|LeBron James has not been shy in sharing his political opinions. (Getty Images)|
A couple of years ago, I was asking various NBA people what LeBron James could do in the coming years to differentiate himself from Michael Jordan. If Jordan wasn't the greatest basketball player ever, then at the very least he was the best-marketed.
I wasn't asking for a political statement, but that's what I got. The best answer, not surprisingly, came from one of the smartest, most thoughtful athletes I've ever interviewed: Ray Allen. This was in early 2011, before James had taken the first important step toward rebuilding his image (i.e. winning a championship) and before Allen and James improbably became teammates on the Miami Heat.
This is what Allen said in January 2011, and it rings true now, the day after Election Day.
"Mike paved the way for all of us to open up the endorsement door," Allen said. "But the one thing that Mike never was is political. I think in today's era, the NBA player has an even greater podium if he chooses to use it. And with Barack Obama being the first black President, it's a great forum. I think that would separate him from anybody who's done this."
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In other words, Jordan may have won six championships, but he was oh-for-scoring-political-points during his Hall of Fame career. Jordan -- as the often-related story goes -- chose commerce over politics in 1990 when he refused to endorse Democrat Harvey Gantt, a black U.S. Senate candidate in his home state of North Carolina.
"Republicans buy shoes, too," Jordan famously explained.
And that was Allen's point: Whereas Jordan avoided politics for fear of alienating potential customers, James could really separate himself by embracing his role as someone who could not only generate opinions but influence them.
"It's great to be a basketball player, but to transcend sports is a big responsibility," Allen said. "If he were able to pull that off -- if he wants to pull that off -- I think that would set him apart."
So when Obama became the first black candidate to win the White House in 2008, James was not hesitant in expressing his approval. Then, the day before Obama's re-election bid went to the voters, James took to Twitter -- a platform Jordan lacked during his playing days -- and tweeted, "The president got more work to do, make sure you get out and vote."
Then, another tweet urging his 6.5 million followers again to "get out and vote," with a hash tag inspired by Obama's campaign slogan: #forward2012.
From the sheer standpoint of getting involved and expressing his opinion, it was a risk -- one that even Jordan himself is now willing to take. A political agnostic no longer, Jordan organized a $3 million fundraising dinner for Obama in August, an event supported by NBA stars Carmelo Anthony, Rajon Rondo, Grant Hill, Paul Pierce and others. Vince Carter previously hosted a $30,000-per-person Obama fundraiser at his Florida home.
According to a donor list aggregated by HoopsHype.com, five current NBA players -- Anthony, Hill, Carter, Nolan Smith and free-agent Baron Davis -- donated to Obama's campaign. Jordan was an exception among NBA ownership types who donated to the President's successful re-election bid, putting up $5,000.
Even though commissioner David Stern recently poked fun at Obama's basketball skills -- "He’s not that good," said Stern, the noted Democrat who himself donated $5,000 to Obama -- the obstacles that kept Jordan from voicing political opinions during his playing career appear to have been lifted. But the golden rule of sports is to follow the money, and if you do that when it comes to NBA political donations, the league appears just as divided as the country is.
Members of NBA ownership groups donated far more to Romney's campaign than players to Obama's campaign. According to the campaign finance documents cited by HoopsHype, 21 members of NBA ownership groups donated $98,500 to Romney, compared to the five aforementioned players who delivered $21,000 to Obama.
Curiously, James' name was absent from the list of NBA donors to this presidential campaign. But he threw his considerable weight behind the president with his social media influence and something even more valuable: his vote, in the battleground state of Ohio.
"2 terms!!!!" James tweeted after Obama's re-election was called by the networks Tuesday night. "Ohio u guys are ... awesome."
An array of current and former NBA players chimed in, mostly in support of Obama's victory. James' friend, Chris Paul, tweeted, "OBAMA!!! #4MoreYears," while Kevin Durant wrote, "4 more! What a great night."
So what do we have in the NBA's tiny corner of the universe on this day after Election Day? An environment where it's no longer taboo for pro athletes to express their political opinions. Is this good or bad? Is this what we wanted?
