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2018 NBA All-Star Game

LeBron James is the most powerful voice in his profession

His willingness to tackle racial inequality, police shootings and even the president has emboldened other players

LOS ANGELES — Nearly two years ago LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Chris Paul took the stage at the Microsoft Theater for the opening of The ESPYS, where the four offered words of healing to a nation divided by a Russian-influenced political campaign, racism and the still fresh fatal police shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.

For that 2016 event, the four found strength in numbers.

James is the only member of that group who will take the floor for the 2018 NBA All-Star Game on Sunday night. And as Cleveland Cavaliers star James is introduced at the Staples Center — ironically next door to the building where he was part of that memorable ESPYS opening — he’ll walk out as the most powerful voice in his profession as the willingness to tackle racial inequality, police shootings and even the president of the United States has emboldened other NBA players.

In 2018, NBA players have found strength in LeBron.

LeBron: Athletes have power beyond their sports

During a week in which a rising sense of black empowerment is being played out with the release of the Black Panther movie set in the fictional vibrant African nation of Wakanda, African-Americans have also taken notice of the continuing signs of emancipation being demonstrated by the black players in the NBA who fired back at the conservative talk show host who threw jabs at James and Golden State Warriors guard Kevin Durant last week.

Reporters and videographers camped out in front of James’ podium two hours before he was scheduled to appear on Saturday. The cameras from CNN and NBC News weren’t there to hear about how the 14-time All-Star drafted Team LeBron.

The first questions he fielded were about the “shut up and dribble” remarks directed at him.

James took pleasure in responding.

“The best thing she did was help me create more awareness,” James said, never mentioning her name. “To sit here at NBA All-Star Weekend, the best weekend of the NBA, and talk about social justice [and] equality.

“I will not shut up and dribble,” James added. “I mean too much to my family and all these other kids that look up to me for inspiration and try to find a way out.”

And Durant responded.

“Yeah, that’s ignorant,” Durant said. “We’re advancing as humans and as people. You don’t just pigeonhole anybody. We’ve all got our own opinions, and we should voice them.”

And Golden State Warriors point guard Stephen Curry responded.

“That’s a tone that people kind of try to put athletes and black athletes in a box, to say basketball is the only thing you can provide in the world,” Curry said. “This is not all that we’re about. It’s not all that we contribute to the world. There are guys that are going out, putting resources and funds and raising awareness in the community.”

So how does the commissioner of the NBA feel about a premier NBA event getting partially hijacked by players responding to personal attacks?

If you’re NBA commissioner Adam Silver, you embrace it.

“I’m incredibly proud of the players for using the platform they have on social media to speak out on issues and I was proud of LeBron’s and Kevin’s response to the comments that were made about them,” Silver said. “It’s not lost on me or anybody in this room that there is an enormous amount of racial tension in this country, enormous amount of social injustice, and I do see a role for this league in addressing those issues.”

The NBA has addressed the issues without bending a knee, an action started by Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid during a 2016 preseason game that has caused a great divide in the NFL.

Kaepernick lost his job, there was no unified front among players and owners, and the issue became so toxic and divisive that the NFL offered an $89 million partnership with players to make the problem go away.

In the NBA, there’s an actual rule that states players have to stand up for the anthem and the league sent a memo to teams before the season as a reminder.

Taking a knee was never an issue once James set the early tone.

“My voice and what I do in my community is more powerful than getting on a knee,” James said at his opening media session to start the season.

Then he expressed support for the players who chose that method of protest.

“It’s not about the disrespect of the flag and our military, it’s about the equality and the freedom to speak about things they feel are unjust.”

There are several factors why the NBA players are leading the charge in activism.

The NBA is mostly black. A 2017 study by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport showed that black players made up 74.4 percent of the NBA and 80.9 percent were people of color.

The NBA has guaranteed contracts. In 2020-21, the average NBA contract is expected to reach $10 million, and this season there are 41 players making at least $20 million (three – Curry, James and Paul Millsap – are making at least $30 million). So, when Curry signed the NBA’s first $200 million deal, he’s guaranteed every penny. There are protections in expressing your views with guaranteed money.

On the contrary, NFL contracts are not guaranteed. When Kaepernick signed his record six-year, $114 million contact in 2014, he only wound up receiving a portion of that money. The fact that the 49ers had the option of cutting Kaepernick after the first year of his deal — without paying out the rest of the contract— made his protest risky. In 2017 he opted out of his deal before the 49ers could cut him.

