King James. King Kendrick. At this moment in time, they are the undisputed faces of their respective games.
It’s fitting that LeBron James and Kendrick Lamar have a real-life bond. Where they come from and where they stand in their careers are remarkably similar. Both raised in urban poverty. Both at the height of American culture yet still surrounded by childhood friends and often seen in the unglamorous neighborhoods that first witnessed their shine. Kendrick has three (and some may argue more) classic albums (good kid, m.A.A.d city, To Pimp a Butterfly, DAMN.) LeBron James has led his teams to three championships in seven straight Finals appearances with an opportunity to win his fourth later this month.
Those who know me well know that my daily conversations have the air of a walking black barbershop. Rare is the day that goes by without me engaging in a conversation about the legacy of a given rapper or basketball player.
Basketball and hip-hop, in other words, are central parts of my culture. They are inseparable from my identity as a black man in America. In a country where black people have been and continue to be underrepresented in virtually every major institution, basketball and hip-hop stand out as the prominent parts of American life where black people are not only visible but dominant.
For the 10-year-old in me who began to perceive racial inequalities for the first time, who began to experience racism and discrimination for the first time, who began to consciously associate “black” with “bad” for the first time, there is no describing how important it was that I could turn on my television at any given moment and see black excellence on the basketball court or in the music industry.
The heroes of basketball and hip-hop swooped down to save my young, black pride — my young, black life — as swiftly as any of Spider-Man’s or Wonder Woman’s dazzling heroics.
Of course, as with many of the good things in life, there is a double edge. On the opening track of his seminal Ready to Die, The Notorious B.I.G. raps:
“If I wasn’t in the rap game
I’d probably have a key knee-deep in the crack game
Because the streets is a short stop
Either you’re slinging crack rock or you got a wicked jump shot”
Like Biggie, it was clear early on to me that the rap game and the game of basketball were clear arenas where black excellence and therefore social mobility may be had. But as Biggie skillfully presents in these lines, in the minds of thousands of young black boys in the hood, hip-hop and basketball seem like the only two legitimate alternatives to a life of crime. That was the false notion when Biggie spit this verse in 1994 and it sadly remains the notion for many young black boys today.
In a recent interview, legendary Detroit Piston Isiah Thomas said something profound when asked about LeBron’s legacy. It’s a statement so incredible that I must quote it at length.
“I look at Lebron James in a broader category. I don’t look at him [just] in terms of what he does on the basketball floor. I take the totality of what he’s done as a champion. When you’re looking at a champion, the way I was brought up, he or she has a responsibility not only to perform inside the lines but outside of the lines. They have a greater responsibility in terms of uplifting the team and also, if you have an opportunity, to uplift society, then they take on that responsibility. That’s what the Muhammad Alis did, that’s what the Jim Browns did, that’s what the Kareem Abdul-Jabbars did. So that champion, the way I was brought up, when you’re the best player on the team, and you’re the leader of the team, or the best player in the league, you have a greater responsibility to move the game, to move society forward, and that’s why I look at LeBron in that way.”
Isiah Thomas could not be more right in his assessment of LeBron’s legacy. LeBron is a transcendent champion. Because of LeBron, my local Boys and Girls Club in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles received brand new computers that I would often use after school to complete my homework. Because of LeBron James, thousands of disadvantaged kids in Akron will be going to college for free on scholarship. And because of LeBron, future black athletes will know that it is possible to be both the best player in your sport and speak out against racism in the 21st Century without ruining their brand.
Thomas’ words easily apply to Kendrick Lamar as well. In one of my all-time favorite lines in rap, Lamar says on the track “Momma” off of To Pimp a Butterfly,
“I know if I’m generous at heart, I don’t need recognition
The way I’m rewarded, well, that’s God’s decision
I know you know that line’s for Compton School District
Just give it to the kids, don’t gossip about how it was distributed”
And one can be sure that Kendrick walks his talk. He has donated thousands to after-school programs in Compton, including $50,000 to his alma mater’s music department. And true to his “HUMBLE.” nature, never will you ever hear Kendrick broadcast his good deeds.
I believe that LeBron James and Kendrick Lamar, to again borrow Thomas’ words, have a unique opportunity to move our society even further forward. Yes, I want young black boys to continue to aspire to become the next LeBron James and the next Kendrick Lamar. But for the millions who will not have professional careers in rap or basketball, the responsibility also falls on the LeBrons and Kendricks of the world to help young black boys realize the totality of opportunities that exist outside of basketball and hip-hop.
And I know in my heart that LeBron and Kendrick will meet that responsibility head on. Their work and integrity off the court and outside the studio are already showing our young boys that you don’t have to play the sport of kings to be a king. We, the young boys and men of color in America, are already kings. We can and will become royal doctors, royal lawyers, royal engineers, and royal business owners. Because we got loyalty, got royalty inside our “DNA.”
If you enjoyed this piece and you would like to support my writing in other ways, please check out my first short work of fiction, Frederick Douglass and the John Brown Scouts, available now on Amazon.