CHICAGO — LeBron James always has possessed a certain confidence, the audacity to take on otherworldly expectations and exceed every hurdle with style and grace.
He has carried this trait since his days at St. Vincent-St. Mary in Akron, Ohio, when he became the most famous high school athlete in history. James never shied away from that spotlight, not as a rookie with the Cleveland Cavaliers, champion with the Miami Heat or icon with the Los Angeles Lakers.
So it made sense when, after achieving nearly every success on the court, James shifted his focus off it. James attacked business ventures, youth outreach and sociopolitical issues with a tenacity most athletes reserve for their post-playing career.
Always keen to rise to the moment, James assumed a place avoided by many in sports who watched from a similarly high perch. And his bent toward activism picked up admirers the world over.
Count Zlatan Ibrahimovic as an exception.
To be clear, Ibrahimovic is a fan of James’ work. The AC Milan forward even considers the Lakers star’s on-court efforts phenomenal. But apparently that’s where the admiration stops.
Ibrahimovic — who has no problem being outspoken himself, sometimes seriously and sometimes bordering on parody — recently told a Swedish TV station he dislikes James’ tendency to speak out of turn and enter the political sphere.
“(LeBron) is phenomenal at what he’s doing, but I don’t like when people have some kind of status, they go and do politics at the same time,” Ibrahimovic said. “Do what you’re good at. Do the category you do. I play football because I’m the best at playing football.
“I don’t do politics. If I would be a political politician, I would do politics. That is the first mistake people do when they become famous and they become in a certain status. Stay out of it. Just do what you do best, because it doesn’t look good.”
So, in short, Ibrahimovic wants James to stick to sports. If Ibrahimovic had it his way, James — and all athletes — would shut out the ills of the world and stay quiet on issues outside of his immediate purview.
I’m sure James wishes it were that simple, too.
But that’s not the world we live in. That’s not the country James, a Black man in America, inherited. Hell, that’s not even the reality Ibrahimovic exists in, as James pointed out when asked about the comments.
“He was the same guy who said when he was back in Sweden ... because his last name wasn’t a certain last name, that he felt there was some racism going on when he was out on the pitch,” James said. “I speak from a very educated mind, so I’m kind of the wrong guy to actually go at because I do my homework.”
Ibrahimovic doubled down Tuesday, stating “athletes should be athletes and politicians should do politics” and missing an opportunity to learn from ignorance.
Had Ibrahimovic approached James from a genuine place, he would not have conflated his focus on education and police brutality with politics — and he might have learned something. In fact, James’ foray into traditional politics in 2020 was to combat voter suppression in Black communities and help turn empty arenas into polling places.
James, 36, beat unimaginable odds and wants to help those from similar backgrounds. Born to a 16-year-old single mother, he moved 12 times between the ages five and eight and struggled to find consistency before basketball changed his life. That experience is partly why he opened a school in Akron and sent kids to college, giving them education opportunities they might not have had otherwise.
It’s only natural James stepped to the forefront to speak out on police brutality as a Black man experiencing the trauma associated with viral videos of violence and misconduct. James is not immune to that.
And once he decided to get involved, James never strayed. When Trayvon Martin was killed for walking in his own neighborhood, James and his Heat teammates took a photo wearing hoodies in the early years of Instagram. When Eric Gardner was murdered on camera, James and other NBA stars wore “I Can’t Breathe” shirts during warm-ups. He has continued along that path in recent years, advocating for Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Jacob Blake.
Of course, those actions have drawn negative attention in the past, too. James’ Los Angeles home was vandalized with the racial slurs, and he was told to “shut up and dribble” by a Fox News pundit after criticizing President Donald Trump. James emerged from each situation with the upper hand. He placed his family in a new, more opulent home and created a Showtime documentary called “Shut Up and Dribble.”
James will simply add Ibrahimovic to the list of naysayers — and continue to come out on top like he always has.