With the clock ticking under a minute before halftime in the Los Angeles Lakers’ first scrimmage in Orlando, Florida, on Thursday, LeBron James zoomed past two defenders near midcourt to throw down a hammer dunk in transition.
As James split Jerry West’s waistline while speeding through the massive NBA logo at the tipoff circle, TV viewers could see three words in block letters printed on the court on the top of their screens above him: “BLACK LIVES MATTER.”
The phrase, which entered the public lexicon after George Zimmerman was acquitted for the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2013 and became the title of the social action that has been omnipresent in recent months following the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and other Black Americans, is something that James says should be considered permanent, not passing.
“A lot of people kind of use this analogy, talking about Black Lives Matter as a movement. It’s not a movement,” James said after scoring 12 points in 15 minutes in the Lakers’ 108-104 loss to the Dallas Mavericks. “When you’re Black, it’s not a movement. It’s a lifestyle. We sit here and say it’s a movement, and, OK, how long is this movement going to last? ‘Don’t stop the movement.’ No, this is a walk of life. When you wake up and you’re Black, that is what it is. It shouldn’t be a movement. It should be a lifestyle. This is who we are. …
“I don’t like the word ‘movement’ because, unfortunately, in America and in society, there ain’t been no damn movement for us. There ain’t been no movement.”
In this moment, James, 35, finds himself to be more than just a basketball player trying to push through aging legs and a global pandemic to stack another title on his Hall of Fame résumé.
He is a success story from humble beginnings, keenly aware of the pitfalls he sidestepped to get to where he is today. He is not only arguably the league’s best player — the Milwaukee Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo would like a word — but without a doubt its most impactful voice.
“When he speaks, a lot of people listen,” teammate Anthony Davis said.
So after James played in his first game in an NBA uniform in more than four months, his postgame comments were focused on larger issues than how the Lakers’ defense handled Luka Doncic or what first impression JR Smith made.
“First of all, I want to continue to shed light on justice for Breonna Taylor and to her family and everything that’s going on with that situation,” James said as an opening statement.
He wrote “#Justice4BreonnaT” in marker on his sneakers for the game and was asked what steps he wanted to see to deliver that justice. Taylor, a Black emergency medical technician, was killed in Louisville, Kentucky, in March after plainclothes officers executed a “no-knock” warrant related to a narcotics investigation and shot the 26-year-old at least eight times, per reports. No drugs were found.
“We want the cops arrested who committed that crime,” James said of the three Louisville police officers involved.
Detective Brett Hankison was fired. Jon Mattingly and Myles Cosgrove, the other officers serving the warrant, were put on administrative reassignment.
“Us as the NBA, and us as the players, and me as one of the leaders of this league, I want her family to know and I want the state of Kentucky to know that we feel for it and we want justice,” James said. “That’s what it’s all about. What’s right is right, and what’s wrong is wrong. And this is a wrong situation that’s going on in my eyes and in a lot of other eyes, not only here in America but I bet in the world as well.”
He pointed out the irony of how “fortunate” it was that Floyd’s death — caused by a Minneapolis police officer kneeling on his neck — was captured on video, because the tragedy was undeniable.
“I mean, is that what we need to see, a video of Breonna being killed to realize how bad the situation is?” James questioned.
His comments added to the din of players drawing attention to Taylor’s case since the NBA invited 22 teams to the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex to restart the season following a lengthy hiatus because of the coronavirus pandemic.
James said he hoped other players — individuals who might normally feel “scared” of potential fallout — would feel empowered to continue to speak up while in Orlando.
“Because it’s a time where we are being heard,” he said. “Either if you really care or not, we’re being heard. But that’s what’s most important.”
Beyond his thoughts on Taylor, James spoke with a wider scope when addressing reporters for nearly 15 minutes — about twice as long as his normal postgame session — describing the systematic challenges that he sees Black people facing in this country.
“We know that for one step that someone else might have to take, or for one yard someone else may have to take, we know we got to take five more steps,” James said. “We know we got to take 10 more yards to get to the end zone. I mean, we understand that. We know that. But it’s also what makes us as strong, it makes us as powerful, it makes us so unique and unified is that we done had so much hardships in our life.
“It’s just heartbreaking, man. You guys don’t understand. Unless you’re a person of color, you guys don’t understand. I understand that you might feel for it, but you could never truly understand what it is to be Black in America.”
James was asked whether he sensed any progress since July 2016, when he, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul opened up the ESPYS by calling for social change.
“I mean, 2016, Barack [Obama] was our president,” James said. “We know what’s going on now. So is that progress? I don’t think, I think we all can see and say that’s not progress.”
Progress, in James’ estimation, will start with communication and a willingness and urgency to understand one another.
“If you could just sit there and talk to someone, look at someone eye-to-eye and say how you feel, no matter if they like it or not, you can respect them,” he said. “Somebody might not agree. … But if I can look you dead in your eye and you can you can look back at me and say, ‘Listen, to each his own, I don’t agree with that,’ then I can respect you out of that. A lot of people cannot even have that conversation.”