When I was asked to write this article about LeBron James’s receiving the Muhammad Ali Legacy Award, a Sports Illustrated editor suggested I mention something about LeBron’s picking up the social justice torch that Ali and I had carried—and that I like to believe I’m still carrying.
It’s such a romantic image of us holding up a blazing beacon of righteousness, possibly while draped in Roman togas or cinched into Greek wrestling thongs, running a relay through the dark cobblestone streets to illuminate the cheering onlookers about the virtues of social justice. Man, I want to see that movie. Unfortunately, the reality of torch-wielding is much less romantic. Which makes it all the more important—and makes LeBron James all the more worthy of this award.
First, there is no passing of the torch. Since this award was named after Muhammad Ali in 2014, the recipients have been Magic Johnson (2014); Jack Nicklaus (2015); Jim Brown, Bill Russell and me (2016); Colin Kaepernick (2017); John Cena (2018); and Warrick Dunn (2019). This award is meant to “celebrate individuals whose dedication to the ideals of sportsmanship has spanned decades and whose career in athletics has directly or indirectly impacted the world.” LeBron certainly checks those boxes. But the reason I’m rejecting the passing-the-torch metaphor is that it suggests that the extraordinary contributions and sacrifices of Jack Nicklaus, John Cena and Warrick Dunn are less torch-worthy because they weren’t focused on the volatile issue of social justice.
Many athletes are hoisted on the collective shoulders of society, but few dedicate themselves as diligently to their community as they do to their sport. The exceptional ones who do so over an extended period of time, never flagging despite the rise and fall of their own personal fortunes—those are the athletes worthy of our admiration. In that way, we each fashion our own unique signature torch and, though we don’t pass it—those who have received this award are still impacting the world—we do light it from the flames of those who came before us. We are connected by our passion not just to entertain our world, but also to improve it.
Paul Simon sang that “every generation sends a hero up the pop chart,” and this generation couldn’t do any better in the hero department than LeBron James. Part of being a hero is to have both the modesty to feel unworthy of such a heavy word and the strength to accept the responsibility that comes with others looking to you to be that hero. What is a hero but someone who stands up for those who can’t? Who embodies our cherished ideals of sportsmanship: fair play, hard work and compassion? That pretty much describes the LeBron James I’ve watched and come to know since he was the No. 1 pick in the 2003 NBA draft and was named Rookie of the Year.
In the 17 years since, LeBron’s social activism has made him one of the most controversial athletes in the world. But there’s no controversy about his athletic skills and achievements, which is why he’s appeared on dozens of magazine covers and is the most followed basketball player on Instagram. On the court he is a combination of Cirque du Soleil–like gracefulness and Hulk-like brute force. More important, he has the Tony Stark–like intelligence to strategically know when to use which. The best players understand that basketball is like playing chess while riding a bicycle down a rocky mountain. LeBron sees the board, the pieces, and makes his move while others are still thinking. We’ve all seen him single- handedly drag a team to the Finals by sheer force of will and iron-clad determination. Any kid who watched those performances had to be inspired to hit the court the next day with renewed desire to play harder, tougher and smarter.
Let’s get right to the Greatest of All Time question: Is LeBron the GOAT? The stats are pretty convincing: 16 All-Star appearances, four MVP awards, four NBA championships and four Finals MVPs—including in 2020, when he led the Lakers to their 17th title. Whew! His accomplishments are exhausting just to read. Sadly, the question will have to remain the favorite pastime of sports- writers on deadline but out of ideas, bar patrons shaky from beer nut withdrawal and statistics- obsessed fans waiting for the next season to start. Final answer: There is no way of determining the mythical GOAT because the criteria change. It’s like asking who’s the greatest singer of all time. (Answer: It’s Billie Holiday.) Players from past eras operated under different rules and therefore had to craft their style around those rules. There’s no way to fairly compare.
Lending weight to the vocal GOAT herders is the fact that LeBron is closing in on my NBA record for most points scored: 38,387. LeBron is about 4,000 points behind, but I was an elderly 42 when I retired and he’s a sprightly 35. He averages about 2,000 points a season, so in two years he could break my record. How does that make me feel? Excited. I expect to be there if and when he does it, cheering him on—as I know he will be on that day in the future when someone surpasses his mark. Breaking a sports record is a celebration of the human drive to push past known limitations, to redefine what we are capable of. It is an acknowledgement that humans have the capacity to always be improving, physically and mentally.