I, for one, could do without it. While I understand the criticism Jordan incurred for sidestepping the landmines of politics in the '90s and the praise James has received for voicing his opinions, I'm not sure we'll enjoy a politicized sports landscape as much as those who criticized Jordan back in the day thought we would.
The electoral map, popular vote and demographics of Tuesday's outcome proved only that the country is more at odds than ever. During crucial times with massive problems to deal with, do we really want our athletes to take sides? Do we want sports, a bastion of recreation and means of escape from real-world problems, to become just as fraught with disunity as the rest of our lives?
I don't know the answer for sure. But I do know I'm more interested in how LeBron does Wednesday night against the Brooklyn Nets than I am in what policy agenda he believes will get the country back on track. Debate about that will be impossible to avoid without sports becoming a forum for it, too.
Is it so wrong to reserve those questions for the politicians and pundits? LeBron thinks so, even though Republicans buy Samsung Galaxy Note II's, too. That's his call, and part of the strange times in which we live.
Whether you agree, disagree, or just want to talk hoops and leave the politics out of it, on to the rest of the first 2012-13 regular season edition of Postups:
• The season is barely a week old, and already it's time for my first mea culpa. In my season predictions column, I listed the Trail Blazers as my "Demise Team" in the West, saying, "There's no doubt the Blazers will be positively awful this season." Wrong! Having watched rookie Damian Lillard lead the plucky Blazers (2-2) to victories over the Lakers and Rockets and give the Thunder all they could handle in Oklahoma City, awful is not a word I'll use regarding the Blazers any longer. There will be rough nights for Lillard and the Blazers, as was the case Monday night in a 114-91 loss at Dallas. But I like this Blazers team a lot more than I thought I would, and thought that was worth pointing out.
• Along those lines, several team executives I've chatted with over the past week believe that some semblance of parity actually is going to be a reality this season in the NBA. "It's not quite to the level of the NFL," one exec said, "but I think you're going to see a lot of teams battling around .500." Just as it was too soon this past summer to declare the new CBA ineffective with the collection of talent assembled in the glamour markets of Los Angeles and New York, it's too early to declare parity a reality now. But a very early glance at the standings in both conferences Wednesday morning revealed 16 teams at .500 or within a game of it. Should the trend continue, it could result in some actual drama when it comes to the race for the final 2-3 playoff spots in each conference come April.
• I, for one, don't have a problem with Thunder GM Sam Presti giving James Harden one hour to consider the team's four-year, $54 million final offer before trading him to the Rockets. Getting value in a trade depends on preserving leverage, and Presti would have lost leverage had he let the dance with Harden and his agent, Rob Pelinka, progress without a deadline.
• Shameless plug here, but the CBSSports.com Dunk-o-Meter is awesome.
• If the Hawks get off to a good start, let's not forget that GM Danny Ferry has only $18.5 million in guaranteed salary on the books for 2013-14, depending on what he does with free-agent-to-be Josh Smith. After saying he won't sign an extension with Atlanta, Smith could be the most talked-about potential trade pawn at the February deadline.
• There's a story behind Lakers point guard Steve Blake being fined $25,000 for using inappropriate language toward a fan. The fan Blake targeted was, according to the Los Angeles Times, berating Blake with foul language and taunts about "making your open shots." The fan in question also happens to be Lance Jackson, the adult son of footwear honcho Steve Jackson, a renowned Lakers fan and owner of courtside seats at Staples Center. Blake and the aforementioned heckler have made amends, and the Lakers' 1-3 start got a little weirder. But of course, you knew it would.
• Still no word from the New York law firm conducting a review of the National Basketball Players Association's finances and business practices. The report was supposed to have been completed before the start of the regular season. So Billy Hunter remains in his very warm, uncomfortable chair as executive director of the union, and Derek Fisher remains union president despite not having a job to play in the league. There's "no rush" to finish the report, one member of the union’s executive committee told me recently. Especially when lawyers and billable hours are involved.