As part of the Knicks’ pitch to James during the summer of 2010, filmmaker Jonathan Hock interviewed titans of New York celebrity on why the phenom should sign as a free agent. Among them was Trump, according to a new biography out this week, who wasn’t sure what the shoot at Trump Tower was about but made sure the filmmaker understand that he felt a connection to the star, calling him “my friend LeBron.”
Once Trump’s hair was in perfect position for the video shoot, according to the book, the businessman made a quick pitch to James to come to New York — his city — before telling Hock he was done. “This is taking too much time,” Trump said, according to author Jeff Benedict. “I gotta go.” James, who thought Trump was a phony, according to the book, eventually signed with the Miami Heat.
Years later, James and Trump would engage in a very public back-and-forth when the man who once called James “my friend” moved from his Manhattan tower to the White House. From there, James called the president of the United States a “bum,” which was later followed by Trump claiming the basketball star wasn’t smart. The rivalry built on social media and TV interviews made headlines during the course of Trump’s presidency, pitting arguably America’s most recognizable current athlete against the commander in chief.
In the process, James made it clear that in a period of more than four years in which sports and politics could no longer be separated, he had something to say. James’s evolution into a voice for political and social change is documented in “LeBron,” the new book from Benedict that was released Tuesday.
The NBA superstar and the former president are in very different spots years after their political clashes first made headlines.
James, who Forbes says is one of the first-ever athletes to hit a net worth of $1 billion while still active in their sport, is preparing for what Lakers fans hope is a surprising playoff run when the team plays the Minnesota Timberwolves in the NBA’s play-in tournament on Tuesday. The 38-year-old, who is in his 20th season, is averaging nearly 29 points a game but has missed 27 games in a year riddled with injury trouble.
Trump pleaded not guilty to 34 felony counts of falsifying business records last week, becoming the first former president to be charged with a crime. The counts are related to payments intended to silence adult-film actress Stormy Daniels during his 2016 presidential campaign — a scheme that prosecutors said amounted to an illegal conspiracy to win the White House. The legal proceedings in New York could stretch out for months — or years — for Trump, who is hoping to win back the presidency in 2024.
It all started in 2016, when Trump was captured on video using vulgar terms about kissing, groping and trying to have sex with women during a 2005 conversation that was caught on a hot microphone, saying that “when you’re a star, they let you do it.” When asked by reporters about the Republican presidential nominee characterizing his comments as “locker room talk,” James rejected the notion: “We don’t disrespect women in no shape or fashion in our locker rooms,” James said, according to the book.
James had been no stranger to political or social issues, having worn an “I Can’t Breathe” shirt after Eric Garner died during a fatal police encounter in 2014. But this was different. James took it a step further when he wrote an op-ed in Insider in support of Hillary Clinton, Trump’s 2016 opponent. James believed Clinton could help further the domestic agenda of President Barack Obama, whom the athlete had worked with as part of the NBA’s partnership with the White House to defuse tensions in communities.
So, when Trump defeated Clinton in November 2016, James took to Instagram to express his distraught over Trump’s election: “[P]lease know that this isn’t the end, it’s just a very challenging obstacle that we will overcome!!”
Around that same time, James chose not to stay at Trump SoHo, a New York hotel that his team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, had booked before the 2016 election. While he told reporters he was not trying to make a statement, he said he could not stay at a hotel that donned the president’s name.
“At the end of the day, I hope he’s one of the best presidents ever for all of our sakes — for my family, for all of us,” James told reporters at the time, according to Benedict. “But just my personal preference.”
What unfolded after that, however, intensified the public rivalry. Shortly after Trump ripped National Football League quarterback Colin Kaepernick for kneeling in protest of police brutality, Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry said if it were up to him, the defending NBA champions wouldn’t go to Trump’s White House. In response, Trump tweeted that he had “withdrawn” the Warriors’ invitation.
Even though Curry and the Warriors had knocked out the Cavs in the Finals months earlier, James tweeted the two words that changed everything: “U bum.”
“[Curry] already said he ain’t going! So therefore ain’t no invite,” James tweeted on Sept. 23, 2017. “Going to White House was a great honor until you showed up!”
The tweet found support from the likes of Kobe Bryant, Draymond Green and even David Remnick of the New Yorker. And James didn’t regret it.
“He doesn’t understand the power that he has for being the leader of the beautiful country,” James said of Trump, according to “LeBron.” “He doesn’t understand how many kids, no matter the race, look up to the president of the United States for guidance. For leadership. For words of encouragement.”
Months later, a wide-ranging interview between James and Kevin Durant included James saying that Trump did not “give a f— about the people.” This got the attention of Fox News host Laura Ingraham in 2018, as one of Trump’s closest supporters on the network went after the NBA stars.
“Oh, and LeBron and Kevin, you’re great players. But no one voted for you,” Ingraham said. “Millions elected Trump to be their coach. … So keep the political commentary to yourself or, as someone once said, shut up and dribble.”
The “shut up and dribble” line was denounced by critics such as Maureen Dowd of the New York Times as part of attempts by Trump and his supporters to use sports “to foment racial animosity and rile up his base.” James saw it as a chance to “help me create more awareness,” he told reporters.
“I get to sit up here and talk about social injustice and equality,” James said, according to Benedict. “So thank you, whatever her name is. I don’t even know her name.”
As James opened his I Promise School in Akron, Ohio, and broke ground on transitional housing for at-risk students, he was again asked about Trump by CNN’s Don Lemon in August 2018: “I would never sit across from him,” James said.
This time, Trump responded on Twitter by questioning the intelligence of both James and Lemon.
“[Lemon] made LeBron look smart, which isn’t easy to do,” Trump tweeted. He then added, “I like Mike!”
The tweet was called racist by many and was even contradicted by first lady Melania Trump, who put out a statement saying she wanted to visit James’s I Promise School, according to the book. The reference to “Mike,” or Michael Jordan, took some by surprise, including Jordan, who had rarely spoken up on social or political issues but offered unequivocal support to James.
“I support LJ,” Jordan said. “He’s doing an amazing job for his community.”
By 2020, James had unsurprisingly publicly supported Joe Biden for president. When he was asked by Yahoo’s Chris Haynes if he would endorse Biden, James laughed and said, “What’s known don’t even need to be said.”
The public back-and-forth between James and Trump, however, concluded toward the end of Trump’s presidency. After James watched the Capitol riot of Jan. 6, 2021, he told reporters the next day that what he saw was another confirmation that “we live in two Americas.”
“And if you don’t understand that or don’t see that after seeing what you saw yesterday, then you really need to take a step back,” he told reporters in January 2020. James also made reference to the race of the predominantly White rioters, suggesting the response would have been different if they had a different skin color: “If those were my kind storming the Capitol, what would have been the outcome? And I think we all know. There’s no ifs, ands or buts — we already know what would’ve happened to my kind if anyone would have even got close to the Capitol, let alone storm inside the offices.”
As he expressed himself to reporters, James was wearing a shirt that had a four-word message for anyone who doubted his criticism of Trump, the man who once asked him to sign in his city: Do you understand now?