then is not ready to act on it.”

So, the Lakers left Thursday’s meeting with James indicating they did not want to resume the NBA playoffs. Even if that would cost the Lakers a chance to win their first championship since 2010. Even if it would cost James a chance to win his fourth title and first wearing purple and gold. Even if it would cost the NBA and its players a significant amount of money for this season and next.

UNION LEADERSHIP: Players “always unified” during protest discussions

EAST FAVORITE: Bucks keep focus on social change after closeout win

LUKA MANIA: Fans buzzing worldwide from USA to Slovenia to Spain

Still, those in NBA circles believe James made that move mostly to maximize leverage with the league’s governors.

“I pick my battles,” James said. “I listen and see what’s going on with that nature. I voice my opinion and I believe what is best. You have to understand, for me personally, it’s not just about me that comes with this league. It’s about the other 300-plus guys I have to look out for as well.”

James leaned on an unnamed number of advisors that he said became “very candid and also knowledgeable about what’s going on.” It’s not clear if James’ agent Rich Paul or business manager Maverick Carter offered perspective. It is clear, however, that former President Barack Obama did, though James kept those details private, too. As James said with a not-so-subtle dig at Donald Trump, “President Obama is a great man; he’s a great man. I wish he was still the President of the United States.”

The NBA players then met again Thursday morning, while the league’s Board of Governors held their own meeting. Later that afternoon, players, coach and governors spoke with the league office, the players union and Michael Jordan, who has served as the NBA’s Labor Relations Committee Chairman. Then, James took a vocal role in sharing his hopes that the NBA’s commitment toward addressing systemic racism went beyond the approval of kneeling during the national anthem, wearing  social justice messages on jerseys and donating $300 million over the next 10 years for a foundation aimed to help the Black community.

“They took it very seriously,” James said. “They were candid. We were very candid.”

By Friday, the NBA and the players union agreed on a few items.

In every city an NBA team owns and controls its arena, team governors would work with local election officials to turn the facility into a voting station for the Nov. 3 general election. If that deadline passed, team governors would work with local election officials to use their venues for another election-related purpose, including a place to host voter registration drives.

A handful of NBA teams had already committed to this, including the Atlanta Hawks, Chicago Bulls, Denver Nuggets, Detroit Pistons, Los Angeles Clippers, Bucks, Minnesota Timberwolves, Memphis Grizzlies, Blazers, Sacramento Kings and Washington Wizards. Since the NBA and NBPA agreed to this commitment, the Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets and Lakers all announced new plans, too. Those efforts coincide with James founding “More than a Vote,” a group that has increased voter registration drives and addressed voter suppression tactics in the Black community.

“That’s unbelievable and is something that we need,” James said. “It’s something we need not only in Los Angeles, but all of our NBA cities trying to get all 30 franchises and all 30 NBA arenas to open up.”

The NBA and the players union also agreed to form a “social justice coalition,” which will include players, coaches and governors that will make efforts to ensure police and criminal justice reform. The league will also work with the players and broadcast partners (ABC/ESPN, Turner) to include public service announcements during every playoff game about the importance of voting in national and local elections. James and Davis stressed they will also hold the league and its governors accountable in not donating to candidates or causes that contradict the Black Lives Matter movement.

“All you can do is get me to give us your word,” James said. “I’m going to hold that with the utmost respect. If the word you have given me is not fulfilled, then we’ll attack that moment.”

It was only four years ago when Kaepernick tried to spark this kind of awareness by kneeling during the national anthem. He faced immediate backlash, however, from people that contended he was disrespecting the military with the kneeling and police officers when he wore socks depicted as pigs. He also faced criticism when he admitted he did not vote in the presidential election.

James has had different views on voting. But he has admired Kaepernick for “falling on the sword for athletes at that point.” So James expressed gratitude when Kaepernick sent him a letter that partly said, “Thank you for being true.” James posted the note on his Instagram account, writing, “standing/kneeling right next to you brother! Appreciate you.”

“He’s another one of those athletes that is generational and people will think back in history with sports figures,” James said. “Not only will they talk about his performance on the field, but how important he is off the field. That’s one thing we always know about Muhammad Ali. They call him the people’s champ. I don’t think anyone calls him the people’s champ because of what he did in the ring.”

It is because Ali refused to serve in the Vietnam War, even if it hurt his professional boxing career. That fact only reinforced in James the need to admire other accomplished Black people. Hence, James became wistful reflecting on the death of Congressman John Lewis, former Lakers star Kobe Bryant and Boseman, whom James honored during the national anthem with the “Wakanda Forever” pose from the Black Panther movie.

“Even though we knew it was a fictional story, it actually felt real. It finally felt like we had our black superhero, and nobody can touch us,” James said. “To lose that is sad in our community. To lose the Black Panther and the Black Mamba in the same year, we can all agree that 2020 is the (crappiest) year in my 35 years. It’s not even a question.”

James then stood up and left the interview room. For the first time in recent days, the Lakers star was done with speaking out on issues.

Follow USA TODAY NBA writer Mark Medina on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

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