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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- From the moment LeBron James emerged a bit earlier than usual from the visitors' training room in Time Warner Cable Arena with his ankles taped, dressed in warm-up gear and with his headband in place, it was clear he was looking for a fight.
The Charlotte Bobcats would eventually become the target for James' aggression and focus.
But at the moment, the NBA's four-time MVP and preeminent superstar took aim elsewhere to unleash some pent-up frustrations with a disturbing development in these playoffs. As tepid reactions to alleged racist comments made by Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling trickled in from around the league, there was absolutely no confusion as to where James stood on the matter.
"There is no room for Donald Sterling in our league," James said, both sternly and stoically before the Heat's 98-85 win in Game 3 of the Heat's first-round playoff series against the Bobcats. "There is no room for him."
Before attempting to comprehend the magnitude of James' comments, try to understand this matchup.
This, for all intents and purposes, is the league's most powerful and influential player calling out one of the NBA's richest and longest-tenured owners. It's the game's most polarizing and criticized athlete demanding new league commissioner Adam Silver take sharp and swift action to punish arguably the NBA's most despised and controversial owner.
In an era in which athletes are worth hundreds of millions of dollars and are as committed to protecting their brand image as they are meeting expectations on the playing field, there are very few risk takers. The Muhammad Alis, Jim Browns and Bill Russells of the turbulent 1960s have largely given way to the more lucrative, largely silent and easily marketed superstars like Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan.
There was a bit of irony in how, when and where James took one of the boldest stands of his career Saturday. He was playing a Bobcats team owned by Jordan, the league's lone African-American majority owner, who sat at the end of his team's bench with his chin resting on his folded hands.
There is no room for Donald Sterling in our league.” -- LeBron James
Jordan, according to Bobcats team officials, declined to comment on the Sterling issue Saturday, and, while it's unfair to suggest Jordan never during his playing days would have made the type of public comments James aimed at Sterling, James never seemed concerned with any potential backlash or repercussions.
James broke down Sterling's alleged racist comments the way he does opposing defenses.
"Obviously, if the reports are true, it's unacceptable," James said of the TMZ report that centered on Sterling's comments to his girlfriend during a private, but recorded, conversation. "It doesn't matter if you're white, black, Hispanic, whatever. All across the races, it's unacceptable." In trying to empathize with close friend and Clippers star point guard Chris Paul, James said he couldn't imagine the disgust that team's players must feel. Amid speculation that some Clippers players were considering taking some type of unified action against Sterling, James took matters a step further and suggested it would be very difficult to play for an owner under the circumstances.
"I've wavered back and forth if I would actually sit out, if our owner came out and said the things that [Sterling] said," James said of the notion of potentially boycotting a playoff game. "I would really have to sit down with my teammates, talk to my family, because at the end of the day, our family and our teammates are way more important than that."
This isn't just lip service from James. He was fully aware of the reaction his stance would generate. It was different than when he spoke after Friday's practice of his frustration with what he believes has been a trend of deliberate hard fouls he's taken from opposing defenders. Still seething that the league eventually fined but did not suspend Bobcats forward Josh McRoberts for his hard foul in the Heat's Game 2 win, James said that if he played in the 1980s, he would have gotten up off the ground swinging in retaliation instead of walking away.
Earlier this season, James expressed displeasure with having to wear the sleeved jerseys the league has marketed to fans this season. Silver responded then by agreeing with James to table the public discussion about the tight-fitting jerseys until the offseason.
Before that, James stepped outside of the league's established mandate for players to wear clear masks to protect facial injuries. James ultimately complied, but not before playing a game with a sleek, all-black, microfiber mask in his first game back from a broken nose.
James' history of standing his ground on controversial issues has been well established, from gathering with his Heat teammates for a group photo in hooded sweatshirts to bring awareness to the Trayvon Martin case in 2012 to suggesting to CNN that race played a role in some of the backlash he received from fans after his decision to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers for Miami as a free agent in 2010.
Not only have James' game and success on the court expanded these past four seasons in Miami, so has the foundation on which he stands. He's mentioned several times in recent months that he's obligated as a marquee and iconic player to use his voice and platform to effect change on issues that matter most. Right now, that mission is to ensure the league handles the Sterling problem free of hypocrisy.
"I'm not angry -- just disappointed more than anything," James said. "It's only 30 owners. There are 300, 400 of us [players]. I can only imagine if a player came out and said something of that stature. What would happen to us as players? I believe in Adam. I believe in the NBA, and they have to do something very fast and quickly before this really gets out of hand."
James didn't seem to care if anyone took that as an ultimatum.
He clearly has his pulse on the level of unrest this ordeal has caused throughout the league. He knows someone doesn't have to play for the Clippers or be an African-American to be offended by Sterling's alleged comments, just like one didn't have to own a pet to be disgusted by the details revealed in the dogfighting investigation of Michael Vick.
Wrong is wrong, and there's no room for a private or public racist as an owner in professional sports.
And that, more so than any of the 30 he scored Saturday, was James' biggest point of the night.
On most nights, James dominates the game with his skill.
This time, the combination of his stature and statements couldn't be denied.