LISTEN: LeBron James is arguably the greatest basketball player to ever play the game — some argue even better than Michael Jordan. But James has brought more than tremendous skill to the court. GPB's Peter Biello speaks with Valerie Babb about her book on the athlete and philanthropist, "The Book of James."

Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James shoots during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Oklahoma City Thunder Monday, Feb. 8, 2021, in Los Angeles.

Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James shoots during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Oklahoma City Thunder Monday, Feb. 8, 2021, in Los Angeles.

Credit: Mark J. Terrill/AP

LeBron James is arguably the greatest basketball player to ever play the game — some argue even better than Michael Jordan. But James has brought more than tremendous skill to the court: He brought Black culture and in doing so turned the game into a showcase for it. In her new book, The Book of James: The Power, Politics and Passion of LeBron, Emory University professor Valerie Babb illuminates the many ways James proudly displays Black culture, pushes for social and political change, and has invested in children who, like him, grew up in poor, unstable homes. GPB’s Peter Biello spoke with Babb about her book.


Peter Biello: This book offers two things simultaneously. It offers a look at LeBron's rise to prominence and also the way white America perceived him, and the racist tropes that he encountered along the way. Can you tell us a little bit, first, about how he grew up?

Valerie Babb: Some of the more important and moving details that affect him as an adult emerge then. Everybody knows he grew up very poor in Akron, Ohio, with a single mother. But he has just transformed that pretty traditional narrative to highlight how that really does represent overcoming in its best sense. He, as a child of a single mother, has gone out of his way to emphasize that that is a family. He completely takes it 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. So whatever his circumstances were growing up, he has completely transformed them to make them work not just for him, his family, but for a larger segment of Ohio and American society as well.

Peter Biello: One of the first examples of him being targeted in a way for his talent, but also his family being targeted — you mentioned family being an important thing for him — was when he was in high school. His mother borrowed against his future NBA earnings to buy him a Hummer. I mean, even in high school, everybody could see that he was destined to be this huge sensation in the NBA. And so he had this remarkable capital built up waiting to be utilized. And so his mother drew on that to reward him with a Hummer. And this drew him — basically, a target on his back in a variety of ways. Could you talk a little bit about what happened?

Valerie Babb: So she did do something that any mother of a prominent future star probably would have done, but because she was Black and poor, because he was Black and poor, because they fell outside the standard two-parent household, they became a lesson, if you will, and what not to do to become a decent member of society. So he took a lot of heat for representing something that was actually in people's imagination, that had nothing to do with his own reality.

Peter Biello: The real world consequences was that he allegedly ran afoul of a rule where you couldn't accept gifts, and they were like, "How did you get this Hummer?" And they were questioning his ability to play because of this gift. And then they —and so his mother had to sort of show all the paperwork, I guess.

Valerie Babb: Yes. 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: Yeah. And even though it was determined later that it was totally fine —

Valerie Babb: Completely! Correct.

Peter Biello: 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 his mother — people who are Black and people who are poor. The rules for them are just different somehow.

Peter Biello: Right, right. And one of the points in this book that still is ringing in my head is that he was getting criticized for accepting a multimillion dollar contract right — right outside of high school. And people were like, "How could he do that? How could he do that? Because he's forgoing his education." But I can't say I've ever heard that once about anyone joining a minor league baseball team for, what, $20,000?

Valerie Babb: Minor league baseball? Hockey? Yes. Exactly. Right. So what is it that is causing that criticism? And it's race. It is his Blackness. Absolutely. And that has been part of a long-running narrative. I was a professor at Georgetown University before coming to Emory, and the basketball team there faced that narrative as well. "Oh, you're going to leave this chance — it's a great education — to go do this," and also ignoring many of the younger people who would leave Georgetown to go work in their parent's corporation, for example, and decide, okay, we'll come back a little bit later and get that. So again, we see racial expectations kind of un-leveling the playing field, if I may.

Peter Biello: Some of his protests are quite explicit. He is wearing shirts that say "I can't breathe." And various other examples to that level. Could you talk about the significance of him doing something like that?

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 fairer society.

Peter Biello: So LeBron's playing days are nearing their end. I'm wondering what you think his post-playing career will be like when it comes to his activism and his philanthropy, when once he — once he can do that full time. What do you think it's going to look like?

Valerie Babb: I am trying to imagine that myself, mainly because he's kind of accomplished all of that already. So part of me would say, "oh, well, maybe because he's so passionate about education, he'll go into the field of education and see what he can improve there." He's already done that. "Well, maybe in terms of economics, he will assist other Black businesses and other Black creators to get to the area and the field of making money that he did." He's already done that. So he has already accomplished off-the-court things that I don't think anyone would have expected him to accomplish. The last thing I want to add to that, too, is also just the way he’s influenced art and style. I don't know of a more fashionable athlete than LeBron James. I don't know of an athlete that has collected interesting pieces of art the way he has. And the way he has, for example, built a relationship with the African American Memorial Museum of the Smithsonian museums, assures me that I think he's going to be a real cultural influencer. He's very much aware about how celebrity influences how we understand our world, and I think his efforts are going to go towards those things that will help us to do that better, whether that is in creating school materials, whether that is creating media of all kinds, oral, visual, all that depends. And that's why I think my next book would want to be to dive into that part of his brain.

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