It’s been a good summer for LeBron James. In the months since his Cleveland Cavaliers lost in the Finals to the Golden State Warriors, James has made international headlines not only by becoming a Los Angeles Laker but also by opening a public elementary school in his hometown of Akron, Ohio. His Hollywood revolution will absolutely be televised. He gave President Donald Trump bars … again. And James’ #MoreThanAnAthlete tour took him around the world. The Undefeated caught up with James as he returned to the States for New York Fashion Week and more.
NEW YORK — It’s sweltering in the storied gymnasium of Christ the King High School. This is the type of heat that produces instantaneous back sweat. But it doesn’t bother the very happy 50-plus people in the Queens, New York, space. And there are 30 kids there — from elementary age to high school seniors — who are clueless about the “surprise” to which MC Swin Cash keeps alluding.
The kids are members of the school’s fabled boys’ and girls’ basketball programs. Former and current WNBA stars Sue Bird, Tina Charles, Chamique Holdsclaw and NBA veterans Craig “Speedy” Claxton, Erick Barkley and Lamar Odom (though he didn’t graduate from CTK) are but few of the notable alums. But still, the kids don’t know that the surprise Cash keeps hammering home is the best basketball player on the planet.
Sharod Tomlinson, Christ the King Class of 2001 and current girls’ junior varsity head coach, knows who Cash is about to introduce, and it’s hard to keep the secret from his son Isaiah, who is 5. Tomlinson jetted early from his full-time job as R.I.S.E. network director at St. John’s University to pick his little man up and bring him along.
“I always joke with him. Hang around your dad. Your dad will take you places,” Tomlinson said hours later. (By then, his son has become a viral celebrity.) “Being back there coaching at Christ the King, I’ve always felt like there was a magic about the school, magic about the building.”
As a DJ runs through hits like Drake’s “I’m Upset” and Drake and Lil’ Baby’s “Yes Indeed,” Cash tells the antsy kids to turn around. Walking from the same hallway that they do on game days is LeBron James. The newest Los Angeles Laker is fresh off a plane from his #MoreThanAnAthlete world tour — which operated like an international diplomacy mission with stops in Shanghai, Berlin and Paris. New York City is the first stop on the domestic leg. James’ talking points come off like TED Talks for the students still in complete shock that James is within touching distance.
“You idolize these players, but you never think that you’ll meet them,” said Tomlinson. “For LeBron to come and give them that message of being more than athlete, and for them to also be able to see what he’s doing across the globe, is tremendous. The message that’s being delivered … it helps these kids understand the importance of giving back to their local community.”
Favorite place to play? Madison Square Garden and his Olympic experiences in 2008 and 2012.
The kids do have questions, though. Favorite shoes? The LeBron 1, 7 and, of course, the 16. Oh, and the famous and exclusive Christ the King 3s, which he originally gave to the school in 2006. (The retroed LeBron CTK 3’s New York release sells out in minutes online during James’ visit.)
Favorite place to play? Madison Square Garden and his Olympic experiences in 2008 and 2012. But there is a topic that he’s focused on: women.
“We got any 16-year-old girls in here?” James asks. Some raise their hands. “Let me just tell you how strong my mother is. My mother had me when she was 16. She was a sophomore in high school. My mom and what she did for me, without nothing? I believe that women are the most powerful human beings in the world. Especially African-American women.”
“How’s L.A. gonna course through [him]? Opening night? Forget about it … Get your popcorn ready!”
That theme will come into play hours later, but before that, James has another surprise. The boys’ and girls’ teams follow James to their respective locker rooms, where shrieks and excitement become the soundtrack. New lockers, new offices, new everything. The locker rooms they left at the beginning of the summer aren’t the ones they’re currently hollering in. And, in each player’s locker is his or her own pair of Christ the King 3s. It’s a deserved moment of unbridled joy for the players and the entire school community, who are still reeling from the death of All-American alum and coach Clare Droesch earlier this spring. Breast cancer. “[Her death] raised their awareness,” said Tomlinson.
