On the evening before his eventual loss in the 2020 presidential election, President Donald Trump basked in his supporters’ cheers that filled the brisk autumn Pennsylvania air. The night before the decisive fight of his political life, and in the middle of a speech throwing jabs at now President-elect Joe Biden, Trump turned his attention to a peculiar adversary of his: Los Angeles Lakers superstar LeBron James.
Trump repeated claims regarding low ratings on this year’s NBA Finals — in which James won his latest NBA Championship and Finals MVP award — and asserted that the ratings were so low because of NBA stars like James choosing to kneel as an act of peaceful protest during the playing of the national anthem before games. Suddenly, Trump gleefully smiled as rallygoers repeatedly chanted “LeBron James sucks!”, the latest installment in the strange but strong rivalry between the NBA’s biggest star and the president of the United States.
In recent years, James’ on-court rivalries have paled in comparison to his rivalries in the political arena. James has taken on political titans like Trump and other Republican politicians and has become a common target of conservative news outlets like Fox News. Cries have poured out in recent years regarding the politicization of sports, and James is an easy target because of his work in social justice and his massive profile. Ultimately, the key reason why Trump despises James so much is simple: James has achieved public admiration for his important work in the community in a way Trump never could.
Fundamentally, James has been a pioneer in the community in bridging the gap between sports and social justice, and his voice has become more important than ever during this past year. Back in 2014, following the death of Eric Garner at the hands of the police, James, alongside teammates and opponents, made a statement by wearing “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts amid national outrage and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Since then, James’ profile at the intersection of sports and social justice issues has grown, along with his commitment to the well-being and betterment of his community.
In 2017, the Golden State Warriors boldly chose to skip the customary congratulatory post-championship visit to the White House to meet Trump, instead opting to visit the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture with local children.
Outraged by the Golden State’s denial of their customary visit to the White House, Trump tweeted, “Stephen Curry is hesitating, therefore invitation is withdrawn!” In response to Trump’s tweet, James wrote, “U bum @StephenCurry30 already said he ain’t going! So therefore ain’t no invite,” a now-infamous line that highlighted James’ strong disdain for the president.
Growing up impoverished in Akron, Ohio, James’ childhood was marred by the disadvantages he faced as a young boy. Since reaching stardom, James has always promoted giving back to the Akron community, and, in 2018, he started the I Promise School for at-risk students in his hometown. James’ school aims to assist disadvantaged students in their academic endeavors and even extends beyond graduation and funds additional services the students need to ensure their continued protection and well-being.
James has delivered for his community in a way Trump never has or even could, so Trump takes to attacking James for low NBA ratings and his continued advocacy for social justice. The cycle continues as James continues to fight to better those around him as a true leader both in his profession and in the community, a distinction Trump desperately wishes to hold himself.
Given his opposition to Trump, James made it a priority to help register and engage eligible voters this election cycle to ensure James’ reign in the NBA would outlast Trump’s presidency. “More than a Vote,” the organization James helped start to encourage voter registration, features a broad coalition of Black athletes and artists who came together to mobilize voters of color for the 2020 presidential election. James helped advocate for the use of NBA arenas as polling locations during the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure safety precautions, signed up thousands of new poll workers, provided discounted rides through rideshare apps to facilitate transportation to and from the polls and even helped cover poll fees for ex-felons in Florida.
Fox News commentator Laura Ingraham’s infamous “shut up and dribble” remarks aimed at James in response to his advocacy continue to provide the basis for right-wing opinion on James’ social justice work. Trump has mirrored Ingraham’s words throughout this election cycle, aiming to weaponize James’ outstanding involvement in the community in an attack on Black athletes leading both on and off the court. But, while Trump basked in his supporter’s cheers of “LeBron James sucks!” on that fateful November night before losing the election, James got the last laugh with a brand new championship ring in tow.
Eli Kales is a freshman in the School of Foreign Service. Off-Court Voices appears online every other week.