LeBron James turned in a superhuman individual effort rivaling the greatest three-game runs in NBA history to carry the Cleveland Cavaliers to their first-ever NBA championship and the city’s first pro sports title in 52 years. But that, according to the folks at Sports Illustrated, is not why James has been named the 2016 SI Sportsperson of the Year, edging out a slew of worthy candidates that included the World Series champion Chicago Cubs and English Premier League champion Leicester City, and Olympic champions Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps, Katie Ledecky and Simone Biles, among others.
From SI’s editors:
This award celebrates northeast Ohio as much as its does the region’s favorite son. In a very crowded year of Sportsperson candidates, the connection between player and community, his community, can be fairly described as the tiebreaking vote.
But LeBron lent more to the 2016 sports story than his game. He lent his voice, too—fitting, because this Sportsperson honor […] also represents the impact an athlete can have beyond winning rings or medals. […] When James meets the media before or after games, he is willing to weigh in on much than what’s happening in his own locker room and around the NBA. It could be something as mundane as the NFL’s falling television ratings; increasingly, it’s weightier topics such as Black Lives Matter, the need to help at-risk kids in Akron, or the presidential election. James has recognized, and embraced, the platform sports gives him to be as powerful off the court as on it.
While continuing to provide stellar production and leadership on the court for a championship team, James also continued his evolution into one of the sporting world’s most willing and vocal participants in the political and social arena.
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In years past, he spoke out on matters like the killings of Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner, the racism of former Clippers owner Donald Sterling and the scourge of gun violence in America. This year, as athlete activism reached new heights, James joined longtime friends and NBA superstars Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony in opening the 2016 ESPY Awards by calling on his fellow athletes to stand up for racial justice and stem the tide of gun violence. He donated $2.5 million to the National Museum of African American History and Culture to go toward an exhibit honoring the life and legacy of the late Muhammad Ali, one of his childhood heroes, so that future genreations can learn in detail about “one of the most influential figures in our nation’s history who, along with Jackie Robinson and Jesse Owens, used the power of sports to advance our civil rights.”
James publicly endorsed Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, and even stumped for Clinton in Ohio, citing her interest in rebuilding America’s public school system, making college affordable for all, and addressing violence that disproportionately befalls the African-American community — priorities that all fall in line with the priorities of his LeBron James Family Foundation, which will provide four-year scholarships to the University of Akron for qualifying students in the foundation’s “I Promise” program. After Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump, James urged patience and optimism among young fans concerned about the Republican nominee’s stances and policy proposals.
He has stopped short of advocating public protests, preferring to redouble his grassroots efforts, as Lee Jenkins wrote in his Sportsperson of the Year cover story:
“I understand protests, but I think protests can feel almost riotous sometimes, and I don’t want that,” James says. “I want it to be more about what I can do to help my community, what we can do so kids feel like they’re important to the growth of America, and not like: ‘These people don’t care about us.’ I’m not here to stomp on Trump. We’re here to do our part, which starts in the place we grew up, street by street, brick by brick, person by person.” […]
“I sometimes look at LeBron and see that six-year-old boy in him, who grew up in a place that was cold and gray and poor, and everybody told him that you can’t do anything here and you have to leave,” [Cavaliers general manager David] Griffin says. “And now he is living out every single childhood dream he ever had, literally everything he ever could have thought of. I remember being that little kid. We all remember being that little kid. And I know he’s inspired me to dream bigger than I ever did before. I think he’s inspired a lot of people to do that. He’s Ohio’s favorite son—again—and he’s using that to the full extent of its bandwidth. He’s making this as big as any other place.”
That feat — transforming Cleveland into a winner, exorcising decades of demons, helping rejuvenate a region — joined with his advancing advocacy and his peerless on-court impact earned James Sportsperson of the Year honors for the second time; he also received the award in 2012. He’s just the second athlete in the 62-year history of the award to win it twice, joining Tiger Woods (1996, 2000).
James will accept his award at a gala event on Dec. 12 at Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
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