- LZ Granderson, Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
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My 13-year-old son sauntered into my bedroom last night, stretched his long body on the foot of my bed and joined me in watching Lebron James announce his decision to sign with the Miami Heat.
"Man, I should play basketball, Dad," he said. "They are getting paid."
I smiled and said, "Maybe you should."
My son's a good boy, and I'm not just saying that because I'm his father. He gets good grades, says "please" and "thank you" and is budding into quite the athlete.
Yet, every day he leaves the house to hang out with his friends, I pray he makes it back home OK.
The leading cause of death among black males 10 to 19 is homicide (according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), so how could the parent of young black male not be concerned? I know that may not be comfortable to read -- especially in a society that is supposedly post-racial after President Obama's election -- but when children like my son are several times more likely to die from homicide than their white counterparts, I find dancing around the issue of race is just counterproductive.
As I watched James, I couldn't ignore the anxiety that gnawed away at the comfort an item such as a flatscreen TV is supposed to provide. That's because hours before James' announcement, another announcement captured my attention: the involuntary manslaughter verdict in connection to the death of Oscar Grant, a black man who was fatally shot by white police officer Johannes Mehserle on New Year's Day 2009 in Oakland, Calif.
By all accounts, the unarmed Grant was drunk and belligerent, but from the video he is obviously facedown with his hands behind his head moments before the shooting (the video includes a graphic depiction of the act). One officer present reportedly called him a racial epithet before the gun was drawn.
Mehserle testified that he intended to use his Taser and said the shooting was an accident. The jury, which included no blacks, deliberated for less than six hours, believed him and passed down a unanimous decision that carries a two- to six-year sentence (a gun enhancement charge could add time and force him to serve more of his sentence than the average prisoner). To put this in perspective, Plaxico Burress, who accidentally shot himself, could end up doing the same time if he serves his full two-year sentence.
"My son was murdered. He was murdered. He was murdered. My son was murdered," Grant's mother, Wanda Johnson, reportedly said afterward.
Grant was only 22.
And some people wonder why some blacks don't trust the police.
The good thing is there are people in the world who are working to make things better. People like James.
Now for all of the criticism he has received for orchestrating the hour-long special and leaving Cleveland, not enough attention has been given to the hidden gem of the story: the $2.5 million he raised for the Boys and Girls Club of America. Thousands of children with little or nothing to do after school were greatly helped by James' philanthropy, according to Frank Sanchez, a vice president of the Boys and Girls Clubs. To me, that is far more significant than his signing with the Heat.
James was set for life his rookie year. The NBA is a billion-dollar entertainment business, which means the Dan Gilberts, Jim Dolans and David Sterns of the world are also set for life. But providing a safe place for children whose futures are still in question, especially those who see James as a role model, is far more influential on their lives than him winning a championship or two. In addition to the cash raised, the gesture takes the overwhelming media attention surrounding James' free agency and points it in the direction of a single, but important step in a long series of steps needed to curtail the violence on our streets every day, all over this country.
So many black athletes are quick to talk about growing up in the 'hood and the violence that surrounded them, but so few rush to use their cultural capital to change that environment so those who are not as physically gifted can find their way out as well. Ever since he came into the league in 2003, James has worked tirelessly to help young people -- and not just in Ohio. Two years ago his foundation, in conjunction with State Farm Insurance, began an initiative to build playgrounds and recreation centers around the country.
Does James have a big ego? Hell yeah, few superstars don't. But also recognize he has a big heart. With the world watching last night, James announced a partnership with the University of Phoenix that will offer scholarships to people trying to improve their lives. I say let he who spends this much of his downtime making the world a better place burn the first jersey.
Could such programs have helped Grant, who was no angel? The high school dropout was a convicted felon and had resisted arrest in the past. As I listened to James and glanced at my son, I couldn't help but wonder if Grant's life would have gone in a different direction if he were motivated to stay in school. Maybe he would still have his life if he would have had more positive influences in his life, the kind you are likely to find in places like a Boys and Girls Club.
I'm not trying to oversimplify the complex issue of race, the demonization of black males or the historical impact that demonization has on our culture. Nor am I blaming the victim. But I don't think anyone learns from this tragedy by scrubbing Grant's background clean. Yes, I believe race played a significant role in his untimely death. But I also believe the decisions Grant made throughout his shortened life played an even larger part. This is why James helping to provide a support system in which young people are better equipped to make smarter decisions is so important, especially for black males who statistically are more prone to die by the hands of another black male than a white police officer.
Question James' basketball decision all you want, but I find it unfair to question his character. Cynics will say James is just formulating more tax write-offs. Hey, he's a smart man, so I doubt that hasn't crossed his mind. But he's also a caring athlete, one who refreshingly opts to be part of the solution as opposed to being part of or ignoring the problem.
If dissing his hometown in an hour-long ego stroke is the worst thing he's ever done, then I say he's doing all right.
LZ Granderson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.