LOS ANGELES — Trayvon Martin was just 17 years old, the same age that the eldest son of Lebron JamesBronny, when George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, shot him to death 10 years ago this week.
James’s response to Martin’s death, including a famous tweet from the Miami Heat with their hoodies raised, was the beginning of a public commitment to social activism.
“Until you know who you are, it’s hard to speak up for other people. Or speak up for anything. You have to be comfortable with yourself,” James told ESPN earlier this month when asked about Martin’s death. “I think it’s unfortunate that we as a society sometimes want certain people to speak and certain people [aborden los problemas]. Like, ‘Why don’t you speak up? [esta comunidad]?’ I think for me, when I was younger, I wasn’t in that position to do that.”
Martin, an unarmed black teenager wearing a hoodie and heading home to a gated community after buying candy and iced tea at a convenience store, was killed on February 26, 2012 in Sanford, Florida, about 250 miles north of Miami, where James was playing his second season with the Heat.
As Martin’s death began to garner national attention, James and his Heat teammates posed for a photo on March 23 of that year in a hotel ballroom with the Miami team-issued hoodies pulled over their heads. The message that accompanied the image of the 13 players standing shoulder to shoulder was one of solidarity: #WeAreTrayvonMartin.
— LeBron James (@KingJames) March 23, 2012
James was 27 years old at the time and had yet to win any of the four championships he won with the Heat, Cleveland Cavaliers and Los Angeles Lakers. James, who graced the cover of Sports Illustrated with the headline “The Chosen One” at 17, was picked as the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft out of high school at 18 and his signature Nike sneakers flew off the shelves at 19, he was still discovering life and settling into the spotlight after his controversial made-for-television “Decision” special followed by his first season in Miami that ended with a disappointing NBA Finals loss to the Dallas Mavericks.
“I grew up,” James said. “I grew up. And as I’ve grown to know who I am, to know what I want to do with my life, to know the family that I have, I now understand that my calling is to be able to inspire others and also to be able to give a voice to people who don’t have a voice.”
James said a confluence of factors — his age, the proximity of Martin’s death to Miami, and the emerging ubiquity of smartphones and social media — created the moment he walked in.
“Timing is everything,” he said. “I was growing up at the same time that the world was seeing these things that had always been going on, but thanks to some tech-savvy sons of — they were able to put on these phones and these cameras the direct footage of what was happening right now in front of people’s eyes. And I was growing up at the same time and had that platform. That’s right, it was just [algo sincronizado]”.
While James is often cited as curating the photo, he credits his Heat teammates for their involvement.
“Us [sentábamos] on top of the biggest throne in sports,” James said. “Every media outlet, good, bad, whatever, was talking about the Miami Heat, the Heatles. Myself, [Dwyane] wade, [Chris] Bosch, everyone, [el entrenador Erik Spoelstra]. They all talked about us every day.
“… We had an opportunity to make a statement. We had an opportunity to raise awareness about a situation that affected a lot of us, because a lot of us had kids. A lot of us had kids.”
James, a father of three, said the Heat thought about how devastated they would be if they were Martin’s parents.
“We were sitting in Detroit and we said, ‘Can you imagine if you sent your son out on a stagecoach and he doesn’t come home?'” James said. “Sending your kid anywhere, going to a game, going to school or going to the store, and not coming home? He just beat us up.”
They clung to Martin’s clothing, he said, because not only could they see his children dressed that way, but they were also wearing hoodies.
“Wherever we went, we always traveled in our Miami Heat hoodies. Wherever we went. That was like our uniform,” James said. “When we traveled on tour, we wore a Miami Heat hoodie. When we came down for our team meetings, we were always close [usando las sudaderas con capucha]”.
The intention not to judge a book by its cover was unmistakable. If millionaire athletes who are acclaimed and admired by thousands wore hoodies on business trips, there was no way an unarmed teenager would be considered a suspect for wearing the same thing.
“That was our moment of solidarity,” James said. “Not just for Trayvon Martin and not just for his family, but for every black kid in America and the world who wears a hoodie.
“You’re not a criminal because you put a hood on top of your head. It’s a uniform for us. That’s what we do. That’s what we wear. We don’t have the luxury of wearing suits or button-down shirts. We don’t have the means to get sweaters and things of that nature. Our uniform consists of T-shirts, hoodies and shorts. That’s our uniform growing up as inner-city black kids.”
“That was our moment to be able to let Trayvon Martin and his family know, but also the entire black community and also the white society of the United States know, that we are not for this s—“.
“As I got to know who I am, to know what I want to do with my life, to know the family that I have, I now understand that my vocation is to be able to inspire others and also to be able to give a voice to people who have no voice.”
Zimmerman was acquitted of second-degree murder in July 2013. But the incident was a catalyst for social justice in the United States. That push included the murder of George Floyd by police officer Derek Chauvin in May 2020, prompting a national reckoning over how black Americans are treated in the country.
James has continued his activism, becoming almost as well known for his voice on social issues as he is for his skill on the basketball court.
“It’s never going to stop,” he said. “It’s never going to stop, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to stop. ‘I can’t stop, I won’t stop,’ is what Diddy says. At the end of the day, we know the turmoil and everything that’s going on. They’re going to look at black people as they have always seen us: smile on our faces and [actuar como si todo] it’s fine.
“But at the end of the day, we can’t stop. We can’t stop talking about the things that are unfair. We can’t stop talking about the things we feel are wrong, or the things that are right. And calling people literally just bad people.”
James said racism is “learned at home,” not something people are born with. So there is hope, even if things look bleak, he said.
“This is how America has been for a long time and it’s not going to change, but what will change is how [responden] those in power,” James said. “And what will change for me, and what has already changed, is that I will continue to speak up for my people no matter if [a la sociedad] whether you like it or not.”
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LeBron reflects on Martin’s death and social activism