LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Anytime there’s a significant event, there’s a reflexive desire to know everything. How, why, when. And events don’t come much bigger than NBA players' decision to resume playing after a two-day strike spawned by the shooting of Jacob Blake, the 29-year old Wisconsin man shot seven times by a police officer.
We want to know what happened.
And we want to know LeBron James’s role in it.
James is the face of the NBA. At 35, he remains the league’s biggest star. His words carry weight with many players. A decision by James to leave the bubble would have likely ended the NBA season. In the days since, er, the decision, James has been silent. When the Lakers held their media availability on Friday, the team sent out Danny Green.
It was just before 1 a.m. when James settled into a chair to answer questions. The Lakers had just eliminated the Trail Blazers, but really—what did that matter? Portland put up a fight but the injury ravaged Blazers, already down Zach Collins and playing Game 5 without Damian Lillard, the Bubble MVP, didn’t have the firepower to keep up.
There would be time to talk basketball. This wasn’t it.
There are things we know about the tense 48-hours that decided the fate of the NBA season. There was a meeting, an emotional one, on Wednesday, when players aired things out. There were cooler-headed meetings on Thursday, culminating with a video conference with the 13 owners from the remaining bubble teams, where players and owners hashed out an agreement.
James didn’t know Milwaukee planned to sit out on Thursday, no one did. Several Lakers, including Green and Anthony Davis, said they were napping when they were alerted about what was happening.
Was James upset about not being looped in on the Bucks decision?
“I wasn’t upset at all,” James said. “Obviously Milwaukee did what they did. As a brotherhood, because it’s a brotherhood, we stood in solidarity with them. We knew what they were doing it for. With the recent events that happened in Wisconsin, [it] hits home for them. There was no knowledge of when they were going to do it or if they were going to do it. Honestly they didn’t know. They said it took them forever to figure out that they weren’t going to go out there. I’m not here to judge or categorize what Milwaukee did. We all [stood] with them, from Oklahoma City [and] Houston to our game.”
From there, James said, it was about formulating a plan for what would happen next.
“From that point on, my mind began to figure out what is the plan going forward,” James said. “If we don’t have a plan, what are we talking about? Why are we still here? That’s where my mind went to. At one point there was no plan of going forward. There was no plan of action.”
Did James think about leaving the bubble?
“I’ve had numerous nights and days thinking about leaving the bubble,” James said. “Everyone has. There’s not one person that has not had a mind that says, ‘I’ve got to get the hell out of here.’ But it’s not because of what transpired.”
The past few days were chaotic. Teams met with each other. They met with other teams. There were conference calls. Donovan Mitchell said he was on a bunch of them. At one point, Michael Jordan got involved. Barack Obama, too. The former president released a statement on Saturday confirming that he advised a small group of players, specifically on “how to use their immense platforms for good.”
When I asked James about Obama’s involvement, James was succinct.
“President Obama is a great man,” James said. “I wish he was still President of the United States.”
Like many players, James needed time to process all that had happened, the opportunity, he said, “to take a deep breath.” He needed the owners to do more, give more. He connected with his friends, his “advisory team,” and spit-balled ideas. Among players, an action plan was put in place. James, deeply involved in voter turnout during this election cycle, joined the push for owners to convert arenas to voting centers. He called the Staples Center’s recent announcement that it would serve as a polling place “unbelievable.” He called for Dodgers Stadium to do the same.
“To be able to Zoom call with all the owners and for them to hear how important some of these initiatives are … they took it very seriously,” James said. “We were very candid with what we believe continues to move the needle [in] our respective cities, the communities and how important this moment was. All you can do is give me and give us your word … if that word that you gave me is not fulfilled, then we’ll tackle that.”
Ultimately, James said, the collective voice of players inside the bubble was stronger than what it would be if the league shut down.
“Common sense is common sense,” James said. “We as a league and we as players are stronger together than separate. When you’re able to have a plan and put it into action and execute it the way we did with the initiatives that were able to come together with the owners, that also helps … it’s about being able to shed light on things that are going on in our communities, things that are going on around America, things that are going on around the world, to be able to have this platform, the NBA’s platform, and we’re together. Every single day we get to talk [to the media] and continue to bring awareness to situations.
“A lot of people don’t have individual platforms. And when they go home, a lot of people get muted, unfortunately. When we’re here on this stage, I think there is no way you can do that. As the Warriors said for years, there is strength in numbers. And that’s the case here."
The last few days weren’t just about him, James said. They were about legacy.
“It’s not just about me when it comes to this league, it’s about the other 300-plus guys I’ve got to look out for as well,” James said. “The same way that the OG’s looked out for myself and D-Wade and ‘Melo and [Chris] Bosh when we first came into the league. You understand, because this league will continue to go on well after you, for me I just want to leave it in a better place, as much as I can.”
The NBA will move forward, but not without tangible changes. Most, if not all teams will convert arenas to polling places in the fall. A social justice coalition will be formed, one comprised of players, coaches and owners, which will address a range of social issues. There will be advertisements during games that will continue to push greater voter access.
“When you’re trying to create change, you can’t lose sight of what the main thing is and why we came down here,” James said. “We came down here for a mission.”