An Open Letter to LeBron James from a Big Fan
'Reach out to President Trump. He'll learn from you and you'll learn from him. And reach out to Laura Ingraham. You're both improbable stars'
I’ve been a basketball fan for a long time. And a fan of yours, too.
I was a scoring point guard and captain of my high school basketball team in New Jersey. My dad was a college player and taught me how to feel the game. How to see the floor. How to take it to an opponent, and when to lay back. How to encourage my teammates when they needed it. And to push them when necessary.
What my dad was really teaching me was how to lead.
I love the game and never stopped playing. There’s nothing better than walking on a court with strangers and playing pickup hoops under a midday sun. When things go right, when you’re moving together like a good jazz combo, it’s a piece of heaven on earth. Differences disappear: race, religion, ethnicity, class, and age. It’s just 10 guys running around to see who’ll earn the right to say those sacred two words: “next game.”
I remember the first time I saw you. You were on the cover of Sports Illustrated in your junior year. Not college. High school. The first high school underclassman ever to grace SI’s cover.
I remember the first time I saw you play. It was Dec. 12, 2002, and it was a highly anticipated matchup pitting your team — St. Vincent-Saint Mary’s of Akron, Ohio — against the perennial powerhouse Oak Hill Academy of Virginia. Basketball fans across America watched because ESPN was there.
You somehow lived up to the pre-game hype. You scored 31 points, made spectacular dunks, threw no-look passes that would have made Magic Johnson proud, and snatched rebounds like Dennis Rodman.
You had size, speed, grace, agility — and played with maturity. Remarkably, you didn't feel the need to exert yourself on every possession. You were generous and cool under pressure. You were unfazed by the crowd of 13,000, and all the satellite trucks and cameras.
You were one of the best ever. Already. Said Dick Vitale, who was there for ESPN, "James is the finest 17-year old basketball prospect that I have seen in the past 20 years."
You gave a remarkable speech after a big win in an NBA championship game a few years ago: "I'm LeBron James," you said. "From Akron, Ohio. From the inner city. I am not even supposed to be here."
You came into this world with the odds stacked against you. Your mother, Gloria, was 16 when you were born. You never met your father. When you were five years old, your grandma died and the city of Akron condemned your home. You moved 12 times in the next three years.
"Whatever my mom could do or could not do, I also knew that nobody was more important in her life than I was," you said about her in a WebMD interview. "You have no idea how much that means when you grow up without so many of the basic things you should have. You have no idea of the security it gives you, how it makes you think, 'Man, I can get through this. I can survive.'"
And survive you did.
You were the first pick in the NBA draft, by your own Cavaliers. You didn't disappoint, earning the NBA's Rookie of the Year award.
And you kept getting better. By the 2007-2008 season, you'd become the league's top scorer. In the 2008-2009, your stats were superhuman: 29.7 points per game on 50 percent shooting, 8.6 assists per game, and nearly 8 rebounds. You finished second in the NBA Defensive Player of the Year voting. Crazy!
But a championship eluded you. A loss in the NBA finals and losses in the conference championship and semi-finals left you — a competitor's competitor — longing for a championship.
So you did something hard. You left your hometown for Miami, Florida. The move unleashed anger from every quarter: the sports media, the players — and the fans in Cleveland even burned your jersey. It was brutal.
You could have handled things better. You blamed the venom on racism when it was betrayal that triggered the reaction. Even your African-American hoop heroes, Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson, were critics.
Playing for Pat Riley with teammates like Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosch was an opportunity of a lifetime. You earned two NBA championships with the Heat, but you also lost something: your joy. Indeed, you'd become a villain in the league, a star folks loved to dislike. You sometimes embraced that role, playing like an angry guy.
Then came your coming home letter in Sports Illustrated.
"My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball," you confessed. "I didn't realize that four years ago. I do now."
You weren't finished.
"I have two boys and my wife, Savannah, is pregnant with a girl. I started thinking about what it would be like to raise my family in my hometown. I looked at other teams, but I wasn't going to leave Miami for anywhere except Cleveland. The more time passed, the more it felt right. This is what makes me happy."
You showed maturity in the letter, addressing Dan Gilbert, the owner of the Cavs, specifically. Dan had written a nasty open letter to you when you left Cleveland, and you had written back in equally harsh terms at the time.
"I've met with Dan face-to-face, man-to-man. We've talked it out," you wrote. "Everybody makes mistakes. I've made mistakes as well. Who am I to hold a grudge?"
You showed the capacity to forgive. And be forgiven.
