One of the world's greatest basketball players is the hero in two very American tales: one, a success story the nation loves; the other, the latest installment in an ongoing chronicle of American antiblackness. Author Valerie Babb joins Peter and Orlando to discuss the power, politics, and passion of LeBron James. 

The Book of James: The Power, Politics, and Passion of LeBron By Valerie Babb
Credit: Hachette Book Group


Peter Biello: Coming up in this episode.

Orlando Montoya: Am I going to get a tomato thrown at me for asking who LeBron plays for?

Valerie Babb: Reporters had said that she underwent the kind of scrutiny of the IRS reserves for billionaires with offshore accounts, just because she bought her son that car based on his future earnings.

Peter Biello: It was clear that he was going to be an NBA star. That he was going to make a lot of money. And then there came the Hummer incident.

Orlando Montoya: This podcast from Georgia Public Broadcasting highlights books with Georgia Connections, hosted by two of your favorite public radio book nerds, who also happen to be your hosts of All Things Considered on GPB radio. I'm Orlando Montoya.

Peter Biello: And I'm Peter Biello. Thanks for joining us as we introduce you to authors, their writings, and the insights behind the stories mixed with our own thoughts and ideas on just what gives these works the Narrative Edge. Here we are again. Orlando, I've read another book, Where's my Gold Star?

Orlando Montoya: You don't get a gold star for this. This is your job, Peter.

Peter Biello: You know, it doesn't feel like it. The books, the books I've been reading lately, this one in particular. It's been a lot of fun.

Orlando Montoya: What book are we talking about today?

Peter Biello: So we're talking about basketball again today. Well, we spoke a few weeks ago, you might remember, about Johnny Smith's book about Michael Jordan, The Making and Meaning of Michael Jordan. And in that book, he, describes how Michael Jordan in the 1980s and 90s wasn't particularly interested in talking about race because it might alienate white basketball fans and the white buyers of his products. He, is quite different from from the athlete at the center of this book today.

Orlando Montoya: Who is that?

Peter Biello: That's LeBron James. And the book is called The Book of James.

Orlando Montoya: The Book of James, the book.

Peter Biello: It's called The Book of James: The book of James the Power, Politics, and Passion of LeBron. Of course you say LeBron, right. You know who we're talking about. And this is the Georgia connection here is that this is by Emory Professor Valerie Babb. And this book was just really fascinating. It's all about how LeBron, unlike Michael Jordan, actually leveraged his star power to, raise awareness of social justice issues, particularly, Black lives and issues in the Black community. And the book looks at his actions, his philanthropy, his nonprofits, and also looks at how white America responded to him and, and how he just refused to do what critics often wanted him to do was which was shut up and dribble.

Orlando Montoya: Am I going to get a tomato thrown at me for asking who LeBron plays for? Like, I don't know.

Peter Biello: Listen, I couldn't identify an Allman Brothers song in a previous episode of this podcast and, so so you can be forgiven. He plays for the LA Lakers right now. He started his career, with, Cleveland Cavaliers. He took his talents to Miami for a time. Then back to the Cavs before going to the LA Lakers, where he still plays.

Orlando Montoya: And so does the book start with the Cavaliers?

Peter Biello: The book actually starts, with his childhood, his formative years in Akron, Ohio. He grew up the poor son of a single mother, Gloria. And, his childhood was unstable. He he moved around a lot. Missed a lot of school because of having to move around a lot. But here's the thing he stresses about his own narrative. And this is what Valerie Babb is conveying in The Book of James, which is that this was a family, right? He always felt loved. He always felt cared for.

Valerie Babb: He, as a child of a single mother, has gone out of his way to emphasize that that is a family. He completely takes that out of the way we want to frame that. He reframes impoverishment not as something that is permanent, but as something that one can, with some luck, with some help, something that he will provide to future generations, get out of and make their own way.

Orlando Montoya: Well, he's a basketball player, so he's got to be on a stage. I imagine that gives him some ability to tell stories.

Peter Biello: Oh for sure. I mean, because so many eyes are on him. He's just had the wisdom, I think, to to know how to capitalize on that. Basketball gave him a platform at an early age. I mean, in high school, he was a gifted athlete. He put in a lot of hard work to make himself who he was, but he also had, like, what some coaches describe as just a sense, like he just he has this awareness.

