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When it comes to activism, LeBron James has started to be like Mike

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LeBron promoting message of peace and understanding (2:03)

ESPN Cavaliers reporter Dave McMenamin gives the details of LeBron James' first public comments since a grand jury declined Monday to press charges against the police officers responsible for the November 2014 shooting death of Tamir Rice. (2:03)

LeBron James has never been more like Michael Jordan than he has of late, when he chose the path of behind-the-scenes empowerment over outspoken activism.

Some might take that as a criticism, that by sidestepping the topic of Tamir Rice, LeBron is following the same politically safe path as Jordan when it comes to addressing issues that affect African-Americans. But that view fails to see the whole picture, fails to address the alternate avenues that Scoop Jackson wrote about at length a little over a year ago when he detailed the ways in which Jordan has provided leadership through economic opportunities. James has done similar things, and the latest evidence came in the days before a grand jury did not indict the police officer who fatally shot Rice, the 12-year-old African-American boy who was wielding a toy gun in public. It was almost a stealth move by James, even though the revolution was televised.

It came in the form of a new commercial for Samsung that debuted during the NBA's Christmas Day slate of games. It features LeBron James embarking on an early-morning workout. The unforgettable intro to Public Enemy's "Welcome to the Terrordome" (sampled from the song "Bon Bon Vie" by T.S. Monk) kicks in, and soon seemingly all of Cleveland is sonically linked to LeBron, as factory workers, office-cubicle dwellers, cooks and TV news anchors all sing along until LeBron closes with the lines: "Black to the bone/my home is your home/But welcome to the Terrordome."

That the ad even exists in this form can be traced back to LeBron's decision to merge his childhood friends with his corporate identity, to trust a group that was just like him -- young and black -- to navigate him through deals and partnerships worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Maverick Carter, LeBron's business manager and longtime buddy, hatched the idea for the commercial based on LeBron's training regimen through Uninterrupted, their multimedia development company.

When the ad agency for the commercial suggested Kool Moe Dee's "I Go To Work" for the background music, Carter countered with the edgier "Terrordome." It's a song that contained some of Chuck D's most controversial lyrics, even if they come well after the part played in the commercial. It's a song of both racial introspection and black defiance. In other words, it's not the type of song major corporations such as Samsung and the NBA normally embrace.

But if the NBA is able to navigate that narrow boundary between blackness and the mainstream, perhaps it's because one of its most prominent players and his support group have found a way to do it. So you get LeBron staring into the camera and saying he's "black to the bone," then he turns and enters the gym. The door is left open, and a new Chuck D voiceover invites the viewer to use Samsung's virtual reality goggles to follow along with the workout. Somehow, LeBron simultaneously revels in his own identity and incorporates everyone else.

"We've always done what felt right to us, and if it became more mainstream or crossover, fine," Carter said.

"You can't shy away from what you are. We're young, African-American men."

Bill Russell once told me that it was unfair to hold Jordan to the same expectations as himself, Jim Brown and other prominent athlete-activists of the 1960s because the terms were so different. Russell said if he had tried to attend the University of North Carolina when he went to college in the 1950s, he would have been lynched. By the time Jordan became a high school star two decades later, North Carolina was begging him to play there. Why fight the same fight when the battleground has changed?

Russell broke ground by becoming the NBA's first black coach. But when he was offered endorsement opportunities, the pay rate was the same for him as for the extras in the back of the shot. That changed with Jordan, who created a new paradigm for endorsement earnings by black athletes in team sports and ultimately allowed them to become a brand unto themselves. In turn, this enabled them to hire African-Americans in prominent positions.

We have seen James orchestrate photographs expressing solidarity for the slain Florida teenager Trayvon Martin, and wear an "I can't breathe" T-shirt to protest the death of Eric Garner at the hands of New York police. So the Tamir Rice case in Cleveland, literally so close to home for James, seemed like the next logical moment for James to speak out. If members of the Missouri football team could help take down the university president and bring other changes to campus, some activists imagined what someone with LeBron's clout could do. But displeasure with the handling of the case by the Cuyahoga County prosecutor, an elected official, is best handled by voters, not athletes.

This also was the most complicated issue for James to address. This time, "the police" didn't exist in the abstract. James has a relationship with the local police. Police officers guarded his house when fans began gathering outside in anticipation of the announcement that he would return to the Cavaliers in 2014.

And LeBron has tied his narrative to Cleveland ever since he came back. It's not easy to suddenly turn around and take sides against Cleveland -- the municipality, the courts, the police.

Yes, he has played it safe on this one. That's not to say he has abdicated all sense of responsibility to the community. Most notably, his foundation has pledged scholarships to the University of Akron for what could amount to 2,300 students from his hometown.

There are multiple ways for James to help black people. Not every method is tied to protest. Think of that the next time you see the commercial. Think of the people behind it, the people from LeBron's neighborhood he put in that position, the people Maverick Carter described as "guys who will put 'Welcome to the Terrordome' in an ad on Christmas Day."