lebron is not at home

words: nathaniel friedman

On Tuesday, LeBron James announced his plans to one day purchase an NBA franchise. The next day, his Los Angeles home was defaced with racist graffiti. The contrast between James’s wholly reasonable goals and the way his home was vandalized could not be starker. In 24 hours, James went from singular aspiration to dealing with the kind of incident that could befall any person of color in 2017 America.

It’s an understatement to say LeBron James is one of the world’s most important athletes. Until further notice, he’s the greatest basketball player in the known universe and perhaps the GOAT. LeBron’s the unquestioned leader of a team expected to compete for a championship until he slows down. He holds immense sway within the Cavs organization and the NBA in general; at this point, his brand is inextricable from the health of the league. He was the driving force behind the player-determined “super team” movement that’s currently central to the way the league works. He’s the Vice President of the NBPA, historically an unusual role for someone of his stature. He recently signed a $1 billion lifetime deal with Nike and has a host of outside ventures, most notably in entertainment. He’s become vocal politically, speaking out against police brutality and campaigning for Hillary Clinton. In Marxist terms, James owning a franchise would amount to him seizing the means of production—a whole new level of power within the sport.

Yet in the eyes of some, James isn’t the embodiment of Black excellence. Instead, he’s uppity, stepping outside the bounds of what athletes are expected to do, say and think. LeBron has been a lightning rod for criticism over the years simply because he’s too big a target to ignore. Since he entered the league, he’s been scrutinized both on and off the court and somehow emerged all the more impervious for it. As LeBron moves beyond wealth, influence, and cultural impact toward more structural forms of power, like franchise ownership, his very existence becomes an affront to those who are both threatened by his success and believe implicitly that an African-American simply shouldn’t be in that kind of position. That he’s an athlete only angers them further, since the stereotype of the dumb jock only compounds the garden-variety racism at play here. To varying degrees, LeBron’s critics have always sought to discredit him by implying that his reach exceed his grasp, as when he brought in his close circle of friends to run his operation. He’s been vindicated every time. There’s nothing left to do but erase him altogether and leave only a talisman for hate.

Until recently, LeBron James was polarizing figure. In many ways, he was punished for over-achieving. The world was looking for him to slip up; the standard he was held to was nothing short of perfection. And that was just on the court. The Decision brought about a whole new wave of invective, as did his decision to join forces with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami. James, as he’s done with his business, decided to go forward with full self-determination. While only Clevelanders burned his jersey in the street, there was an entire thinly-veiled conversation around whether or not this was a cop out, a coup, or some other existential threat to the prevailing order of the NBA. As it turned out, James ended up leading the show, collecting two titles, and then returning to Cleveland, a sentimental storyline that got all but the most avowed enemies of LeBron off his back. Last year’s Cavs championship cast him as the People’s Champ, a noble hero who faced adversity and then came back to slay the mighty Warriors. If an unlikely role for LeBron, it also wasn’t entirely off-base. And it turned him from a complicated brand proposition to a point of general consensus. Now LeBron James is unstoppable and omnipresent. That’s his leverage. And it’s exactly what some people wish they could take away.

James, who is busy preparing for Game 1 of the Finals, wasn’t even in Los Angeles. There’s no way of knowing what, if anything, his public response will be to the incident. While it’s being investigated as a hate crime, we can’t say with certainty that it was one. And there’s no reason to directly assume causation, as if this were explicitly referencing LeBron’s Tuesday comments. What it does tell us, though, is that there are people out there—probably more than you think—who see LeBron James as a problem that, chilling as it may sound, needs to be dealt with accordingly. Having failed to bring him down on substantive grounds, they’re now resorting to outright terror. In targeting one of America’s most accomplished athletes, the message automatically mutates from one about LeBron James to one about African-Americans in general.

No honest observer of American life can believe these attitudes are limited to those desperate enough to go out and act on them. LeBron James’s entire life and career takes place in a social reality that is fundamentally hostile to him and his every success only aggravates the situation. In his public response on Wednesday, he recalled Emmett Till's mother's decision to hold an open-casket funeral for her son, showing America what it would otherwise refuse to see. "Hate in America," LeBron said, "especially for African-Americans, is living every day. ...Even though it's concealed most of the time. ...No matter how much money you have, no matter how famous you are, no matter how many people admire you, being Black in America is tough. ...We got a long way to go ... until we feel equal in America." 

LeBron James may have made it. But that’s only emboldened those who are enraged by him. And as things escalate, we realize that it’s not just the outward racists who are implicated. It’s everyone whose assumptions and priorities are challenged by James. He’s a shock to the system. And because it’s the more subtle, even unconscious, forms of racism that keep the system intact, outward expressions of it aren’t outliers. They’re evidence that LeBron James has more than ever to go up against.

LeBron's home in Cleveland.