With HBO's 'The Shop,' LeBron aims to get us comfortable with being uncomfortable

NFL star Odell Beckham Jr. (L) speaks while LeBron James, Maverick Carter (R) and others listen during the first episode of HBO’s “The Shop.” (Image courtesy of HBO)
NFL star Odell Beckham Jr. (L) speaks while LeBron James, Maverick Carter (R) and others listen during the first episode of HBO’s “The Shop.” (Image courtesy of HBO)

There’s a moment in the first episode of “The Shop,” the new HBO series helmed by LeBron James and longtime business partner Maverick Carter, when the newly minted Los Angeles Lakers superstar offers a brief treatise on the ways in which African-Americans influence culture, at home and abroad.

“We move everything,” James says. “We move the way people dress. We move the way people think. We move the way people dance, the music people listen to. We move the way people play sports.”

“And,” adds Episode 1 guest Snoop Dogg, “the way they talk.”

It’s a little early to be able to tell whether the new show — in which James, Carter and a rotating collection of guests present “unfiltered conversation and debate with some of the biggest names in sport and entertainment” in the setting of a black barbershop — will wind up prompting a similar sort of move in pop culture, public discourse and the way we talk with one another about our divergent life experiences. But after the first half-hour (which is available now to stream on HBO GO, and will re-run multiple times on HBO in the days ahead; check here for listings) it seems like it’s at least got a shot.

James and company open up by discussing the setting itself — the “real” barbershop — as a place for congregation, wide-open conversation on a wide variety of topics and, of course, merciless roasting. Guest Jon Stewart, the lone white participant on the inaugural episode’s panel, asks whether that openness might stem from those in the chairs having to spend so much of the rest of their time in spaces “that don’t feel that way to you” — which is to say, where they’re more restricted in what they feel they can and can’t say around white people.

James commits to the bit. Instead of responding with the kind of measured and reserved answer a celebrity of his stature might offer in an official interview, he comes back with a straightforward, unvarnished reply about learning for the first time, at age 14, how to interact with a different culture. (NOTE: The clip includes NSFW language.)

“I went to an all-white high school, Catholic high school,” James says of his entry into Akron’s St. Vincent-St. Mary High School. “So, like, when I first went to the ninth grade and to high school, I was on some, like, ‘I’m not [expletive] with white people.’ I was so institutionalized, growing up in the hood. It’s like, ‘They don’t [expletive] with us. They don’t want us to succeed.’

“[…] So I’m like, ‘I’m going to this school to play ball, and that’s it. I don’t want nothing to do with white people. I don’t believe that they want anything to do with me. I don’t want no friends. It’s me and my boys, we going to high school together, and we here to hoop.'”

After Stewart notes, “And that’s Catholic school, which is even whiter America; there are levels of white America” — which, full disclosure, dovetails with my memory of (almost) all-white, all-boys Catholic high school — James acknowledges that jumping up that many notches presented a significant challenge, especially when it came to trying to figure out whether or not he could trust all the new people who were surrounding him.

“It took me a while to kind of adjust to it,” he says. “It’s hard to balance, because I’m a kid that plays this game at such a high level. You’re in your mind, like, ‘Are they happy that I’m here because of who I am, or because of my conversation that I can have with them?'”

There’s a level of vulnerability there — an insight into how he felt he needed to guard himself, the development of social armor to protect against being taken advantage of, the paranoia and loneliness that can result from being unsure whether people like you because of who you are or because of what they can get out of you, and the experience of watching those walls come down as he began to develop friendships for the first time with people with whom he thought he had nothing in common.

James doesn’t have to be honest about that, especially when doing so results in him saying the phrase “I’m not [expletive] with white people” minutes into a brand new television project on a prestige cable network. He does it, though, taking something of a conversational risk early in the proceedings, because it establishes the distance traveled — James isn’t in any sense sitting now in the same place he walked into when he was 14 — and it establishes a tone. This place isn’t one where you need to keep your guard up for fear of exposure; it’s a room where everyone needs to let that down, because that’s how we’ll actually talk about the kinds of things we think people need to start talking about.

It lets Candace Parker speak about the sacrifices she’s required to make to pursue two difficult goals — being an attentive, active, present mother, and being one of the very best basketball players in the WNBA — at the same time, and how that necessarily differs from the challenges that face male athletes who want to start a family, because they don’t have to give up a year of their career in their prime. It helps prompt Odell Beckham Jr. into comparing his experience of fame as a celebrity athlete to being “a zoo animal,” a very different perspective than you’d get from the way he’s covered in the New York tabloids. It opens the door to Draymond Green suggesting that one of the reasons black people struggle is “we don’t know who we are,” and that other cultures “look out for” one another in ways that African-Americans don’t.

It permits a lot, and viewers might bristle at some of what floods out as a result. (Draymond delivered two of the premiere’s closest-to-the-third-rail moments: when he said, by way of an example of his point, that “A Jew is gonna look out for a Jew, a Chinese man is gonna look out for a Chinese man,” and when he briefly debated Philadelphia Eagles defensive lineman Michael Bennett about what level of responsibility athletes of color bear for using their platforms to speak up on social and political issues that affect their broader communities.) But this, to some degree, is the point — the wider employment of the latter-day sporting cliché that one of the keys to success is getting comfortable being uncomfortable.

For all the talk of bubbles, safe spaces and the difficulty many are having with emotionally and intellectually processing the world as it exists now, “The Shop” seems to represent an effort at brushing those things aside to focus on the application of a simple premise: We can’t relate to one another better if we don’t know what one another are going through and have gone through — who we actually are as people, and what we actually think, not the buffed-and-shined version we trot out in mixed company. So, maybe you start actually showing what’s underneath, and saying what’s usually held back or whispered. Maybe people actually start listening. Maybe that’s a path to increased understanding and, if not necessarily agreement, then maybe at least empathy.

It’s a big idea, and maybe too big an ask for a half-hour show that will appear “periodically throughout the year.” (The famous athletes do actually have to go play, and all.) But by combining James’ charisma and profile with the contact list he’s got access to, the draw of the unscripted discussion format, and the commitment to using it all to bat around issues of import, “The Shop” seems like a piece of entertainment that’s got the runway to develop into something more, thanks in part to James’ willingness to lead the way.

“I think ‘Bron over the last four years became ‘LeBron James,'” Green says in one memorable segment. “It wasn’t nothing to do with winning, 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, ‘[expletive] y’all, I’m here,’ that’s when he became who he is.”

He’s here now. “The Shop” offers an interesting look at where he might go next.

“At the end of the day, when I decided I was going to start speaking up and not giving a [expletive] about the backlash or if it affects me, my whole mindset was it’s not about me,” James says in discussing his choice to start weighing in more frequently on social and political issues. ” … My popularity went down. But at the end of the day, [speaking] my truth to so many different kids and so many different people was broader than me personally.”

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Dan Devine is a writer and editor for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at devine@yahoosports.com or follow him on Twitter!

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