LeBron James is taking his talents to the small screen

Tuesday, November 13, 2018 - 1:07pm

LeBron in 'The Shop'

LeBron in 'The Shop' Buy this photo
HBO

This year, LeBron James opened a public elementary school in his native Akron, traded barbs with the president of the United States, did voiceover work for the animated film “Smallfoot” (he was not Meechee), endorsed Texas Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke, wore a fabulous Thom Browne short suit, did a shot of tequila with no hands on “The Ellen Show” (for charity) and had producing credits on no fewer than five television shows and sold another four to networks. Oh, and in his free time, he played some basketball.

The King is now as exciting to watch off the court as he is to watch on it. Whatever led James to join the Lakers this summer — the renown of the franchise, Magic Johnson’s persistence, a championship-hungry young core — the move to Los Angeles positions him to be a player in the entertainment industry, in the off-season and in eventual retirement. And James has, via his production company, SpringHill Entertainment, quietly become something of a Hollywood powerhouse, telling stories that are poignant and revelatory.

SpringHill’s TV projects are scattered across networks, mostly docuseries with some scripted programming in the works. Though James himself appears only in two, every show feels tied to him in some way. Collectively, they tell a kind of extratextual story of an athlete at the culmination of his own political awakening, deeply curious about the institutions and forces that have made his life what it is.

Showtime’s “Shut Up and Dribble,” a three-part docuseries airing this month, is an attempt to place James’s activism in a historical tradition. A sweeping history of political activism in the NBA, the program’s title is a cheeky jab at the Fox News anchorwoman Laura Ingraham, who made the remark in February after James criticized Donald Trump in an ESPN interview. “Shut Up and Dribble” is also a rebuke to anyone who would neglect the fraught racial and power dynamics tied up in basketball by calling it “just a game.”

“In America, Black athletes were supposed to be the workers, not the owners,” narrates sportswriter Jemele Hill in the first episode’s opening minutes. “They were supposed to be the talent and never the power brokers.” It’s a reminder of how radical James’s TV empire is — it marks his ability to bridge that gap, to take ownership of his future at a time when the NBA’s stars are beginning to wield unprecedented power.

Any discussion of LeBron James will be met with inevitable comparisons to Michael Jordan, who parlayed his NBA success into his own commercial empire and whose number James wears in homage. But James has taken care to distinguish himself from Jordan. The second episode of “Shut Up and Dribble” critiques Jordan’s silence on social issues. When declining to endorse the Black Harvey Gantt in his Senate race against the openly racist Jesse Helms, Jordan said, famously — if apocryphally — that “Republicans buy sneakers too.” Jordan’s story is told alongside those of forgotten athletes who gambled their careers on their political convictions and lost. “Maybe the best way to stay popular is to remain a mystery,” says Hill.

James doesn’t buy that. “The Shop,” a freewheeling barbershop-set group talk show on HBO, is proof of his belief that celebrity obliges him to be outspoken. With fellow NBA and WNBA players, comedians and rappers, he probes issues of race, fatherhood and fame. Is it 100 percent authentic? Probably not — it’s TV, after all. But it feels like earnest conversation amid the joking there are a few moments of real insight. Jordan is invoked here too: In one episode, Eagles defensive end Michael Bennett recalls “looking for Michael Jordan to say something, and he never did.”

The shows James doesn’t make appearances in are equally bold and compelling. “Warriors of Liberty City” on Starz follows a Miami neighborhood where a career in the NFL is seen as the only way out. “Student Athlete” on HBO is a critical look at the maze of NCAA rules. And the scripted shows in production will venture outside the world of sports — Netflix is making a SpringHill series about Madam CJ Walker, America’s first Black female millionaire, with Octavia Spencer (“The Help”) set to star.

Who better to make TV than someone who has publicly grappled with spending the majority of his life in the spotlight in front of a camera? In a sense, James is the rare child star who endured the lifetime of attention uncorrupted by fame. He has emerged from it all with a rare, keen understanding of what it means to be a public figure in 2018. And in television, he may have finally found a meaningful vehicle to make sense of his strange world.

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