Your closing words were inspiring:
I feel my calling here goes above basketball. I have a responsibility to lead, in more ways than one, and I take that very seriously. My presence can make a difference in Miami, but I think it can mean more where I'm from. I want kids in Northeast Ohio, like the hundreds of Akron third-graders I sponsor through my foundation, to realize that there's no better place to grow up. Maybe some of them will come home after college and start a family or open a business. That would make me smile. Our community, which has struggled so much, needs all the talent it can get. In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have. I'm ready to accept the challenge. I'm coming home.
You came home. And two years later — you brought a championship home, too.
It's quite a story. And it's why I was so disappointed to hear your words in that Uber calling out the president of the United States.
You said that he doesn't "give a f*** about the [American] people."
The fact is, President Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election — and your home state of Ohio — because the people you say he doesn't care about voted for him.
They voted for him not because they liked his style, or his tweets, or his endless bragging. They voted for him because they thought he'd fight for them. For their jobs. For their businesses.
The steelworkers in Ohio voted for him. The coal miners in Appalachia, too. Coal mines are opening in those places for the first time in years. When mines open, that helps the waitresses and waiters at the local diner, the car mechanic down the street, the movie-theater owner at the mall, and the baker on Main Street.
The small-business owners of this country — and women and minorities are the fastest rising group of small-business owners — voted for him in large numbers, too, LeBron. Because this president actually understood their lives. How hard it is to start and run a business. Meet payroll. Pay vendors. Pay the bank. Rent. Taxes. Inventory. And then to still have some left over to pay yourself after all of that.
He understood that taxes often eat up the slim margins that make a difference between survival and growth. Trump felt their pain, and did something about it.
That's a big reason President Trump won. Because he was a no-nonsense businessman whom many Americans believed would get the businesses of America back on track.
That's a big reason President Trump won. Because he was a no-nonsense businessman whom many Americans believed would get the businesses of America — all of those American dreamers — back on track. His record-high ratings from the business community — and a roaring economy — prove he was on to something.
Few issues are as important as how we treat our business owners and capital. Both are the lifeblood of the American economy and of our communities. Without them, where will our kids work? How will families build homes and save for vacations and retirement? How will local governments collect the taxes needed for our teachers, cops and firemen?
These are serious matters, LeBron. President Obama, whom you loved, did nothing to fight for the people who employ people in this country.
You, for some reason, didn't care about those people.
You lived your American dream through sports, but millions of Americans pursue their dreams through business ownership. Those owners come in all races, genders, religions, ethnicities, and sexual orientation.
Heck, you're the executive producer of "Cleveland Hustles" on CNBC. You should know better.
LeBron, when you said what you said in that Uber, you insulted lots of your fans. Fans who believed you previously when you said, "I have a responsibility to lead, in more ways than one, and I take that very seriously."
Did you mean leading only the people who agree with you politically?
I have an idea for you, LeBron. You forgave Dan Gilbert, founder of Quicken Loans, a great businessman and the owner of your team. Ask him about the things President Trump is doing for the business community. For workers, wages and opportunity for all Americans. You'll get an earful.
Then reach out to President Trump. Start a dialogue. He'll learn from you — and you'll learn a thing or two from him.
And while you are at it, reach out to Laura Ingraham. You're both improbable stars. She is a strong woman who made her way without family connections or wealth. Just as you experienced in your life with your mom, her tough-as-nails mom, a Polish immigrant, loved her and encouraged her, and worked hard jobs to make sure her child had a shot in life. Laura Ingraham of Fox News, a co-founder of LifeZette, clerked for Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas, an African-American whose life story you'd admire. And she was the first woman ever to crack the top five in talk radio — against all odds. She's smart, fun and loves sports. And she has a huge heart, like you, for kids. She adopted three — one from Guatemala and two from Russia. And she changed their lives forever.
You might learn something from her. She'll learn something from you.
And I promise this: You'll agree about a lot more things than you ever imagined.
LeBron, in this age of nasty soundbites and social media drive-by ugliness, your outreach would be a beautiful thing.
Here's hoping you do it. And I hope President Trump and Laura Ingraham will do the same.
America needs it now more than ever.
I wish you well this season, LeBron. I hope you beat Golden State in the finals this spring. I'll be rooting for you, your family and your efforts to help build the community you call home.
From a fan for life, even if we don't always agree on things,
Lee Habeeb is vice president of content at Salem Media Group. He is also the host of “Our American Stories,” which can be heard nationwide in almost 100 affiliates. He lives in Oxford, Mississippi, with his wife, Valerie, and daughter, Reagan.