The NBA finals have begun – set to determine the champ of the 2018-19 season. It’s the first time since 2009 that LeBron James has not been in this event.
Missing this year is hardly the end of his basketball career. At age 35, I would suggest that the best of his career is yet to come. But that best will have nothing to do with basketball.
James is launching deep into a media production life that is distinct from his peers. Media are not foreign to him and his peers. Athletes launching into various media efforts over the years is common. Many find the broadcast booth in their sport. Some – like Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan – find the Hollywood screen for bit roles. Others, like Rob Gronkowski, find media events like pro wrestling.
But LeBron’s is different and disciplined unlike any athlete in the last three decades.
Spring Hill Entertainment and Uninterrupted are two companies under LeBron that will become more pivotal to him in time than his Nike endorsement, the LA Lakers or the Cleveland Cavaliers.
I bumped into all of this after watching an episode of “The Shop” on HBO.
The one-hour show features LeBron and business partner and former high school teammate Maverick Carter hosting a roundtable discussion in a barbershop with a host of A-List African-American peers: athletes like Antonio Brown and Odell Beckham, actors like Ice Cube, Don Cheadle and Jamie Foxx, and rappers like Pharrell Williams, Meek Mill and Snoop Dogg.
White guys get in there, too: record producer Jimmy Iovine, TV personalities Jimmy Kimmel and Jon Stewart, and others.
I expected locker room talk, stats, game strategies and such.
What I found was:
“Kaepernick stood for something that was bigger than him,” said LeBron of exiled NFL star Colin Kaepernick. “How many people can wake up and say ‘I’ll give [up] everything I’ve worked for my whole life for the better of the conversation. I’m gonna lose everything I got personally.’ That’s why we sit here and salute Kap. The beautiful sport was taken away from him.”
In another episode:
“That next generation – I have to let them know I care, that at the end of the day, that their dreams that can become reality, and that they can make it. Once they know that, they’re able to tap in.”
These such offerings come from around the room of stars. As one opines, the others chime in with bits and pieces.
Mind you, it’s not without its off-color asides and boys’ humor. But that’s part of the authenticity of this vehicle. It’s not the only vehicle LeBron has built.
A two-part documentary on Muhammad Ali is on HBO now called “What’s my name?”
“Rise up” aired on the History Channel saluting key battles in the civil-right movement.
“Kneading Dough” is a series that talks with athletes and how they manage their money. That’s an important topic given the volume of athletes who squander their money.
They have at least 15 other titles created or in the works.
No different than watching Lifetime, or Hallmark, or Spike television networks, there is a theme to what LeBron and his team are working at.
Before I let anyone get too far down the path that this effort is black-only, there is a touching episode on their Uninterrupted website about New York Giants lineman Justin Pugh and his Jersey City neighbor Bill “Blue” Brown. Pugh is an NFL’er who has everything, but at the same time has emptiness in his life. Brown is his elderly neighbor who had nothing and was about to be evicted. These two disparate white guys found each other and a friendship.
The content for Spring Hill Entertainment and Uninterrupted is real and genuine, black and white.
The “About” tab on their website says “Founded by LeBron James and Maverick Carter, SpringHill Entertainment creates compelling stories for television, features, and digital. We pride ourselves on incubating, developing, and producing work that speaks to a cross-cultural audience.”
What I like most is it establishes a narrative for the African-American community that does not get seen enough. I watch CBS News in the morning because I’m a huge Gayle King fan. TV occasionally hits a home run with Sterling Brown’s character in “This Is Us.” And of course, Oprah stops everyone wherever she appears.
But none of this has moved the needle enough in our society as it pertains to the African-American community, as shown by our inner city schools, our poverty and our incarcerations.
It’s sustained, blended storytelling such as LeBron’s that can help. The work is especially disciplined in showcasing the male black athlete in a way that gets obscured in normal media.
It’s savvy media blended with savvy corporate powers. State Farm, Uber, Chase Bank and Gillette are some of the marquee brands siding up with the content.
How many more NBA championships LeBron gets into remains to be seen.
But he’s setting himself up to be the most prolific post-career athlete of his and previous generations. Decades ago, some of the brightest athletes found their way into politics, like NFL’er Jack Kemp and NBA’er Bill Bradley.
Where LeBron is headed, he says best himself.
“We’re all trying to figure out no matter the color or the race – to be able to have equal rights and equal opportunity – to be in the land of the free. We have to push forward and keep the narrative going; keep the conversation going.”
Todd Franko is editor of The Vindicator. He likes emails about stories and our newspaper. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Tweet him, too, at @tfranko.