At the end of each preview for The Shop, LeBron James’s new discussion show on HBO, appears the tagline, “I am more than an athlete.” On a purely factual basis this is difficult to dispute: James, like all of us, contains multitudes. But James is going after more than mere facts. In the same way that
James has shaved on-court expectations, stressing the inexperience of his supporting cast this season. The Lakers have been bad in recent years, though under young coach Luke Walton they’ve at least begun a mild recovery from 2015-16, when they went 17–65 to record their worst season ever. Thanks to favorable draft picks, there’s now plenty of raw talent. Brandon Ingram, who gets about the court with the languid elasticity of a semi-animated linguine, has set himself the goal of being an All-Star this season, which is perhaps unrealistic in the hyper-competitive Western Conference but at least shows ambition. Lonzo Ball, the roster’s other starlet, will help share some of the burden in driving offensive play – a luxury James missed in his draining final season with the Cavs.
But in truth the Lakers, for whom James will make his regular-season debut on Thursday night, are probably one star-player away from a genuine shot at the championship. But let’s not forget that James is only 33. Karl Malone, with a similar build to LeBron, was almost 36 by the time he collected his second MVP award, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was a title winner into his early 40s. Providing LeBron’s body holds up – and it’s proved remarkably resilient over the years – there’s still plenty of time left to add to his already absurd record of achievement in the sport.
Indeed, the spectacle of his late career will be as much about watching the emergence of LeBron James the cultural product as the twilight of LeBron James the player. How James juggles that handover will be the defining dilemma of his final years on the court. How much more than an athlete can he be while still maintaining his peak of athleticism? When James announced he was joining the Lakers, the move was almost immediately seen through the prism of his post-basketball aspirations. It was a
The Shop – which riffs on the barbershop’s centrality as a cherished gathering place for African American communities – is pitched as a forum for “unfiltered” discussion between James and a number of other celebrities about life, politics, sport and culture: James and pals unplugged, essentially. The first mostly revolved around Jon Stewart talking a lot and
The Space Jam reboot, a chat show that aspires to authenticity but rarely gets there: where is James going with all of this? With the final chapter of his playing career in sight, he seems torn between a desire to make a real difference as a political and social actor and the commercial demands of LeBron The Business. From the day as a high school sophomore that he took Jordan’s 23 as his shirt number, James has always measured himself against the
Though the debate to decide the better player remains vigorous, there’s little contest when it comes to figuring out who’s been the more consequential cultural figure. Whether he did or did not once say that “Republicans buy sneakers, too,” as is claimed,
James, in contrast, has become more engaged with social issues as his career has progressed, displaying a growing confidence in navigating the different registers of political discourse. His activism has taken in the work with his foundation and the I Promise school for disadvantaged kids in
It’s important to give this achievement the recognition it deserves. James is part of a rare generation of global sporting superstars that includes Roger Federer, Serena Williams, Lionel Messi, and Cristiano Ronaldo. All of them have emerged at (roughly) the same time, and each has a legitimate claim to being the greatest to ever play their chosen sport. James alone has systematically used his exalted athletic status to amplify issues beyond sport. No doubt the attention given to LeBron’s political interventions is in part a function of America’s unique global cultural influence, but it’s also a reflection of temperament. It would be tough to imagine any other member of this generation of superstars doing what James does. Federer is so doggedly apolitical and inoffensive you’d be hard pressed to get him to express an opinion on anything stronger than milk; his reaction the day after the Brexit vote was to note, “Us Swiss guys, we’re going to follow it.” Ronaldo is an accused rapist ; Messi hardly says anything off the pitch. Serena comes closest to matching LeBron’s cultural clout – on issues of race and gender inequality, for example, she’s opened up conversations in ways that few other athletes could – but her religion mandates a strict political neutrality.
But how far can James’s transcendence go? To what end will he put his new-found moral authority? Again, the parallels with
Once the act is in train, it’s difficult to set it on a different course: there is a cautionary tale here for James, who is still figuring out what he will be once he stops playing. This presents both a danger and an opportunity. The danger is that he’ll half-ass his politics; that he’ll become a gauzy do-gooder who traffics in lazy
It would be the easiest thing in the world for him to coast through his late career and into retirement – one foot in
Apart from Snoop Dogg, Draymond Green was perhaps the only guest on the first episode of The Shop who met the show’s self-description as “unfiltered”. (Sample quote: “Jews look out for Jews.”) At one point Stewart asks James whether he thinks he’s earned the title of “best ever”. Green interjects: of course he has. “I think Bron over the last four years became LeBron James,” he continues. “And it wasn’t nothing to do with winning, it wasn’t nothing to do with stats. He found himself. People didn’t start to view him as they view him now until he became that force, that man to say, ‘I’m here.’” The foundation, the political platform, the social media following, the deal with HBO, a final tilt at a ring with the Lakers: James got himself here. What happens now is up to him.