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LeBron James continues to watch the world

LeBron James sat in the visitors’ locker room at Madison Square Garden with ice on his 38-year-old lap and 28 extra points to his name after his Los Angeles Lakers beat the Knicks in overtime. James’ teammate Anthony Davis teased him that he was close to breaking Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s NBA career goalscoring record by around 90 points.

Suddenly, James remembered something. His mother, Gloria James, was due to go on vacation soon. She could miss her record game.

He called her on loudspeaker, with a dozen attentive reporters nearby. He asked when she was leaving, occasionally reminding her, lest she reveal herself too much, that reporters could overhear the conversation. Finally, he looked around sheepishly and said he would call her later.

“I love you,” he said. Then, just before ending the call, he added, “I love you more.”

It was typical of James: he takes you for a ride, but on his terms, revealing what he wants to reveal and nothing more. It may be the only way someone who has been so famous for most of their life can survive the modern stardom machine.

While he has closed in on Abdul-Jabbar’s record of 38,387 points, the very idea of ​​what it means to be a star has changed since James scored his first two points on October 29, 2003. And James has helped define this change. He rose above the celebrity din of social media and 24-hour news cycles, backed by basketball fans who either love him or love to hate him.

He served as a tour guide for this trip, with a portfolio that now extends far beyond the pitch. He has a production company and a show on HBO. He acted in a few films and received good reviews. His foundation has helped hundreds of students in his hometown of Akron, Ohio, and a public school the foundation helps run there, the I Promise School, focuses on struggling kids. school. His opinions are covered like news, given far more weight than those of almost any other athlete.

“Hopefully I had enough of an impact for people to appreciate what I did and still appreciate what I did off the floor, even when I was done,” James said in an interview. “But I don’t live for that. I live for my family, for my friends and my community which needs this voice.

In early 2002, James was a high school student on the cover of Sports Illustrated. News didn’t travel as fast as it does now. Not everyone had a cell phone, and the ones that did could not livestream video of everything someone was doing. Social media meant chat rooms on AOL or Yahoo. Facebook hadn’t launched yet, and the deluge of social media apps was years away.

“Thank God I didn’t have social media; that’s all I can say,” James said in October when asked to reflect on entering the league.

As a teenage star, he was spared the relentless gaze of social media and the bullying and harsh criticism that likely would have accompanied him.

But social media, in its many changing forms, has also helped people express their personalities and share their lives with others. It allows them to define themselves – something particularly useful for public figures whose stories are told in one way or another.

James started thinking about it early in his career.

His media and production company, now called SpringHill Company, made a documentary about James and his high school teammates called “More Than a Game” in 2008. He also developed “The Shop”, an HBO show on which James appears sometimes with famous guests. , including former President Barack Obama and rapper Travis Scott, chatting like friends at a barbershop.

James likes to say that he always keeps “the basics as the basics” – meaning no matter what else is going on in his life, he puts basketball first. He honors what created his fame.

He led his teams to the NBA Finals for eight consecutive years and won championships with three different franchises. He was chosen four times for the league’s Most Valuable Player award and he had the fourth most assists in NBA history.

James’ talent meant it didn’t take long for him to become the face of the NBA. He mostly embraced that, capitalizing on a time when sports fans were no longer about sitting down to watch a game, but rather grabbing small bites. most fascinating moments.

“People’s interest in athletes is changing very quickly, especially with the NBA season,” said Omar Raja, who in 2014 founded House of Highlights, an Instagram account for viral sports moments, as he wanted to share clips of the Miami Heat during James’ playing time. there with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.

“LeBron’s Instagram Stories would do just as well as his poster dunks, and you were like, ‘This is crazy,'” Raja said.

House of Highlights reposted two videos from James’ Instagram Stories in May 2019. One showed James and a former teammate dancing in a yard. Another showed James and his friends, including Russell Westbrook, smoking cigars. Both videos topped anything that happened during the playoffs.

James used his notoriety to develop business opportunities and grow his financial portfolio. He used it both to protect his children and to prepare them to grow up in his shadow.

He used it for social activism, including speaking out about civil rights and black racism. It started in 2012, when he and his Heat teammates wore hoodies and posted a group photo on social media after the death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager who wore a hoodie when was shot and killed in Florida. The Heat has decided to shift some of its spotlight to the national conversation about racism that has emerged.

Black NBA players have a long history of speaking out or demonstrating against racism and discrimination: Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Russell of the Boston Celtics spoke of the racist dangers they faced in the 1960s and 1970s. But what made the actions of James and his teammates stand out was that superstar athletes of the 90s and early 2000s – Michael Jordan, notably – had often shied away from overt activism.

What James chooses to talk about (or not talk about) commands attention.

In 2019, when a Houston Rockets executive angered the Chinese government by expressing support for Hong Kong, James was criticized for failing to speak out against human rights abuses in China. James said he didn’t know enough to talk about it, but some skeptics accused him of avoiding the topic to protect his financial interests in China.

And in 2020, when protests swept the country after police killed George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, both black, the NBA made social justice part of its ethos. James used many of his press conferences that season to discuss racism and police brutality against black people.

Attention to James’ words separates him from others, as does attention to his life.

“I don’t want to say it ever gets too much, but there are times when I wish I could do normal things,” James said Thursday as he stood in the hallway of an arena in Indianapolis about a year ago. hour after the Lakers beat the Pacers there. A member of a film crew who has been following him for a few years filmed him while he was talking.

“I wish I could walk outside,” James said. “I wish I could walk into a movie theater and sit down and go to the concession stand and buy some popcorn. I wish I could go to an amusement park like regular people. I wish I could go to Target sometimes and walk into Starbucks and have my name on the cup, just like regular people.

He added: “I’m not sitting here complaining about it, of course not. But it can sometimes be difficult. »

James grew up without stable housing or much money, but his life is no longer that of most people because of the money he earned through basketball and business (he is estimated to be over billion-dollar), and because of the extraordinary athletic feats he has makes it look so easy. Once in a while, like when he’s on the phone with his mother, he manages to pass himself off as just another guy.

Another example: In October 2018, during his first Lakers training camp, James gave up wine as part of a preseason diet. She was asked if abstinence had affected her body.

“Yeah, that made me want more wine,” James said, aptly. “But I feel good. I feel good. I did a two-week cleanse and gave up a lot of things for 14 days.

James had also quit gluten, dairy, artificial sugars and all alcohol during those two weeks, he said.

What was left?

“In life?” said James. “Air.”

The last few seasons have been difficult for James on the pitch. He’s been playing as well as ever, but the Lakers have struggled since winning a championship in 2020.

They missed the playoffs last season and sit 12th in the Western Conference, despite having played better recently. James, his coaches and teammates all insist he spends more time figuring out how to get the Lakers to the playoffs than breaking the scoring record.

Still, Madison Square Garden, one of his favorite arenas, was buzzing Tuesday night. Because of him.

Celebrities, fans and the media came to see him, just like they did when he was a regular at the NBA Finals.

He recorded a pre-match interview with Michael Strahan on the pitch. Then he did his pre-game warm-up, shooting from different places on the pitch, working against an assistant coach, who tried to defend him. He took a few seconds to dance near the 3-point line waiting for someone to pass the ball to him.

He was in what he turned into a comfortable place: the center of the basketball universe.

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