King James steps outside of basketball to offer unscripted, uncensored banter at its best
I recently got about half way through Philadelphia Eagles' lineman Michael Bennett’s new book, “Things That Make White People Uncomfortable,” before realizing something I wish I knew before spending $30 on the book: It's not written for me. In fact, it’s not written for anyone with a basic understanding of sports and the politics surrounding athletes. It’s more of an ‘Intro to Black politics in sport,’ if you will. I put the book down after reading an entire chapter dedicated to Bennett describing his favourite teammates and what makes them good dudes.
As a white person who is obsessed with sports and the political issues surrounding athletes, I have to admit the book didn’t make me uncomfortable. It made me bored. And that’s not to take anything away from Bennett, who is trying to educate people about the issues Black athletes like himself deal with. If anything it’s to take away from the people who waited this long to educate themselves. What really made me uncomfortable wasn’t the book itself, but the fact that there is an audience of book-buyers who need to be reminded that Black football players are also regular, courteous dudes.
LeBron James, the world’s greatest basketball player and most famous athlete, wants to push the conversation surrounding sports politics — including what role athletes should play in political activism — past the introductory phase. His new HBO series, The Shop, is an unscripted, uncensored conversation about race, politics, sports, pop culture, America, and more. With celebrity guests from the entertainment community — including a star-studded first episode featuring James’ business partner Maverick Carter, rapper Snoop Dogg, NFL wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., NBA big man Draymond Green, former Daily Show host Jon Stewart, WNBA star Candace Parker, Michael Bennett, and more — LeBron is pushing the conversation forward as he grapples with the responsibility of being more than an athlete in today’s divisive, hypersensitive culture.
"Me having my own kids and then seeing the Trayvon Martin thing, it hit home," James said about what originally pushed him to speak out. "If I didn't even have any kids at the time, who knows if I would have been able to speak up; it wouldn't have made me feel the same. I can't imagine if I sent my kid out and he didn't return home. I couldn't imagine that. I started thinking, I'm like OK, if I can get 25,000 [people] to show up to a basketball game, I can reach so many more platforms when I talk."
“I was raised off Snoop, and Pac, and Jay, and Biggie, and now I get an opportunity to be the inspiration around what all these kids are looking up to,” LeBron says in the debut episode. “For me to just sit back and not say shit when a lot of my peers did not say shit, it didn’t feel right.”
LeBron took his time to speak up. Since entering the NBA in 2003, and even before then as a high school prospect basking in the media spotlight, James has had ample opportunities to speak up about his political opinions. Instead, he chose to keep those opinions to himself for the most part, remaining a humble if not quiet professional who expressed himself through actions rather than words. Over the past few years, however, running parallel to Trump’s presidency and the police killings of unarmed African Americans like Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner, LeBron has slowly began to speak out about the issues plaguing Americans and African Americans in particular. Within the first few minutes of The Shop’s debut episode it’s clear that James is finally ready to become the spokesperson many people have been waiting for him to become, regardless of the consequences.
“When I decided I was going to start speaking up and not giving a fuck about the backlash or if it affects me, my whole mind-set was, it’s not about me,” James said. “I think [Muhammad] Ali already knew it wasn’t about him. I’ma get the backlash, i’ma go to jail, but what this is gonna do for the next group, what this is going to do for the next athlete, what this is going to do for the next minority who wants to speak up whenever that happens... at the end of the day, my truth to so many different kids and so many different people was broader than me personally.”
LeBron isn’t Ali, and in today’s society he'll never have sacrifice the same freedoms Ali did, but becoming a spokesperson in a culture that is so divided and sensitive is a risk all on its own. For a lot of people who look up to the world’s greatest basketball player, it is a risk they think is necessary.
“When I was growing up I was looking for Michael Jordan to say something and he never did,” Bennett tells the room. “But now kids can look up and be like, ‘What’d LeBron say?’”
In the debut episode of The Shop, LeBron says a lot. He does not shy away from any topic, and it's clear that as democratic as the show is trying to be, it naturally revolves around James. Yet LeBron isn’t the star, and that’s the best thing about The Shop; There is no star. In 26 minutes of unscripted conversation everyone has a chance to be heard on a wide range of topics including parenthood, privacy issues, being Black and famous in America, race relations, the NBA, culture wars, hip hop, and more. It’s unscripted and unfiltered banter at its best because it attempts to be honest rather than politically correct. At a time when people are not only increasingly sensitive but also increasingly living in isolated bubbles — rarely hearing viewpoints different than their own as corporations like Google and Facebook mediate everything we see online — hearing a diverse range of opinions and arguments is more necessary than ever.
“This show is real, it’s candid and it’s the essence of conversation,” James told The Hollywood Reporter. “And we know with social media and text being the way people communicate, the form of conversation, actually talking, is kind of a lost art.”
At one point in the show Snoop Dogg argues that Black people are more respected outside of America than they are inside the country, to which Green responds: “It’s more so of Black people not knowing who they are. The reason we struggle as Black people is because we don’t know who we are. And so, if you want to be quite frank about it, white people know who we are. That’s why they keep . . . kicking us.”
“The reason other cultures are so strong,” Green goes on to say. “Is like, a Jew is going to look out for a Jew. A Chinese person is going to look out for a Chinese person... period.”
In today’s hypersensitive culture hearing that kind of unfiltered conversation is rare because people are afraid to speak their mind in public; People are afraid to say the things they'd naturally say around a dinner table or in a barber shop once a camera is put in their face. Not often do we get to see celebrities — and in this case some of the most famous people in the world — stepping outside of their comfort zone, letting their guard down, and not fearing the backlash regarding what they say. The Shop has created a space where cultural icons like LeBron can do just that.
As Yahoo’s Dan Devine writes, “This place isn’t one where you need to keep your guard up for fear of exposure; it’s a room where everyone needs to let that down, because that’s how we’ll actually talk about the kinds of things we think people need to start talking about.”
Much like he has been doing throughout his NBA career, LeBron sets the tone. He lets his guard down and speaks the way he grew up speaking in local barbershops. He swears and interrupts and tells very personal stories, like what happened last May during the NBA Finals when James came home to find the word “nigger” spray painted on the gate outside his Los Angeles home.
"No matter how big you can become in America, no matter how much influence you think you got or do have, if you're African-American, it doesn't matter," James said about what he told his children after the incident. "You're still black. You're still black in America."
A lot of people think being rich and famous insulates people like LeBron from experiencing overt racism, but by creating a safe space to share these sensitive stories, The Shop aims to educate viewers about issues most other TV shows wouldn’t come close to touching.
LeBron won’t go to prison for speaking his mind like Ali did before him. But make no mistake: By creating The Shop, by going down this path as a spokesperson and an activist, LeBron has changed his legacy forever. He will no longer be seen just as a basketball player. He is bigger than that now, and like Ali before him, his impact on the next generation cannot be measured.