Returning to the gym decked out in Christ the King 3s, both the boys’ and girls’ teams take pictures with their superstar idol. Nearby, while Tomlinson was organizing pictures on his phone, little Isaiah has plans. All the hours of playing NBA 2K, perfecting James’ trademark tomahawk dunk and diving through LeBron YouTube rabbit holes has led to this. Isaiah did take a quick picture with James in the locker room, but the kindergartner hasn’t met him yet.
As James and his entourage walk toward the exit, Isaiah catches James’ attention, and the six-second clip of their handshake will soon be viewed more than a million times — picked by media organizations from ESPN’s SportsCenterto NBC’s Today. “Afterwards, he was like, ‘I met LeBron James! I’m so happy I met LeBron James!’ ” said Tomlinson. “That’s all he really kept saying. ‘I met my hero!’ ”
Fe Noel, Undra Celeste and Kimberly Goldson still can’t believe it. So much has changed in a year. The emerging designers barely knew each other when the project began: the first LeBron shoe designed completely by women and for women. Now, here they are, onstage with him, their work broadcast to the world. “It’s been almost like a spiritual journey,” said Celeste.
The three designers, all black women, were focal points of Harlem Fashion Row’s invitation-only fashion show in lower Manhattan. The goal of the fashion show, founded by Brandice Daniel in 2007, is to showcase designers of color via national events, and overall, to increase diversity in fashion. All of the models in the show — wearing the trio’s clothes, and wearing the shoe they designed for James and Nike — were black.
James, in a look starkly similar to his 2018 Finals Game 1 outfit, was guest of honor on a bill also featuring Harlem nobility Dapper Dan, who was on hand to accept his Life Maverick Award. James was honored with Harlem Fashion Row’s Icon 360 Award. Last year the same award went to film director Spike Lee. The women and Daniel thanked James for his commitment to inclusion. James, much like on the basketball court, passed the praise to others.
James stood onstage accepting his award, holding his 3-year-old daughter, Zhuri. Seated just below the stage were the other two women the three-time Finals MVP credited as his lifelines. His gave his mother, Gloria, full credit for the award. He beamed with pride while looking at his wife, Savannah, who he said had been down with him since they both were eating Steak-umms.
“He says he doesn’t wanna be president, but who knows what could happen.”
He looked at Zhuri, who had better things to do than listen to her dad talk — like play with the microphone — and thanked her for changing his world. “She made me a more sensitive person,” he said. All three helped complete James’ Sweet 16 of women he’s dubbed The Strongest. The campaign, part of the shoe’s marketing rollout, featured A-list black women including Serena Williams, A’ja Wilson, Maya Moore, Simone Biles, Lena Waithe, Thasunda Duckett and Harlem Fashion Row founder Daniel.
The honesty was familiar to Noel, Celeste and Goldson. Almost a year had passed when they, along with Nike’s global basketball footwear designer Meline Khachatourian, sat in a boardroom showing James initial concepts.
“You’re holding your breath because, let’s be honest, he’s LeBron. If he doesn’t like this thing, different ending,” Celeste said with a laugh. James listened to each of their stories — he “locked all the way in,” as they put it. Then it came time to open Khachatourian’s laptop for the moment of truth. James’ face scrunched up. Not in a bad way, but in an oh-this-is-lit way. He loved the design, especially the shoe’s band that can moonlight as a choker and bracelet. But even more, he loved the story.
“The shoe is dope. Of course that’s important,” James said in the meeting. “But the world needs to see you ladies. The world needs to hear your stories.” From that point, it was on.
“Just seeing LeBron’s energy energized all of us,” said Khachatourian.
Part of James’ evolution into a humanitarian figure has played out on his feet. His Equality sneakers currently sit in the National Museum of African American History and Culture. “More than ever … based off last year, when we made some big statements because he asked us to,” said James’ longtime shoe designer Jason Petrie. “That all came from him. What LeBron is doing now can take not only sneakers and basketball and our culture to higher levels, but improve life for people in different ways.”
