“You’re still black in America.”
LeBron James was sitting in the barber chair, scrunched as any 6-foot-8 man conforming to regular-sized human furniture would be, in the first episode of his new HBO show, The Shop. He was recounting the story of his house being vandalized last year. The day before Game 1 of the 2017 NBA Finals, a racial slur was spray-painted on the front gate of his property outside Los Angeles. How did LeBron explain it to his kids, longtime friend and business partner Maverick Carter asked?
“No matter how big you can become in America,” LeBron said, “no matter how much influence you think you got or do have, if you’re African American, it doesn’t matter.” He was echoing the sentiments he expressed to a gaggle of reporters in Oakland soon after the incident occurred. The words were similar, and it was a sentiment that’s been expressed for decades across disciplines. The environment was different.
“Anyone who has been in a real barbershop,” LeBron said of the show’s concept back in July, when HBO picked it up, “like the ones where I grew up, knows why this show can be so incredible.” The vision of fluid, open discussion comes across right away in the premiere. Comedian Jerrod Carmichael is shitting on Hamilton one second; Snoop Dogg is telling the shop his music helped teach fans overseas English the next. Fellow L.A. pro Candace Parker and comedian Jon Stewart are across from LeBron sharing a couch; Carter, rapper Vince Staples, Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr., rival Draymond Green, and Eagles defensive end Michael Bennett sit around the room. Green is holding a burgundy glass, drinking a red wine that probably doubled the set costs—LeBron’s the executive producer of the show, all right. The conversation is fast, loud, and funny, with counterpoints thrown like darts and two people often speaking over each other. It’s friendly banter. Of course it is. It’s a barber shop.
The setting creates a very personal facade, an opportunity to speak on fame and kids and race openly. The viewer is in on the conversation, but isn’t in the conversation. Opinions on hot-topic issues that LeBron’s addressed before aren’t delivered like a sermon, which are more likely to fall flat. He’s chatting with people he respects. And you feel like part of that group.
James holds the floor when he speaks. LeBron holds the floor everywhere he is, and it’s been that way for roughly half his life. It must be an exhausting way to live, and yet, even in this room of friends and colleagues comfortable enough to interrupt him, he’s the center of everything. And for quite some time now, he’s understood what it means to be a focal point.
“When I was growing up,” Bennett tells the room, “I was looking for Michael Jordan to say something and he never did. But now kids can look up and be like, ‘What’d LeBron say?’” James talks about when his social responsibilities became clear to him. His sons, LeBron Jr. and Bryce Maximus, were in elementary school when Trayvon Martin was shot and killed in 2012. “I can’t imagine if I sent my kid out and he didn’t return home. ... I started thinking ... ‘If I can get 25,000 to show up to a basketball game, I can reach so many more platforms when I talk.’”
Everyone listens. LeBron doesn’t just talk, he turns words into slogans and reclaims insults as rallying cries. U bum. Shut up and dribble. He wore an “I Can’t Breathe” shirt, and the league followed. He spoke on the NFL protests against racial injustice, on Colin Kaepernick, and on rescinded invitations to the White House.
The Shop is another platform, but it isn’t a pedestal. It’s not a postgame press conference, where power dynamics are heavily skewed. It’s an HBO show that attempts to keep a level playing field for everyone involved. And for an athlete who is constantly asked to respond to happenings on and off the court in the heat of the moment, The Shop affords him some time to breathe. It’s a fitting segue into LeBron’s next chapter. Professional athletes, often seemingly from birth, are singularly focused on their sport. It’s why life after basketball (or football, or tennis, etc.) can be a jarring transition. LeBron is still, remarkably, in his prime at 33, yet already pushing for accomplishments outside the sport. It shouldn’t be shocking. He was called the Chosen One at 17. He’s always been ahead of his time.
At one point in the show, Carter asks if LeBron can ever proclaim himself the best. Green says he should.
“I think Bron over the last four years became LeBron James,” Green said. “And it wasn’t nothing to do with winning, and it wasn’t nothing to do with stats. He found himself. People didn’t start to view him as they view him now, until he became that force, that man to say, ‘I’m here.’ I feel like for years he shied away from saying, ‘I’m here.’ And when he started to say, ‘Fuck y’all, I’m here,’ that’s when he became who he is, and no one would have ever said that until he did it himself.”
He was talking about basketball. But the older, wiser LeBron is also saying “Fuck y’all, I’m here” off the court, too. And he knows we’re watching.
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.