When he became eligible to vote, LeBron James did not consider it to be important. At 18 years old, James cared about other things.
Then a high school senior at St. Vincent-St Mary’s in Akron, Ohio, James remained more consumed about winning a division championship and ensuring his spot in the NBA Draft. Not only did James stay focused with fulfilling his childhood dream. He also wanted to support his mother, Gloria, “for everything she sacrificed for me” as a single mother. So after the Cleveland Cavaliers selected him with the No. 1 pick in the 2003 draft, James bought his mom a house and supported her financially.
James had other reasons, though, not to care about voting.
“Black people in the community don’t believe that their vote matters,” James said. “We grow up and don’t think that our vote actually matters. It doesn’t. We’ve seen recounts before. We’ve seen our voices be muted our whole lives.”
At 35, James has not allowed his voice to be muted. The Los Angeles Lakers star has become the NBA’s leading voice with speaking out about the importance of voting.
James has founded “More Than a Vote,” an organization that has increased voter registration on its website and has held voting drives in the Black community. The group has donated $100,000 to the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition to help pay outstanding debts of former felons so that they can register to vote. The group has also enlisted other NBA players (Damian Lillard, Draymond Green, Trae Young, Ben Simmons, C.J. McCollum, Jaylen Brown, Kyle Lowry, Udonis Haslem, Eric Bledsoe, Mo Bamba), former NBA playersand current and former WNBA players such as Chiney Ogwumike and Skylar Diggins.
All NBA players will wear warm-up shirts with the message “Vote” during the Eastern and Western Conference Finals as well as the NBA Finals. But those players did not always listen to that message.
“A lot of people, including when you get to the NBA, still have those same things that haunted you when you were younger,” James said. “My goal is to change that and to educate not only my peers, but their communities as well to let them know that our voice is being heard. Our vote is being counted.”
Celtics forward Jaylen Brown warms up in a VOTE shirt. (Photo: Kevin C. Cox, Getty Images)
NBA teams have also pledged to ensure that every vote counts.
The Sacramento Kings have overseen “Rally the Vote,” a non-partisan voting registration initiative that partners with “When We All Vote,” “RISE” and 20 sports teams from the various pro leagues. The Kings, Chicago Bulls, Denver Nuggets, Indiana Pacers, Milwaukee Bucks, Minnesota Timberwolves, Portland Trail Blazers and Washington Wizards are participating.
The Atlanta Hawks, Los Angeles Clippers, Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors joined the “I am a voter” platform and the Good Trouble campaign to encourage fans to text for voting information.
Efforts around the league seem to be making an impact. “When We All Vote” CEO Kyle Lierman said that the organization has registered 150,000 people to vote this year partly because of athletes’ influences. The NBA players union reported that 62% of its eligible players have registered to vote, and that it is “making considerable progress” toward having all players registered through its own online portal. It is not clear how many people “More than a Vote” has helped register.
“It’s a particularly authentic story when someone says I’m registering and voting for the first time and I hope you do it with me,” Lierman told USA TODAY Sports. “It’s critical that they get registered, get their voice heard and lead by example on that front. Then they share their process, journey and their story with their fans.
“I guarantee you for every player that didn’t vote in previous elections, they have tens of thousands of fans that didn’t vote in previous elections. But they can also influence them in the future.”
Opening arenas as polling sites
While the Warriors, Clippers, Rockets, Lakers, Clippers and Detroit Pistons have announced either their practice facilities or arenas will serve as voting sites on Election Day, all 30 NBA teams agreed with the players union that teams that own their venues will turn that facility into a voting site for the general election. The NBA and NBPA said 20 out of 30 teams so far “have confirmed the use of their arena or team facilities for voting and civic engagement programming.”
The Bucks and the Miami Heat failed to get approval, however, for their respective venues. Alex Lasry, the Bucks’ senior vice president, told USA TODAY Sports there “was nothing nefarious” about the Milwaukee Election Commission saying the deadline already passed for Fiserv Forum to become a polling site Nov. 3. The Heat expressed disappointment, though, that Miami Dade-County chose Frost Museum of Science as a polling site instead of American Airlines Arena.
The Celtics’ Brown viewed these incidents as another example of voter suppression.
“Every arena was supposed to be the case, not just arenas that were owned by the team that we play for. Every arena needs to be open,” said Brown, who grew up in Marietta, Georgia. “Voter suppression is real. I don’t understand why that is a problem or that’s an issue. Every arena should be open, should be available and access to be able to have people of color and disadvantaged people to feel like they can vote. Voting shouldn’t be this hard.”
And yet it is.
Clippers coach Doc Rivers, whose father worked as a police officer in Maywood, Illinois, said his father told him that he often saw poll workers stop Black people from voting by demanding they take literacy tests. Although they never experienced voter suppression directly, Kings forward Harrison Barnes, Wizards guard Ish Smith and Bucks guard Wesley Mathews have friends who have dealt with long lines at polling sites or have been turned away because they did not have the correct forms.
Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce reported hearing similar stories during Georgia’s gubernatorial election in 2018 when Democrat Stacey Abrams accused Republican Brian Kemp of efforts to suppress the Black vote.
Haslem explained why he didn’t feel like his vote mattered. (Haslem grew up in Miami; he attended a high school in Jacksonville and Miami.)
“You’re thinking that the president is going to be who it is, no matter what you do. You’re feeling like you have no voice and no power. Just growing up in the inner city, we just weren’t very educated,” Haslem told USA TODAY Sports. “In the inner city, we always said that they didn’t hear our cries. We always were taught to fend for ourselves and figure it out.”
Moving beyond protest
When the NBA players union invited Rivers to speak as it mulled over whether to continue the season after Wisconsin police shot Jacob Blake, an unarmed Black man, the Clippers coach urged everyone to register to vote.
Other players have reached out individually to try to make a difference this year. Haslem said he has talked with teammates about registering for absentee ballots amid concerns about waiting in long lines on Election Day during the coronavirus pandemic. Lakers guard J.R. Smith worked with local officials in Newark, New Jersey, for Prudential Center to be a polling place for the general election. Celtics forward Jayson Tatum and former NBA star Shaquille O’Neal have joined the “MyStartingFiveChallenge,” nominating five people to register to vote by using #MyStartingFive on social media.
“There’s more to getting things done than just peacefully protesting,” O’Neal told USA TODAY Sports. “Peacefully protesting brings the awareness. Now that you’re bringing the awareness, now we have to go to plan two.”
What has sparked players to change their sentiments varies.
Barnes, who grew up attending the Iowa caucuses, learned from his mother about the importance of voting. For others, the interest came much later. James said he became more civic minded when Barack Obama became the first Black president in American history in 2008. Green did after Donald Trump was elected in 2016. Other players became increasingly concerned this year due to the pandemic and after seeing incidents of police brutality against unarmed Black people.
“Voting has never been something that has been cool. It’s never been trendy, especially among minorities,” the Bucks’ Matthews told USA TODAY Sports. “In this point in time amid the social injustice and the pandemic, we’re forced to change our perspectives and change our ideologies. Now is the perfect time to change for the better.”
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