At the tender age of 22, you have the galactic talent to make us wonder if a mad scientist had Magic and MJ genetically spliced. But talent ain’t wisdom. In a recent interview, you said that your goal in sports was to become “the richest man on earth.” You also told ESPN, “I’m trying to be a global icon … on the level of Muhammad Ali.”
These dreams are compatible only if you choose to emulate Ali the icon and not Ali the man. Ali the icon is used to sell books, computers, snack foods, and anything not nailed down. Ali the man sacrificed his health, future, and untold millions by standing up to racism and war. No one is demanding you do the same. No one is insisting you get in front of a microphone and say, “I aint got no quarrel with them Iraqis.”
But you should understand that the reason Ali remains a “global icon” is precisely because he didn’t define himself by his corporate sponsors. When his handlers told him to stop throttling the golden goose of fame he said, “Damn the money! Damn the white man’s money!”
Evidence is accumulating that this won’t become the King James catchphrase of choice.
Your teammate Ira Newble tried to get every member of the Cavs to sign a letter calling on China to stop exacerbating the genocide in Darfur by dealing arms to the government. “There’s innocent people dying, and it’s just a tragedy to stand back and let them do what they’re doing,” Newble said.
One of Newble’s inspirations take a stand has been the person he “idolized as a child”: Muhammad Ali. That would be Ali the man, not the brand.
Newble stuffed fact sheets and articles in the lockers of every member on the team. He organized almost the entire squad to sign a letter that reads in part, “We, as basketball players in the N.B.A. and as potential athletes in the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing, cannot look on with indifference to the massive human suffering and destruction that continue in the Darfur region of Sudan.” Larry Hughes signed. “Big Z,” Zydrunas Ilgauskas signed. Drew Gooden signed.
Only two people refused and one was you. Nike, with whom you have a $90 million shoe deal, does business with China so you treated that letter like Dick Cheney treats a salad.
[There’s no guarantee the young Ali would have signed this letter either. He may very well have said he wouldn’t sign any letter telling China to get out of Darfur until the US was out of Iraq. After all this was a man who said, “The real enemy of my people is here.” But one thing is for certain: “show me the money” would not have trumped “damn the money.” No way.]
Consumer advocate Ralph Nader also tried to give you the chance to walk the Ali path. He sent you a public invitation to a forum about conditions in Nike factories. In the letter, Nader wrote,
“Mr. James, you are in a unique position to stand up for the people who make the products you endorse and to make the world a better place in the process. You can improve their working conditions in the contracted factories and pressure the entire sports shoe and apparel industry to change.”
You replied to the press: “No, I haven’t responded to it. But I think Nike’s a great company and they would respond if need be.”
The shoe wars continued in March in New York, when you dissed and dismissed Stephon Marbury’s $14.98 sneaker line. You, whose signature Nikes go for $150, were asked whether you would ever sell a shoe that didn’t cost a week’s pay at McDonalds. You said, “No, I don’t think so. Me being with Nike, we hold our standards high.”
Marbury answered your words with the underreported smackdown of the season, saying, “I’d rather own than be owned.” Damn.
Jim Brown once explained the allure of Ali in the 1960s this way: “White folks could not stand free black folks. White America could not stand to think that a sports hero that it was allowing to make big dollars would have the courage to stand up like no one else and risk, not only his life, but everything else that he had.”
The choice you face is frankly quite stark: how free to do you want to be? Do you want to be “King James of Nike Manor” or the King of the World? Only by refusing to be owned, only by displaying independence from the very corporate interests that enrich you, will you ever make the journey from brand to three dimensional man.
DAVE ZIRIN is the author of “The Muhammad Ali Handbook” (MQ Publications) and “Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports” , forthcoming from Haymarket. You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Contact him at email@example.com