Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James returns to the court after a timeout against the Brooklyn Nets on Sunday at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. Photo by Peter Foley/EPA-EFE
March 27 (UPI) -- Growing up in Akron, Ohio, LeBron James found it difficult to find a powerful voice to mimic.
In fact, he says he had "no inspiration" for the weight his words now carry. James has done everything but taken the directive from Fox News' Laura Ingraham to "shut up and dribble."
He talks about social issues stoically, picking his words as precisely as he scans the basketball court, waiting for a paper-thin lane to open up. Sometimes he passes, other times he charges through.
"I don't know if you know me too much, but I've learned everything on my own," James said Tuesday morning at the Cleveland Cavaliers' shootaround in Miami. "As far as being a professional and being outspoken ... the only thing I've had help with is how to play the game of basketball."
James smiles when he talks about his roots on Kings Ridge Boulevard in Northeast Ohio. James' mother was just 16 when she gave birth to her only son. He grew up in a single-parent household.
He has come a long way since being a lanky teen who captivated the world's television sets from Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary High School. His shadow still looms on the humble campus, which just claimed an Ohio-record eighth state championship.
"I learned [basketball] from the great coaches I've had...mentors like Coach Dru Joyce, shout him out ... Frank Walker and Keith Dambrot. Those guys taught me how to play the game."
"But as far as professionalism and me speaking out, I've learned everything on my own, so I didn't look up to nobody. I couldn't. I didn't have no inspiration."
Baylor changed the game
James was born 1984. About 20 years before, and 2,300 miles from his childhood home, Los Angeles Lakers legend Elgin Baylor became a pioneer in the evolution of the National Basketball Association.
Baylor details his career and fight against racism in his new autobiography Hang Time, which comes out April 6. One of the most significant moments of Baylor's Hall of Fame career came in 1959, when he boycotted a game in Charleston, S.C. Baylor's Minneapolis Lakers were set to play the Cincinnati Royals. But the Lakers star sat on the bench during the game in protest after a Charleston hotel wouldn't allow him and two other black players to stay with the rest of the team. The Lakers ended up switching hotels, but Baylor still missed the contest, which his team lost.
The 11-time All-Star and 1958-59 MVP later acknowledged that he wouldn't have played in the game even if he had to fork over his entire salary. It wasn't the only boycott of Baylor's career. He also threatened to sit out the 1964 All-Star Game over demands for a pension, athletic trainers for every team and improved playing conditions. His protests helped bring widespread change to the league, including shifts in player pensions, healthcare and more.
Baylor has also taken a strong stance about racism within the NBA more recently, including against former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling. Baylor -- the Clippers' former general manager -- sued Sterling for wrongful termination and accused him of age and race discrimination. He lost that case, but Sterling later received a lifetime ban from the NBA in 2014 after a recording was released, which included Sterling using racist rhetoric during a phone conversation.
"Commissioner Silver thank you for protecting our beautiful and powerful league! Great leader! #BiggerThanBasketball," James tweeted after the ban was announced.
So Baylor agrees that James -- and other players -- shouldn't "shut up and dribble."
"No one has the right to tell us to just 'shut up and dribble.' That's wrong! We are as entitled to free speech as anybody else," Baylor told UPI. "Being a professional athlete doesn't mean we lose our right to free speech. And it certainly doesn't mean we lose the right to express our opinions about what's happening in this country."
"A lot of black athletes like LeBron and Kobe [Bryant] are role models, and for them to respond and speak up about what's right can inspire a generation of young kids to do the same."
Wade and James support march, for sons
James is close to the Miami Heat's Dwyane Wade, his former teammate in Miami and Cleveland.
Wade has been outspoken in South Florida -- and nationwide -- since the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, which left 17 dead and several other teens injured.
He has worn a March For Our Lives T-shirt, supporting the million-plus students that walked the streets of Washington, D.C., and around the United States on Saturday. He posted a photo of his shoes on social media on Sunday. The kicks had the words "Gun Violence" written on the bottom, which Wade crossed out.
James isn't surprised about his friend's approach to activism.
"That's what he is," James said. "I think when he's passionate about something, he definitely puts his all into it and I definitely commend him on that. It's definitely not a surprise. We all know who 'D-Wade' is and how much more he is than just basketball, especially in this part."
Wade's gestures follow those of direct action. He was traded back to the Heat on Feb. 8, just before the Valentine's Day shooting in Parkland, Fla. He responded by inviting the family of Joaquin Oliver, who was killed in the shooting, to a March 3 Heat game. He sported custom Stoneman Douglas shoes and gave them -- and a jersey -- to Joaquin's family after the Heat win. Joaquin was buried in Wade's jersey.
Wade made a surprise visit to the school just days later, bringing smiles to the teenage students who have already dealt with a lifetime of tragedy.
James and Wade have teenage sons. Wade's oldest is a 16-year-old freshman who goes to school just 15 miles from the Parkland campus. James' oldest, LeBron James Jr., is 13 and will be walking those high school hallways soon enough.
The four-time NBA MVP said he hasn't been back home since the March for Our Lives, but James talks to his children regularly about what is happening in the world and how it could affect them.
"We do our due diligence as a family," James said. "We talk about issues that come up. Things that they could face. Things that are challenging for a family. So those conversations are always talked about on a daily basis."
Wade commends James for speaking out, too.
"LeBron has been LeBron James since he was 16 years old, where we've all heard of him. As you get more comfortable with yourself and you have the young boys like you have, you understand your position in life as a leader...you start to continue to understand what your voice means for your community and so many others that don't have a voice."
"[LeBron] is very passionate about the things he speaks about and he's very knowledgeable about the things he speaks about."
Wade has his eyes glued on the march, led by students demanding solutions to gun violence.
"I talked to my boys about it, my family about it, trying to get them to understand why we are supporting it. It's not just me. Whenever the Wade name is attached to anything, it's a 'we' thing. Anything I do, I always try to sit down with them and tell them why, etc. or try to have them come and be a part of it."
"I thought just like most, the march was powerful and the message that each individual got up there and explained and talked about was emotional, heartfelt. It was great."
Wade added that he was happy to see youth from his hometown of Chicago, Baltimore and Indianapolis involved in the march.
"For me as a parent, when I send my kids to school, that's a safe place. When they get up in the morning and they go to school, every parent is like, now I can go on with my day," Wade said as he exhaled, mimicking a sigh of relief. "It's scary to think how unsafe it is. I think it definitely changes you."