Last Saturday, during the Chicago Bulls' pregame warmup against the steaming-hot Golden State Warriors, Derrick Rose wore a T-shirt displaying the words "I Can't Breathe." It was a reference to the recent non-indictment of a NYPD police officer in the choking death of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man, in Staten Island. Garner's last words were "I can't breathe."
"That night we talked about how we supported [Rose]," teammate Tim Flowers told The New York Times. Rose and Flowers were childhood friends who grew up together on the South Side of Chicago. Flowers added that "wearing the shirt was an important thing to do," calling it "a responsibility."
Rose's effort to bring awareness to the ongoing issue of unarmed black men dying at the hands of police officers trickled down to the rest of the league, with many players following suit over subsequent nights. Even Kobe Bryant, who is often ridiculed for not publicly stating his opinions on major issues, partook in the demonstration along with some of his Lakers teammates.
But this is now LeBron James' league, and there isn't a name that permeates our sports experience like his does. Both James and Kyrie Irving also decided to make a statement, wearing "I Can't Breathe" T-shirts over their jerseys prior to their conference matchup against the Brooklyn Nets.
After the game James was asked his reason for wearing the T-shirt, and he responded, "It was a message to the family. That I'm sorry for their loss, sorry to his wife. That's what it's about." He went on to say, "I think everybody else gets caught up in everything else besides who's really feeling it, and that's the family. That's what it's about."
Those statements aren't easy to hear. For once, LeBron James -- the anti-Michael Jordan in every way, no matter how much we try to compare the two -- sounded very Jordan-esque. It appears that James was more interested in playing it safe, unwilling to ruffle the feathers of his corporate sponsors and brands.
By wearing the shirt he was making a statement just like his signature "tomahawk" dunk. However, his post-game press conference offered a different sound byte -- echoing his 2011 NBA Finals appearance. He was fading into the corner, scared to bring out the brute presence and talent he casts on his opponents on the court. He backtracked, only looking at the killings of unarmed black men from a surface-level perspective. One can't wave the baton of injustice and represent the voice of the unheard yet retract his or her true sentiments when under judgment and pressure from others.
James knows that by wearing the shirt, he was carrying the weight of a culture and a community that is systemically treated as inferior through the education system and the prison-industrial complex. To James' credit, he has been very vocal on a number of social issues, most notably on the Trayvon Martin killing when he and his then-teammates posed for a photo with their hoodies covering their heads. He is widely admired in is hometown of Akron, Ohio, as a person who constantly gives back to his community and leads by example.
However, in this particular instance James dodged. Toward the end of his post-game press conference, one of the reporters asked James if there was a larger message, beyond what he'd just said, that should be considered. Sounding almost frustrated, James responded, "How much larger can it be than to just pay respects to the family?"
LeBron James usually expresses his opinions on social issues, particularly those dealing with his own community, a little bit better. But when it comes to the topic of Eric Garner, I hope he will revisit his perspective.