For all his athletic accomplishments, Michael Jordan has never inspired the same kind of emotional response that LeBron James does today.
For Sunday’s game against the Washington Wizards in the nation’s capital, Cleveland Cavaliers superstar LeBron James took the floor wearing a pair of mismatched sneakers — one white, the other black — each bearing the word “Equality” inscribed in gold stitching.
We all know where we are right now, and we know who is at the helm here,” James explained to a reporter after recording his third consecutive triple-double in the Cavaliers’ 106-99 win. He continued:
“Us as Americans, no matter the skin color, no matter the race, no matter who you are, I think we all have to understand that having equal rights and being able to stand for something and speak for something and keeping the conversation going [is important].
Obviously, I’ve been very outspoken and well-spoken about the situation that’s going on at the helm here, and we’re not going to let one person dictate [to] us, us as Americans, how beautiful and how powerful we are as a people.
Equality is all about understanding our rights, understanding what we stand for and how powerful we are as men and women, black or white or Hispanic. It doesn’t matter your race, whatever the case may be, this is a beautiful country, and we’re never going to let one person dictate how beautiful and how powerful we are.”
In his 15th season, the 32-year-old James is off to the best statistical start of an already-storied career, inviting, once again, comparisons to Michael Jordan — and leading to heated arguments in barber shops, barrooms, and on talk radio shows across the nation, as fans debate which player is truly the GOAT, or Greatest Of All Time.
By any standard, both athletes are blessed with uncommon athletic grace and a competitive ferocity that make it unlikely that there will ever be a consensus about who was the better player: James is a more accomplished passer and rebounder and, with his size and strength, a more versatile defender than was Jordan, whose cat-like quickness made him arguably the best perimeter scorer and on-ball defender to ever lace up a pair of sneakers.
But James’ bold political statement Sunday also invites stark comparison to the impregnable apolitical cocoon in which Jordan wrapped himself throughout his career, squandering his political capital at a time when working people generally, and African-Americans specifically, could have used all the help they could get.
MJ’s real-world turnovers
In 1990, at the height of Jordan’s powers and acclaim, there were growing calls for him to endorse a black Democrat, Harvey Gantt, who was challenging the incumbent Republican Senator Jesse Helms in Jordan’s home state of North Carolina. Helms was, by all accounts, an unrepentant racist (his father was the inspiration for the redneck Southern sheriff who beat Oprah Winfrey’s character half to death in the 1985 film The Color Purple). But when a Chicago Tribune sports columnist asked if he would lend his name to Gantt’s campaign, Jordan rather famously responded that he would not, because “Republicans buy shoes, too.”
There is some dispute whether Jordan said those exact words, but here’s what’s inarguable: Jordan did not support Gantt, and Gantt failed in his bid to unseat Helms, who went on to hold his Senate seat for another decade.
Jordan’s silence on any matter of real-world consequence is as consistent with his bloodless commercial value system as James’ gesture Sunday reinforces what appears to be a genuine commitment to building a Beloved community. When his teammate Craig Hodges urged a boycott of the 1991 NBA finals matchup with the Los Angeles Lakers to protest the Los Angeles Police Department’s videotaped beatdown of an unarmed black motorist, Rodney King, Jordan and Lakers superstar Magic Johnson scoffed at the notion.
James and his Miami Heat teammates, on the other hand, donned hoodies to denounce the vigilante George Zimmerman, who fatally shot an unarmed black teenager, Trayvon Martin, who was merely walking home from a suburban Orlando convenience store.
Jordan and his agent, David Falk, once took sides against the NBA players’ union in a labor dispute and the star even punched his team’s labor rep, Steve Kerr, now coach of the Golden State Warriors, partly in retaliation for his role in negotiating the players’ contract with the league. James is vice president of the players’ association, and tweeted his unqualified support of his rival’s decision to boycott the NBA champions’ traditional White House visit. Jordan berated teammates, and belittled fans and marginalized both teammates and rivals, while James uses his influence and resources to empower teammates and prop up friends from his old neighborhood in Akron.
When reporters in 1996 asked Jordan to address the use of child workers to make his shoes in Indonesian sweatshops, Jordan said: “I think that’s Nike’s decision to do what they can to make sure everything is correctly done. I don’t know the complete situation. Why should I? I’m trying to do my job.”
Compare Jordan’s indifference to James’ remarks at the 2016 ESPY awards, in which he and fellow NBA stars Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade, appealed for an end to police violence targeting African-Americans:
Let’s use this moment as a call to action for all professional athletes to educate ourselves, explore these issues, speak up, use our influence and renounce all violence — and, most importantly, go back to our communities, invest our time, our resources, help rebuild them, help strengthen them, help change them. We all have to do better.”
To be sure, professional athletes, black or otherwise, have never marched in lockstep on political issues. Muhammad Ali, as one example, embraced the title of the “people’s champion” while his contemporary, O.J. Simpson, wanted to create as much distance as he possibly could between himself and his impoverished childhood in a San Francisco housing project. Similarly, the 41-year-old Tiger Woods is every bit as mute as Jordan when it comes to social issues. Still, some measure of what separates LeBron from MJ off-the-court is representative of their generations.
Defining the era: “The Cosby Show” vs. “The Wire”
Growing up in an intact, working-class family, Jordan was a child of the Reagan 80s, when greed was good, and “The Cosby Show” held out the promise to African-Americans of a capitalism that could accommodate them if only they surrendered their anger. When James came of age 20 years later, growing up in a single-parent household, that dream had been foreclosed on for all but a few Blacks.
The good-paying, unionized jobs in Akron and elsewhere had been shipped overseas; the Clinton administration’s get-tough-on-crime policies were akin to a Biblical plague on African-Americans; gritty dramas like “The Wire” had replaced “The Cosby Show,” shining a light on black neighborhoods as poor, sick, and isolated as ever. Outspoken NFL players like Colin Kaepernick, Michael Bennett, and Marshawn Lynch, and the tennis star Serena Williams, consistently articulate and demonstrate their solidarity with poor and oppressed people, both at home and abroad.
Great plays a fan remembers
For all his athletic accomplishments, however, Jordan has never inspired the same kind of emotional response that James does today. Four years ago, I was at a Silicon Valley bar watching a Miami Heat game when an older white woman sidled up next to me. After a few minutes, the woman mentioned that she was from Cleveland and I assumed that she was one of the many Whites who disliked LeBron for jumping ship, abandoning the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat. I don’t remember who the Heat were playing but they they losing and with James leading the charge, they began to mount a comeback.
After a few minutes I realized that the woman sitting next to me was not cheering against LeBron but for him. “I thought you hated LeBron,” I said to her as she stared intently at the television screen
“What ever gave you that idea?” she replied, and began to explain that she was a nurse at a children’s hospital in Cleveland and how the children would just light up when James stopped by, sometimes unexpectedly.
“The only thing I hate about the young man,” she said, as the final horn sounded, “is that he’s not my son.”
Top Photo | LeBron James wears a T-shirt reading “I Can’t Breathe,” during warms up before an NBA basketball game against the Brooklyn Nets in New York. (AP/Frank Franklin II)
Jon Jeter is a published book author and two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist with more than 20 years of journalistic experience. He is a former Washington Post bureau chief and award-winning foreign correspondent on two continents, as well as a former radio and television producer for Chicago Public Media’s “This American Life.”