LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers wears a shirt honoring Martin Luther King Jr. during the playing of the national anthem before their game against the Golden State Warriors on Jan. 16, 2017 in Oakland, Calif. (Getty)
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Players and teams across the NBA are celebrating the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on Monday, honoring the American civil rights leader on what would have been his 89th birthday, and in the 50th year after his assassination in Memphis. During the Cleveland Cavaliers’ morning shootaround ahead of their marquee matchup against the rival Golden State Warriors, LeBron James took the opportunity to reflect on what King’s legacy means to him, and the importance of continuing to advocate for social justice a half-century after King’s death.

He also discussed the challenge of doing so at a time in which President Donald Trump — whom the four-time NBA Most Valuable Player reportedly never mentioned by name — and other forces seek “to divide us.” From Scott Sargent of Waiting for Next Year:

“You always hear about people risking their life — [King] actually gave up his life for the betterment of all of us. To be able to live in a free world, and for us to be able to have a voice, to go out and be free no matter your skin color, no matter who you are — height, size, or weight, whatever the case may be. He had a vision and took a bullet for all of us. Literally — the rawest form you can say that. He took a bullet for all of us.

“For us to stand here right now, even though we’re trying to be divided by somebody, it’s a great day for people to realize how we all have to stand united as one. As Americans, we all know and believe this is the greatest country.”

While James still believes in the nation’s greatness, he told reporters that “we are in a difficult state right now as Americans as well with the leader of our country.” Trump came under fire late last week over reports that, during a meeting in the Oval Office over an immigration deal that might include protections for immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador and unnamed African countries, he asked, “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?”

The president has since denied making those racist comments and claimed he is “the least racist person [reporters] have ever interviewed.” Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who was in the meeting, insists that Trump “said these hateful things, and he said them repeatedly.” Sens. David Perdue, R-Ga., and Tom Cotton, R-Ariz., were there, too, and they “do not recall the President saying these comments specifically.”

Without specifically naming the president, James on Monday spoke about the need to stand firm in the face of racism no matter its virulence or the height from which it’s spoken. From Tom Withers of The Associated Press:

“The state of racism will never die, but what we cannot do is allow it to conquer us as people. We can’t allow it to divide us,” said James, the four-time league MVP. “The guy in control has given people and racism, and negative racism, an opportunity to be out and outspoken without fear. And that’s the fearful thing for us because it’s with you, and it’s around every day. But he’s allowed people to come out and just feel confident about doing negative things.

“We can’t allow that to stop us from continuing to be together and preach the right word of living and loving and laughing and things of that nature. Because would we want to live anywhere else? I don’t think so. We love this place.”

James is one of several prominent NBA voices to criticize the president and those who defended him in the days following his reported remarks about immigration. Others include Warriors forward David West, Nigeria native and Toronto Raptors president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri, French national and Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert, Hall of Famer and Boston Celtics legend Bill Russell, NBA commissioner Adam Silver and famously vocal head coaches Gregg Popovich and Steve Kerr.

James has long spoken of his admiration for King, Muhammad Ali and other prominent African-American public figures of years gone by who used their platforms to give voice to the plight of the voiceless, and who tried to force America to confront the sins of its past and the havoc they’ve wrought on the most vulnerable among us. As he has moved through his second decade as one of the NBA’s premier figures, and one of the most famous athletes in the world, he has taken it upon himself to speak out more frequently on social and political issues.

He has weighed in on the killings of Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner, the racism of former Clippers owner Donald Sterling, and the scourge of gun violence. He donated $2.5 million to the National Museum of African American History and Culture at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., to go toward an exhibit entitled “Muhammad Ali: A Force for Change,” honoring the contributions of the former heavyweight boxing champion of the world and activist.

He publicly endorsed Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election. He also stumped for Clinton in Ohio, citing her interest in rebuilding America’s public school system, making college affordable for all and addressing violence that disproportionately befalls the African-American community — priorities that all fall in line with the priorities of his LeBron James Family Foundation, which will provide four-year scholarships to the University of Akron for qualifying students in the foundation’s “I Promise” program.

He joined friends and fellow NBA stars Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul and Dwyane Wade at the 2016 ESPY Awards to call on his fellow athletes to stand up for racial justice and stem the tide of gun violence. He also refused to stay in a Trump-branded hotel, and called the sitting president a bum.

As he prepared to take part in the most anticipated game of a day in which 22 NBA teams were set to play and honor King’s memory, James said that if the preacher, organizer, protester and American icon were here today, he hoped he’d look warmly on the work the No. 1 draft pick turned globe-shifter has done.

“I hope I could make him proud or made him proud,” James said, according to Dave McMenamin of ESPN. “Just taking what he was able to give to us and give us that type of empowerment, give us that type of strength to be able to go out and talk about things that really matter. Be able to live for something that’s more than you as an individual. So hopefully I would be one of those guys that made him proud. Hopefully I’m making him proud still with him looking down on us.”

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