"If somebody said, 'Hey, Charles, you can't stay at the Four Seasons,'" explains former NBA MVP Charles Barkley, who is now an analyst for TNT, "or 'You can't eat up here at this restaurant,' now I can understand that. That's activism."
China, Tibet and Darfur are literally half a world away from any NBA city. But as the NBA makes inroads into China and as the Olympic Summer Games in Beijing near, the issue of China's roles in Tibet and Darfur is drawing a lot of attention. And questions will be asked.
Los Angeles Lakers reserve forward Ira Newble, who played with James' Cavaliers from 2003 until he was traded to Seattle this season (later signing with the Lakers), believes he has some of the answers. Last spring he read about the genocide in Darfur in a newspaper, investigated a little and became outraged by the lack of awareness in this country.
"I turned on the TV watching CNN and all I saw was about Paris Hilton and Anna Nicole Smith and things of that [nature] that were dominating the news at the time. I really couldn't believe that I didn't hear anything about what was going on in Sudan, so I decided at that point to get involved."
Newble was raised to use his voice and influence to try to make a difference. His father was a civil rights worker in the 1960s and filled his young mind with stories of great strength in the face of grave danger.
"He taught me first of all about equality and everybody should fight for equality and one world and unity," Newble said. "If it's something you believe in you have to take a stand and fight for it. So something came up and I decided that I need to back it and use my voice and get behind it."
So Newble crafted an open letter to the Chinese government asking how it could stage an Olympics when it "remains complicit in the terrible suffering and destruction in Sudan." And he gathered his Cavaliers teammates and told them that China was buying oil from and selling arms to the government in Sudan, which was maiming and torturing countless innocent people. It was a stunning revelation for most, Newble said. Many had not even heard of Darfur. He left pamphlets on their chairs in the locker room detailing the evidence and asked them to read the information and come to him if they had questions.
His teammates were also stunned, Newble said, because he had generally been a quiet member of the team. But this was different, he explained, an issue that moved him to speak and to act. And they listened. All but three of the Cavs signed the letter — Damon Jones had a contract with a Chinese shoe company, David Wesley was gone on personal leave, and James simply said he didn't know enough.
"I told him the same thing I told everybody else, except I understand by you being LeBron you have a lot at stake," Newble said. "You can't just put your name on anything, so you need to go back for yourself, get as much information as you can, educate yourself and come to me if you want to sign. He came back and we talked a little bit about it, but at the end of the day he decided not to sign the letter and that's his decision. I respect that's what he chose to do at the time."
Newble's letter made news. But not as much as James not signing it. This took place just as the NBA Finals were beginning between the Cavs and the Spurs, and suddenly James was cast with those who don't know and don't care.