George M. Thomas: LeBron always thinking beyond basketball

Akron Beacon JournalJuly 18, 2014 

Poverty has a way of affecting people that should never be underestimated.

Far too often, those who continue to hold power in this country assume that those forced to live in that situation choose to do so.

Whether it's a young boy who grew up in the eastern suburbs of Cleveland, moving from apartment to apartment just ahead of an eviction notice, who wrote these words, or a youth from inner city Akron who grew up with a basketball in one hand and a drive to succeed, not all of those who grow up in such circumstances are lazy or uneducated, nor are they simply "takers."

Nor are they all black. That's reality.

Some are driven. Extremely driven. And they only look to see where they fit in this alleged multicultural tapestry that is America.

In four seasons in Miami, LeBron James apparently learned where he fits.

The Essay, as his decision announcing his return to the Cavaliers on SI.com became known, revealed that Akron's native son grew up while away, and he's looking at the big picture.

Much of the media focused on the eloquent letter and how it focused on home. The truth is, James could not and would not be who he ultimately wants to be unless he returned to Northeast Ohio. That is undeniable.

Since his early years in the game, James' mind has always focused on transcending basketball.

In an interview given back in 2007, James stated point-blank that he wanted to be the first billionaire athlete. Those who dissected it took their eyes off the more noteworthy statement made in the same interview in which James said he wanted to be like Muhammad Ali and transcend his sport. He wanted to be a worldwide ambassador, a status few athletes ever attain. For all of his rings and prowess on the court, Michael Jordan doesn't have it.

Former Browns great Jim Brown and his NBA contemporary Bill Russell don't have it, though they worked hard for equal rights, risking their respective careers during the civil rights era.

Muhammad Ali? Ali has it. Ali will keep it despite the ravages of Parkinson's and time. When I think of Ali, I don't think of the boxing. I think of the journey he took from braggadocio pugilist to man of conscience who stood firmly in his beliefs no matter what the cost.

That surpasses anything he did in the ring.

James might never get the opportunity to take a stand like Ali did against a war that history deems questionable at best, but if you look at the deeds in Akron and his words around the league, it looks as if he realizes that he now holds power that few outside the political sphere have.

Jordan was notorious for being apolitical. Although he endorsed Barack Obama for re-election in 2012, during his playing days, he once reportedly said that "Republicans buy shoes, too," passing on the opportunity to influence people's decisions.

James is at the height of his powers on and off the court and he's seen the need to use them where he sees fit. He filmed a public service announcement encouraging people to sign up for the Affordable Care Act. He risked alienating a sizable portion of the American public by protesting the verdict in the Trayvon Martin trial with his Miami Heat teammates. More recently, he led the call among players to ensure that the NBA booted Donald Sterling for his virulently bigoted comments.

No one should be surprised that he felt he had a "greater calling than basketball" that led him back to Akron where he supports hundreds of kids through the LeBron James Family Foundation, something he's done even while in Miami. He's a man on a mission and his actions showed all along that he's been looking beyond basketball.

LET NEGOTIATIONS BEGIN

The NBA and its current national broadcast partners - Disney (ESPN) and Turner Broadcasting (TNT) are currently engaged in exclusive talks to extend their current deal, according to the Wall Street Journal.

The NBA seeks to double its current deal, which pays it approximately $930 million per year. That, in turn, would raise the salary cap significantly, giving the players a significant boost in overall revenues.

For those seeking a reason why James and Dwyane Wade signed two-year contracts, that represents a huge one. The current TV deal ends in 2016.

If that seems exorbitant for a league that lost viewers in the 2013-14 season according to Nielsen, the national ratings service, think again.

Although on ABC (Channel 5) locally, ratings were down 21 percent and cable outlets ESPN and TNT each took 5 percent hits, the money train will roll through.

Reality dictates they should both pay. The media environment has changed since the NBA and its partners signed the last deal in 2008.

There are four national cable sports outlets - ESPN, CBS Sports Network, NBCSN and Fox Sports 1 - in addition to TNT.

Live sports programming represents the Holy Grail for the would-be ascendant channels. If Disney and TNT won't pay the price, some other network will get a piece of the pie.

That's how the Fox Network built a successful over-the-air brand, by filching the NFL from CBS by paying rates that many considered exorbitant at the time.

LeBron effect

SI.com reported record traffic for July 11 courtesy of James' essay, according to a news release.

The site recorded 6.1 million unique visitors more than 42 percent more UVs than its previous high when Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman wrote for MMQB.com, a sub-site founded by Sports Illustrated's Peter King.

FOR FANTASY GEEKS

Subscribers to DirecTV will be given another reason to catch their NFL games at home as opposed to trekking down to the nearest stadium.

The satellite TV provider will add The Fantasy Zone channel to its NFL Sunday Ticket Max package this football season. Former pro linebacker Dhani Jones will host in front of a studio audience.

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