If you are anything like me, you spent last night holding your breath watching the end of what is now being called the best NBA Finals of all time. I have been a fan of the Miami Heat since they came to my hometown in late 80’s so for me it ended just how I had hoped. Miami Heat beat the San Antonio Spurs 95-88.
And if you were also like me, you stayed up to watch the post-game festivities, the revelry, the confetti, the fireworks, the fans rushing the court, the champagne, the trophies and then…it happened. Out of nowhere, ‘Number 6’ walks to the microphone and in fewer than 100 words, he makes the clearest most powerful statement about inequity and persistence that I have heard in a long time:
\“Listen, for me, I can’t worry about what everybody say about me. I’m LeBron James from Akron, Ohio, from the inner city. I’m not even supposed to be here. That’s enough. Every night I walk into the locker room, I see a number 6 [jersey] with ‘James’ on the back. I’m blessed. So what everybody’s saying about me off the court don’t matter. I ain’t got no worries.\”
Some of you may not have known his story or you may have boiled his whole life down to an ill-advised statement he made as an excited 25 year old about where he was taking his talents during free agency. There is a danger in writing him off based on that moment. If you discount him due to his “Decision”, it makes it easy to miss the weight of his words. We shouldn’t. He was making a statement about his identity as a Black man from a low-income, Rust Belt community that used to be the “Rubber Capital of the World”. He accurately articulated that, by any statistic you pick, he is not “supposed to be here.” Take a look for yourself:
- 57% of Black children are being raised in homes without a father. Children in father-absent homes are five times more likely to be poor .
- 1 in 3 Black men can expect to go to prison in their lifetime .
- 47% of Black males will not graduate high school on time .
But his statement points to even more persistent realities that many black men and low-income people face. The subtext of his statement is that for so many who are growing up like him, the perception is that opportunity is out of reach, that it is not meant for them, that even when they work hard and “beat the odds,” the pressure is unbearably high and failure is right around the corner. A reality where small mistakes are prohibitively costly.
In LeBron’s case, even after being a two-time league MVP and gold medalist, many commentators where claiming that his career would have been a failed experiment if he and his teammates did not win back-to-back championships. REALLY? That is an awfully high bar.
Most of that sentiment stems from people’s resentment about the way that he left his last team and that act has plagued him for years. In many ways, these types of “simple mistakes” plague and often times derail many black boys. They loom just as big in their lives as they do in LeBron’s, even if they are on a smaller stage. Simple offenses turn into permanent records and permanent records often turn into a lifetime of feeling disconnected from the American dream of opportunity and upward mobility. A lifetime spent trying to erase choices that you made when you were young and immature.
Efforts like Open Society Foundation’s Campaign for Black Male Achievement have been working to frame and address the pervasiveness and complexity of these issues. Joshua Dubois’s recent article in Newsweek portrays the nuances of the story well and masterfully highlights the reality that our shared work of changing the lives of low-income people cannot be done by philanthropy alone, but that the private sector, media and cultural icons have a role to play too.
Nehisi Coates a senior editor at The Atlantic said of his work, “My job is to help close the gap between what they see in us and who we actually are.” I would argue that last night, LeBron James added this to his job description too and for that I am grateful.
My colleagues in philanthropy often ask me about the \“risks\” of working with celebrities. The potential reputational hazard that their bad behavior could pose to “the work”. I would like to remind them today that those bumps are a part of our shared human existence, that the people we serve hit those bumps too and they may internalize them differently than we do in our ivory towers and skyscrapers. It is possible that the powerful and authentic moments could possibly outweigh the negative ones.
Last night, a culture icon walked onto the stage in front of an international audience of millions and did what no grant could do, he reframed the narrative. He used his platform to multiply our collective voices in the way that generations of celebrities have done before him. My question to philanthropy is- Are we ready to leverage this moment and the ones to follow?