Orlando Montoya: A magnetism, something.

Peter Biello: And for sure I mean magnetism in terms of personality, but also like athleticism in terms of like he knows how to play this game and he knows stuff that perhaps can't be taught. But in high school to back back to that point in high school, that's kind of when he started to be aware that all these eyes were on him. His talents took him to a private school where he and some of his friends that he brought with him took that school to new heights. I mean, the high school, a high school basketball game, was selling out tickets in a 5000 seat arena. Some NBA teams have trouble doing that, but that's the buzz that LeBron created. It was clear that he was going to be an NBA star, that he was going to make a lot of money. And then there came the Hummer incident. Have you heard of anything. If you don't know who LeBron's playing for —

Orlando Montoya: I don't know the Hummer incident.

Peter Biello: So the Hummer incident was so when he was a senior in high school, NBA is just around the corner. Everybody knows it. His mother borrowed against his all but certain earnings in the NBA to to buy her son a Hummer. Like a very expensive flashy car. This was around 2002. And immediately an investigation started, high school sports kind of banned that kind of gifting to prospects. So those in charge of high school sports were like, how did you get this Hummer? And his mother basically had to show receipts saying that this purchase was legit. I took out a loan, gave it to my son because that's what parents do for their kids. Here's my, here's a bit of my conversation with Valerie Babb about that.

Valerie Babb: Reporters had said that she underwent the kind of scrutiny the IRS reserves for billionaires with offshore accounts, just because she bought her son that car based on his future earnings.

Peter Biello: Yeah. And even though it was determined later that it was totally fine.

Valerie Babb: Completely correct.

Peter Biello: According to the rules people were still saying, well, she should have known that the scrutiny would have happened even if it was, above board.

Valerie Babb: Right, right. And I think that shows us the expectations that are placed on people like LeBron James and some other people who are Black and people who are poor.

Peter Biello: So essentially, Babb's writing that in this case and in others, LeBron and his mother, they weren't willing to change their behavior to accommodate the expectations of racist white people. They were going to do what they were going to do. They faced criticism for that. But honestly, who cares? He's LeBron. He has the power.

Orlando Montoya: How many, how many rappers buy flashy clothes and fast flashy this, right?

Peter Biello: Yeah. And they may get criticized. But you got to I think what Valerie Babb is pointing out here is that there's racist undertones to that criticism. Like, you're too flashy, you're you're not humble, you're not focusing on the right things. That kind of criticism comes from a racist place, in Babb's view.

Orlando Montoya: So how did that play out when he got on the larger stage of the NBA? Did that follow him?

Peter Biello: Oh, well, the Hummer stuff not. I mean, that's always going to be part of his past, but didn't really impact his NBA playing career. But it also did not deter him from taking further action and speaking out, doing more than just dribble, so to speak. He was very willing to wear Black Lives Matter and "I can't breathe" clothing on. On the court, he wore a shirt that says I can't breathe. In protest of the police killing of Eric Garner. He begins to understand that when he just wear something, it becomes buzz. Like he wore a WNBA hoodie, and he deliberately turned the world's attention to the underappreciated WNBA. And Babb, in this book frames this not really as a laundry list of what he's done. She does list quite a few things, but in the scope of a narrative, but she kind of looks at how skilled he is at understanding our culture and how he knows that he needs to meet people where they are.

Valerie Babb: I think increasingly we live in a visual culture where we understand things through what we see. And one of the things we see so frequently are stars are celebrities. And LeBron James realizes that and is very aware of how that projection can then be used to influence, attitudes, values and assumptions. So rather than be concerned about his professional career, he has used his fame and prominence to register voters to argue for women's rights and inclusion, to argue for protocols, to help NFL players with concussions, to argue for essentially what we're fighting for right now: democracy, voting, and a fair society.

Orlando Montoya: Now we're coming at this conversation from the point of view that we talked about Michael Jordan and how different he was from the way LeBron is. Does the author take Jordan to task for not speaking up?

Peter Biello: No, not really. And both Jordan and LeBron in this book are seen somewhat as figures that represent their era. And Jordan existed in the Reagan era, where the dominant force in culture was one that wanted to ignore race and give credit for progress, when in fact there wasn't as much progress as people would like to think. One interesting way she did this comparison, though, between Jordan and LeBron, is through the Space Jam movies.

