LeBron James and Michael Jordan. They share the giant Nike imprimatur. They both give the #23 its extraordinary aura. And James has been honest in saying he measures his career against Jordan’s — that he hopes to overtake the Bulls legend as the greatest basketball player the world has seen. That idea forgets Bill Russell, of course, who has more championship rings than Jordan and James combined. Yet there’s another reason Russell gets mentioned here: it’s because James seems as interested in having an impact off the court as Jordan was interested in not rocking the boat. James just endorsed Hillary Clinton for president, for example. He’s spoken up for Black Lives Matter, too, and more.
In other words, if James patterns his on-court game on Jordan’s pure basketball prowess, he is far closer to the firebrand Russell in using his celebrity to influence politically. Jordan only recently started speaking out on social justice issues, largely preferring to tend to his billion dollar businesses, his golf game and his legend. Then again, it’s arguably much easier for James to speak his mind precisely because he lives in a world that Jordan carefully, antiseptically constructed — James occupies a sports celebrity stratosphere that might not exist if Jordan had been more controversial, more like Colin Kaepernick or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, during his playing days. Today James can wield his influence without too much fear of a backlash hurting his brand and/or his bank accounts — the way that activism surely affected Abdul-Jabbar’s earning power, and as it would have impacted Jordan’s too, had he spoken out. So James has Jordan and his trail-blazing marketing partly to thank for his own lofty position, a position that allows him the leeway to practice activism and exercise political influence. But whatever James owes his superstar predecessor, the integrity and courage James displays in not imitating Jordan’s reluctance to enter the fray is his own. By taking social stands, James has separated himself in a major way from Jordan’s legacy. It may be largely a generational thing — but it appears to be much more deeply personal than that.