Sunday night, the Los Angeles Lakers won their 17th NBA championship
, led by the virtuoso James, who was named the series MVP for the fourth time. For those counting, this represents James’ fourth ring, with three different teams — a first in NBA history.
James’ fourth championship now places him in the pantheon of the sport alongside the likes of Michael Jordan, considered by many
to be the greatest basketball player of all time
. While Jordan, during his own playing heyday, famously eschewed getting political, James has confidently taken up the struggle for Black dignity and citizenship, emerging as the athletic superstar that America might not deserve but so desperately needs.
His rise as a force for social justice marks a generational passing of the torch of sorts from other towering players such a Bill Russell, who fiercely championed civil rights
in the 1950s and 1960s, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, whose Muslim faith and name change (he was born Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor Jr.) made him a Black Power era icon in the late 1960s and early 1970s, one who helped pave the way
for contemporary players.
But to fully appreciate what makes James’ virtuosity historic, it is also important to remember that this year’s NBA Finals almost didn’t happen — and why.
On August 26, the Milwaukee Bucks boycotted a scheduled playoff game
in protest against the shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin and racial injustice that had received increasing attention after the killing of George Floyd. This action inspired a league-wide boycott (as well as stoppages by teams in other professional sports) and players debated whether the playoffs should continue.
James, the NBA’s biggest star and among the most outspoken and eloquent athletes of his generation on matters of racial justice and equity, helped to forge a compromise. Playoffs would continue, players would be allowed to wear T-shirts and emblems expressing their support for Black Lives Matter and social justice causes and the league would donate money to social justice organizations and turn NBA arenas into polling places for the upcoming election.