Orlando Montoya: We talked about Space Jam, didn't we?

Peter Biello: We bemoan the lack of Space Jam in the last book. But this book kind of makes up for it, right? Because it's a contrasting surface, right? It's like, what better apples to apples comparison can you get here? They both made Space Jam movies, so she makes good use of that comparison here.

Valerie Babb: If we look at the Michael Jordan Space Jam he is really like an object. Among other objects. He is at first a baseball player and the owners just want to keep him happy. So he has a team, assistant assigned to him. He then becomes an object that will help the Looney Tunes win against this evil. Evil? Owner of Magic Mountain. LeBron's Space Jam is a story of a human being, not an object. It is a father who was going after the son that has been taken away from him. Michael Jordan's Space Jam, it's just him and cartoon characters. LeBron James' Space Jam, it's him, his family and then cartoon characters. But that whole idea of Black humanity, Black family, the mother, the sons, the ancillary people who surround them and become that larger community. That is as much of a focus in James' Space Jam as the cartoons are.

Peter Biello: So once again, LeBron James controlling the narrative here by putting Black families at the center of this story. He also puts family in what Babb calls ordinary Black culture. In the endorsement ads that he's produced, there are too many to get into in this short podcast. But that's just another dimension where LeBron controls the narrative, uses it to counter anti-Black lies that are common in America today.

Orlando Montoya: And so can you talk about this book from maybe, a writing point of view as to what sort of makes this book stand out and what gives it, the narrative edge?

Peter Biello: Oh, I should definitely answer that question. It's a great book. I mean, it's a book that's not necessarily for basketball fans, though basketball fans will enjoy it. It's a way of looking at American culture. And it does so in a way that's both highbrow and accessible. I think that's the, the, the real trait that gives it the narrative edge in the sense that, like, it's she's an academic. She looks at things very critically. But you don't have to have read, you know, decades of of social science scholars to understand what she's trying to say. I will say she treats LeBron very well in this book. If LeBron makes a mistake, she'll note it. But with a language that suggests forgiveness, that shows her positive feelings for him.

Orlando Montoya: Did she have, like, LeBron's cooperation and everything on this?

Peter Biello: She did not. But she did reach out to him for an interview. She told me that she's still hoping for that interview even though the book is out. She said that while her publisher may like an updated version of The Book of James, she would prefer to do something separate. A second book about LeBron if LeBron ever does get back to her. Overall, her positive feelings, though, seem, in this narrative at least pretty justified. I mean, LeBron's a literal billionaire, like with that money he's making massive investments in education, particularly with his I Promise school in Ohio. She does a whole chapter on this. It's actively trying to break up racist patterns in education, dismantling the school to prison pipeline, focusing on the whole child. It's got a food pantry. He's also given millions to the Smithsonian's National Museum of African-American History and Culture. And fans of LeBron may recall that, he used the media buzz around the quote unquote decision to leave the Cavs. But for where where's he going? He used that announcement as, like, a televised fundraiser to raise money for the Boys and Girls Club. So this guy's got a mission, and it's not solely to make money. You got to imagine making money as part of the goal. But he's got a value system, too, and he pays close attention to that.

Orlando Montoya: All right. The book is called The Book of James, not a biblical book, but it's a it's called The Book of James: The Power, the Politics and Passion of LeBron by Emory University professor Valerie Babb. Peter, thanks for sharing it with me.

Peter Biello: Happy to do it. Happy to. And before we go, let me just mention that since some, loyal listeners have asked about this, we do interview these authors and, and those interviews can be heard on All Things Considered on GPB, which you can stream live on from 4 to 6 every weekday. And also the interview is posted at, and this one in particular has a full video of the conversation. We talked about 20 minutes about LeBron and his impact. It was really fun. Again, that's at

Orlando Montoya: Well, it's always fun being here with you. Thanks.

Peter Biello: Thanks, Orlando.

Orlando Montoya: Thanks for listening to Narrative Edge. We'll be back in two weeks with a brand-new episode. This podcast is a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting. Find us online at

Peter Biello: You can also catch us on the daily GPB News podcast Georgia Today for a concise update on the latest news in Georgia. For more on that and all of our podcasts, go to