James, the league’s best player, is unafraid to speak. He has the luxury of being in the middle of a three-year, $100 million contract and should become the league’s highest-paid player when he signs his next deal. James’ activism has ranged from wearing hoodies with his Miami Heat teammates in 2012 to protest the shooting of Trayvon Martin to wearing “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts in 2014 in a tribute to the killing of Eric Garner (who shouted those words while dying in a police chokehold) to his criticism of President Donald Trump (along with Durant) during a video segment that prompted the criticism from Fox News’ Laura Ingraham.

James realizes that his social media reach (35.4 million followers on Instagram, 40 million followers on Twitter and 22.6 million followers on Facebook) adds to his ability to say what he wants without affecting his brand.

“I don’t think the companies are afraid anymore,” James told ESPN’s Mina Kimes. “The companies are realizing and understanding that the athletes, that they have a voice … And their voice carries more than dribbling a basketball or swinging a racket. I think these athletes have so much more power than their respective sport and what we see of them in their uniform. Because we are educated, and we do have feelings and we do have passion about things that go on.”

The bottom line: James believes his business relationships are so strong that he’s more empowered to speak on issues such as race, police brutality and how this country is run.

And that ability to balance business and social activism — without fear or repercussions — resonates with players in the league who respect how he’s responded to critics.

“LeBron is a very powerful man,” said Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal. “He has a huge voice. People respect what he has to say. So I feel like there was a better way for her to handle that than telling somebody to shut up and dribble, because he probably has a greater impact than she does.”

Toronto Raptors coach Dwane Casey appreciates that James is leading a new generation of athletes emerging as activists.

“I love it, and I think they should speak out,” said Casey, who is coaching Team LeBron. “Young kids are listening to the players more so than anybody else in the United States right now. It’s great that they’re speaking up and having an opinion about it and they’re standing by their opinion.”

National Basketball Players Association executive director Michele Roberts expressed strong support for the players in light of the recent criticism.

“Between Lebron’s 40 million followers and Kevin Durant’s 17 million followers on Twitter, Laura Ingraham has now introduced herself as intolerant and narrow-minded to 57 million people around the world,” Roberts said. “We stand with our players.”

Roberts also expressed admiration for how the players have disseminated their message on social media, telling The Undefeated: “They are independent thinkers. They’re smart, and they know how to manage their individual brands.”

There is no brand bigger than James, who has created a business empire. His philosophy amounts to ‘I don’t want to endorse your product, I want to be a part owner.’ That’s led to lucrative deals with Blaze Pizza (where he has a reported 10 percent ownership), establishing his own television production company and launching Uninterrupted, his multimedia platform for athletes that began with a $15.8 million investment from Warner Bros. and Turner Sports.

“I wanted athletes to feel like they had power, they had the platform to speak about whatever they wanted to speak about,” James told The Undefeated, “and not have it cut, diced and split into soundbites where people could use it to how they wanted to use it.

“It could be as powerful as speaking about Trayvon Martin, or it could be as simple as what types of socks you’re wearing this morning,” James added. “That’s why I started this platform, to have athletes feel empowered to speak about whatever they feel like. We have so many kids who look up to us, so to have that platform means everything to me.”

When NFL ratings declined last season (down 9.7 percent in 2017), many blamed the protest by players. Even a pizza company blamed declining sales on the NFL protests.

Meanwhile, while NBA players have been among the most vocal in speaking up about social issues, the current season began with an increase in television viewership. Last year the NBA broke attendance records for the third straight season.

Clearly, the woke athletes of the NBA have not diminished interest in the league.

And they will not be silenced.

“If I want to say something or tweet it, no one can mix up my words. I can tweet, I can put it on Instagram and you know exactly how I feel about a certain issue,” Curry said. “There’s power in that. And I think guys are recognizing that and they appreciate that.

“That’s the thing — the revival in owning your own voice,” Curry added, “and appreciating what that means in trying to impact the people that you care about.”

That’s James’ approach. His two sons and their best friend sat near him during Saturday’s media session, and he referenced them as being a reason that he takes the role as athlete and activist.

“I do it because I’m passionate about it,” James said. “The hardest thing in the world for me personally is raising two African-American boys and an African-American daughter in today’s society. It’s hard.

“I do this because this is bigger than me personally.”

Jerry Bembry is a senior writer at Andscape. His bucket list items include being serenaded by Lizz Wright and watching the Knicks play a MEANINGFUL NBA game in June.