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Mike Lupica: LeBron James is always willing to stand up and be heard

UPDATED: Sat., June 6, 2020

Injured Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James smiles from the bench during the first half of a game against the Golden State Warriors in San Francisco on Feb. 27, 2020. (Jeff Chiu / AP)
Injured Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James smiles from the bench during the first half of a game against the Golden State Warriors in San Francisco on Feb. 27, 2020. (Jeff Chiu / AP)
By Mike Lupica Tribune News Service

Drew Brees started it by saying this the other day: “I will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States or our country.” He was addressing the possibility of NFL players again kneeling during the playing of the national anthem this season, in light of everything that has happened in America since a white Minneapolis cop put his knee on George Floyd’s neck for nearly 9 minutes and killed him in broad daylight. And by the way? Brees has voiced this opinion before. It’s what he thinks, whatever he’s saying now.

So Brees, all-time great quarterback, has been hit from all directions on this, for being tone deaf, mostly for being dead wrong. He sounded like one of the old white guys who own NFL franchises. Or the president.

There is no need for Brees to be defined only for that remark, defined by the worst moment of what has mostly been a fine public life away from the football stadiums. We have to stop acting as if one stupid statement – and it was stupid, as many times as Brees has apologized since making it – automatically gets you a flogging and then some kind of life sentence in the public square of social media.

This is what can happen, though, so often with celebrities conditioned to the world hanging on every word, and on every subject except beach erosion.

But this isn’t about him today. It is about LeBron James, and the way he went right after Brees when he heard about his comments. Others did the same thing, of course, from all sports and all over the map. Michael Jordan, who has hardly had anything to say over nearly 40 years on the great stage of American sports, announced Friday he and his brand will donate $100 million over the next decade to organizations devoted to racial justice after the death of George Floyd. Twenty-eight of 30 NBA teams came out with some kind of statement about George Floyd in the immediate aftermath of his death, a notable exception being the Knicks.

“As companies in the business of sports and entertainment, however, we are not any more qualified than anyone else to offer our opinion on social matters,” New York Knicks owner James L. Dolan wrote in a memo obtained by ESPN, one sounded as if it had been composed in a safe bunker of his own at Madison Square Garden.

No one expected to find Dolan on this. You can always find LeBron on the big things.

He is not just one voice from sports, just the biggest, because he is the biggest star in American sports. Here, by the way, is his initial response on Twitter after Brees said what he said, before the Saints quarterback began to scramble better than he ever has on a football field:

“Wow man. Is it still surprising at this point. Sure isn’t! You still don’t understand why Kap was kneeling on one knee? It has nothing to do with the disrespect of our (flag) and our soldiers (men and women) who keep our land free. My father-in-law was one of those who fought as well for this country. I asked him a question about it and thank him for all the time for his commitment. He never found Kap(’s) peaceful protest offensive because he and I both know what’s right is right and what’s wrong is wrong. God bless you.”

You never have to look for him. He is always right there. He always stands up, even when phonies from Cable America like Laura Ingraham of Fox News tell him to shut up and dribble. Predictably, Ingraham defended the right of Brees, a white quarterback, to voice his opinions. In the process she illustrated again that if talking out of both sides of her mouth were an Olympic event, she’s Michael Phelps.

Since “The Last Dance” documentary, we have again revved up the debate about Michael and LeBron, which one really is the greatest basketball player of all time, now that we know who gets the best documentaries. Debates like these are always the lifeblood of being a sports fan. DiMaggio or Williams or Wilt or Russell or Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays. Brady or Montana or whatever quarterback belongs with Brady in the quarterback debate.

In the end, they are different players. It’s like comparing apples and Chevrolets. And they are different men. Michael conducted himself the way he did when he was still a player and socially distanced himself as much as possible from social issues.

LeBron has never done that. He has honored the platform he has because of his immense talent, and the success he’s had as the greatest player of HIS time; does this even now as he tries to win an NBA championship with a third team. He has been a patron saint for his hometown of Akron, Ohio, with the LeBron James Family Foundation. He has started schools and received the J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award from the NBA. He has repeatedly spoken out against this president for dividing the country. He was heard when Michael Brown was shot in Missouri and when a kid named Trayvon Martin was shot and killed in Florida and when Eric Garner died on the streets of Staten Island after he was the one saying, “I can’t breathe.”

And he stood for Colin Kaepernick when Kaepernick took a knee as his own statement about social injustice and got called an “SOB” by Donald Trump in the process, along with all those who knelt with him. He has made mistakes and false steps along the way, because everybody does. But in his time on the stage, he has exhibited the same kind of conscience about justice and race – race always being the third rail in America – that Arthur Ashe once did.

This does not make LeBron into Jackie Robinson or Rosa Parks. But he does not get enough credit for standing up the way he does and speaking up the way he does. He is not the only bold-faced name from sports doing this. Again: He is the biggest name. He has been famous since high school. But once he got to the NBA, he has done as much for good causes, been righteously on the right side of the important issues, as much as any American professional athlete of his lifetime. And mine.

As the sports world again remembered how peaceful Kaepernick’s protest had been when he took a knee, as Brees weighed in on that and again confused dissent with a lack of patriotism, LeBron again stood up.

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