LeBron James always wanted to be a global icon, now he’s taking on the responsibilities that come with it

LeBron James is thinking beyond the basketball court.

In 2008, NBA star LeBron James used to say that his goal was to become a global sports icon. His focus seemed to be on how to become not just the best basketball player in the world but the most prolific and relevant sports figure in the world. That was a driving force behind “The Decision” in 2010 when he took his talents to Miami with the stated goal of chasing rings. Along the way, he won those rings, achieved fame and fortune, and eventually returned to Cleveland, where he solidified his place in Ohio lore by leading the Cavaliers a championship.

James became the global sports icon he set out to become, but something else happened on his way to the mountaintop. He seemed to realize being the person everyone looks up to means that you’re responsible for providing a voice and leading the way, whether you might want to or not. For years, the knock on Michael Jordan was that he famous refused to get involved in politics (“Republicans buy sneakers, too“) and world issues. Unlike athletes like Muhammad Ali, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Bill Russell, the modern mega-athlete seemed to have put their efforts into building brands instead of speaking out.

Recently, LeBron has been trying to change that by shifting his own responsibilities. He appeared at last year’s ESPY awards as part of a call to all athletes to change society for the better after weeks of tragic violence. He’s also stopped biting his tongue when it comes to the outlandish things that Donald Trump and others say about athletes and African-Americans.

James appears on the cover of the November GQ and spoke at length with the magazine about his feelings on the current state of the world and where he fits into it. Specifically, whether or not his actions could ever rival what Muhammad Ali did during the Vietnam War.

“I think Ali represented something bigger than Ali. He wanted to make a change for a future without him included. That’s what Ali brought to the table. I don’t know what it’s like to live in every state in this country, but I know freedom. I know the opportunity that our country has given people, and to see the guy in charge now not understanding that is baffling to not only myself but to my friends and to the people that’ve helped grow this country.

“But Muhammad Ali’s correlation to the war … I don’t think me and Donald Trump could ever get to that point.”

The “global icon” now sees that he has a responsibility that comes with the lofty perch he always wanted to take up.

“I believe that I was put here for a higher cause. We have people, not only today but over the course of time, that have been in the higher positions that chose to do it and chose not to do it.”

“I have to go home and talk to my 13- and 10-year-old sons, even my 2-year-old daughter, about what it means to grow up being an African-American in America,” James said. “Because no matter how great you become in life, no matter how wealthy you become, how people worship you, or what you do, if you are an African-American man or African-American woman, you will always be that.”

James also refuses to mince too many words when specifically discussing the current President.

“The positive that I see from being the president … well, not with the president we have right now, because there’s no positive with him, but the positive that I’ve seen is being able to inspire.”

LeBron also talked about what it felt like when he decided to bolt Cleveland for Miami and Dan Gilbert’s infamous Comic Sans public letter denouncing him and his loyalty. As you might imagine, it hit him hard.

It was another conversation I had to have with my kids. It was unfortunate, because I believed in my heart that I had gave that city and that owner, at that point in time, everything that I had. Unfortunately, I felt like, at that point in time, as an organization, we could not bring in enough talent to help us get to what my vision was. A lot of people say they want to win, but they really don’t know how hard it takes, or a lot of people don’t have the vision.

“So, you know, I don’t really like to go back on that letter, but it pops in my head a few times here, a few times there. I mean, it’s just human nature. I think that had a lot to do with race at that time, too, and that was another opportunity for me to kind of just sit back and say, ‘OK, well, how can we get better? How can we get better? How can I get better?’ And if it happens again, then you’re able to have an even more positive outlook on it. It wasn’t the notion of I wanted to do it my way. It was the notion of I’m gonna play this game, and I’m gonna prepare myself so damn hard that when I decide to do something on the court, I want to be able to do it because I’ve paid my dues.”

As for whether or not James sees himself as a Cavalier for life, well, he pretty much makes it clear that he’s going to take care of himself, whatever that means. That could lead to him leaving Cleveland once again, drumming up a lot of anger and handwringing, but this time LeBron says he knows that he has do what’s best for him.

“LeBron James owes nobody anything. Nobody. When my mother told me I don’t owe her anything, from that point in time, I don’t owe anybody anything. But what I will give to the city of Cleveland is passion, commitment and inspiration. As long as I put that jersey on, that’s what I represent. That’s why I’m there — to inspire that city. But I don’t owe anybody anything.”

Remember, he’s a global icon, not a regional one. Global icons think global.


About Sean Keeley

Sean Keeley is the creator of the Syracuse blog Troy Nunes Is An Absolute Magician and author of 'How To Grow An Orange: The Right Way to Brainwash Your Child Into Rooting for Syracuse.' He has also written non-Syracuse-related things for SB Nation, Curbed, and many other outlets. He currently lives in Seattle. Send tips/comments/complaints to sean@thecomeback.com.