The LeBron 16 HFR sneakers are the next installment of James-based fashion statements. Beyond the surface of its historic meaning lies the sisterhood that was formed in the process. There was only supposed to be one designer for the shoe, but Nike was torn between the three. The ladies were put together Real World-style and given the tall task of designing sneakers for James. They learned each other’s stories, and from that moment on, they were “thicker than thieves,” Goldson said with a laugh.
There were commonalities. Like all three being first-generation Americans. And all three being black women in the very white culture of fashion. “It’s a sisterhood we never expected going into it and would really develop, but that’s the bigger story about this entire project. The fact that we now have each other,” said Goldson. “We call, we laugh, we text, we pray, we send messages when somebody needs lifting up. I had one sister, and now I have two more.”
Noel continued: “We understand what this can do. We talk to each other. We’ve been through the journey. But we’re still in our own bubble — how is it making other people feel? How are they relating to it? How are they presenting it to the loved ones in their lives? That’s a sense of pride you can’t explain.”
What can be explained is the shoe’s initial and sweeping popularity. Venus Williams is already walking around New York City in them. And it’s time for a restock, as the shoes sold out in five minutes. “We changed the game [regarding] how people think women can work together,” said Goldson.
Noel nodded with approval. “There’s enough room for everyone to eat. What did Brandice Daniels say? Competition is out. Collaboration is in.”
James’ Big Apple tour marched along well after Tuesday’s philanthropy. He hit New York Fashion Week with Justin Bieber and Ben Simmons. He and Simmons worked out together — because, oh, yeah, it is almost time for him to resume his day job. He got a run in, and even that was a fashion statement, as James slashed for dunks and pulled 3-pointers from egregious depths in Kith and Versace shorts. He celebrated Kevin Love’s 30th birthday at the swanky and membership-only Dumbo House in Brooklyn. And NBA 2K19, which graces his face on the cover, dropped Sept. 7.
James’ summer is nearing a close, but the business of James is a yearlong economy that rarely takes time off. Documentaries sit on the horizon: Student Athlete debuts on HBO next month, and the long-awaited three-part series Shut Up and Dribble is set for next month as well, on Showtime. The evolving hysteria around his son and rising eighth-grader, LeBron James Jr., figures to amp up in ways only Hollywood could manufacture. And what sits on James’ feet will be a point of discussion all year long now that the league has deregulated which shoes players can wear. Don’t expect any “Showtime”-inspired colorways, though, said Petrie.
“We got any 16-year-old girls in here? Let me just tell you how strong my mother is. My mother had me when she was 16.”
“L.A.’s gonna be a heavy influence. He’s had a house there, but he’s gonna be living there now, so it’s gonna start influencing him,” Petrie said at Nike headquarters in New York. He’s got a pile of yet-to-be-released LeBron 16 colorways in front of him. “How’s L.A. gonna course through [him]? Opening night? Forget about it. It’s gonna be Christmas. Get your popcorn ready!”
There will come a point in the season, as has been the case the past several seasons — since James and his Miami Heat teammates donned hoodies to bring awareness to Trayvon Martin’s slaying — when James’ voice will echo on some hot-button topic yet to materialize. And when that happens, there’s a strong chance the shoes on his feet will further strike home the message.
“In these last couple of years we’ve started to see how he’s gonna take it to another level,” said Petrie. “We’re talking about shoes here. LeBron’s doing all this stuff, and I really don’t know where it could go. He says he doesn’t wanna be president, but who knows what could happen. Just being the Muhammad Ali figure you’re talking about, global … that’s bigger than anything I’ve ever imagined.”
James lives on a worldwide platform in 2018. He operates at 30,000 feet but seems to understand and empathize with life at the ground level. There’s a line in Kipling’s If. If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue, it reads. Or walk with Kings — nor lose the common touch.
Ali possessed that trait. James is harnessing his. And much like everything James-related, even putting him in the same sentence as the man dubbed “The Greatest” for his work in and out of his sport will incite debate. But there’s a father and son — and a community — in Queens, as well as a trio of sisters in Harlem tied together by passion, opportunity and sacrifice, who’ll gladly rejoice in King James’ gospel.