Muhammad Ali Legacy Award is about more than athletic excellence. It’s about translating that excellence and personal success into a sustainable positive impact on the world. LeBron’s influence has been staggeringly widespread. He is personally generous in donating time and money to various causes that benefit children, most notably the creation of the I Promise School, a public elementary school in Akron, Ohio, that focuses on children from low-income families by providing a STEM-based curriculum. His dedication to improving the lives of children is building a cultural infrastructure that will strengthen America’s future. He’s been so effective that even staunch conservative billionaire Charles Koch recently said he wants to work with the LeBron James Family Foundation.
LeBron has also led the charge against the undeniable pattern of social injustice. Unfortunately, he’s had way too many opportunities lately to express his outrage, disappointment and grief over Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, George Floyd, Jacob Blake, Breonna Taylor and so on. His example of fearlessness in the face of backlash from some fans and powerful people like President Donald Trump has inspired other athletes to take stances that support the America that they want to live in. In August, James and the rest of the Lakers joined a Bucks-instigated strike of the 2020 playoffs after the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis. Teams, even leagues, uniting to protest injustice might never have happened if not for the inspiration of LeBron.
In September, a member of the LA Galaxy II, a club in U.S. soccer’s second division, uttered a racial slur against San Diego Loyal defender Elijah Martin. In protest, the Loyal forfeited the 1–1 game. What made this so remarkable is that the team acted swiftly and in unity, to reject all bias. To me, that is the true legacy of LeBron James: that entire teams, not just individual athletes, will publicly denounce prejudice, no matter what form it takes.
Some might claim it’s easy to be bold when you’re successful, to preach from a pulpit built on stacks of cash and endorsement deals. They’re wrong. Ask Colin Kaepernick, who was blackballed by the NFL for his outspokenness. Or look at Ali himself, who had his heavyweight title stripped and faced years in prison. Success gave LeBron the opportunity to speak out, but it was his own courage that made him seize that opportunity, knowing that discussing hot-button issues like systemic racism and police brutality risked his life and the lives of his family. Think about how he and his family must have felt when someone wrote the n-word across the gate of his Los Angeles home.
White America doesn’t fully understand the screwy irony that Black people can be successful by typical American dream standards but still experience the hollowness of that dream when they drive in their cars and are consistently pulled over by the police for no reason. Remember when Chris Rock posted selfies of being pulled over by police three times in seven weeks? We can feel fortunate and grateful for our own success but still lament the plight of our friends, family and members of our community who face a shorter life expectancy because of inferior health care, who cope with severe health problems because there are no grocery stores in their neighbor- hood, who have to use a white name on their résumé to be considered for a job. It is the mark of LeBron’s greatness that even though he had gotten his slice of the pie, he refused to let others in need struggle on their own. He has never stopped trying to make America become the nation it was envisioned to be. It is an enormous act of patriotism for African Americans to love a country that doesn’t love them back.
Sure, LeBron has built a school, fought against police brutality, produced documentaries that celebrated Black lives and led the Lakers to the championship. But what has he done for us lately? He did what will resonate more deeply than anything else in his legacy: He got out the vote. In 2020 we saw the largest, most egregious campaign of voter suppression since the Civil War. In response, LeBron waged his own war—against political lethargy and social disenfranchisement. The organization More Than a Vote, supported by LeBron, Offset, Odell Beckman Jr. and other Black athletes and artists, aggressively set out to inspire young people, particularly young Black people, to vote. It worked: More voters turned out than in any election in the nation’s history. With open racism spreading through the U.S. like kudzu, LeBron’s efforts gave African Americans their voice, which so many have tried to silence.
In 1990, Ali went to Iraq to negotiate the release of 15 American hostages being held by Saddam Hussein in the days right before the Gulf War. President George H.W. Bush criticized him. The New York Times criticized him.
Ali didn’t care. He was 48 and had been dealing with Parkinson’s for six years. Despite the official censure, despite the enormous physical toll, despite Saddam’s keeping him waiting for days, Ali was able to bring all 15 hostages home safely. Each of them joyously thanked him, but Ali felt he was just doing his duty. “They don’t owe me nothin’,” he said. “I believe that when you die and go to heaven, God won’t ask you what you’ve done but what you could have done.”
That is what the Muhammad Ali Legacy Award is all about. It’s not about being proud of your accomplishments, but asking yourself what else you can be doing. That is the LeBron James I know and the LeBron James the sport—and the country—are fortunate to have.