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LeBron's 'Shut Up and Dribble' is About More Than Basketball
November 3, 2018  | By David Hinckley

Basketball star LeBron James (top) took half the advice from people, up to and tacitly including the president of the United States, who told him to shut up and dribble.

He still dribbles. As for the shutting up part, he responded by co-producing a three-part television documentary that reminds us how many black athletes have not done that, then further declares they shouldn’t.

The weekly series, with the in-your-face title Shut Up and Dribble, launches Saturday at 9 p.m. ET on Showtime.

This is the latest in a series of dramas, issue shows, and documentaries put out through the production company run by James with his colleague Maverick Carter.

The fact James has parlayed his basketball success into ventures like a production company in itself pretty much puts to rest any speculation he might be inclined to shut up.

As a national sports star, an elite athlete by acclaim, James has a voice and has increasingly been using it. Early in Shut Up and Dribble, we see him remarking that President Donald Trump “doesn’t give a f--- about the people.”

After Trump tweeted insults in return, James was asked if he regretted getting into this exchange.

“No,” he replied.

That said, very little of Shut Up and Dribble is about James. Rather, it’s about what led to James.

Past black athletes, particularly basketball players because their sport has become the focal point of this specific discussion, are shown standing up in different ways to those who wanted them to, well, shut up and dribble.

Bill Russell, the great Boston Celtics center, recalls that in college he was reprimanded for jumping on defense. Jumping was, of course, the way he blocked shots, which was how he helped his team control games.

So he jumped anyway, he recalls, and when he got to the Celtics, where they welcomed that sort of thing, he led the team to 11 championships in 13 years.

We jump next to Oscar Robertson, a guard who averaged a triple-double for his career. He also led the young NBA Players Association – fighting for a minimum salary of $13,500 a year, which is less than top players today earn every night while they sleep.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, then Lew Alcindor, talks about his decision to boycott the 1968 Olympics as a protest against the treatment of black athletes and black Americans in general.

Things get a little more complicated when we get to Isiah Thomas, the great Detroit guard who offhandedly remarked one day that Larry Bird would be less revered if he were black.

Thomas and Bird worked it out pretty quickly, but Thomas’s reputation never recovered.

The segment on Magic Johnson is a little more subtle. Magic has mostly avoided controversy during a career that has seen him rise to team ownership, itself a remarkable feat.

Shut Up and Dribble includes him because of his rivalry with Bird, when they were the faces of the Lakers and Celtics during the 1980s, was the rocket that propelled the NBA’s subsequent popularity.

An unavoidable facet of that appeal, Shut Up and Dribble argues, is that Johnson was black and Bird was white. They liked each other personally. But for fans, narrator Jemele Hill suggests, race was one of the components that defined the showdown.

The second episode starts with Michael Jordan, which takes things into a different realm and underscores the fact that Shut Up and Dribble sometimes has trouble succinctly tying its many elements together.  

There are points at which viewers will have to remind themselves of the original premise, that black athletes have spoken up because they saw and heard things they found intolerable as athletes and human beings.

On one level, Shut Up and Dribble simply suggests that athletes have the same right to speak their minds on relevant issues as lawyers or plumbers or waitresses. The condescending tone in vintage media clips reminds us that this seemingly irrefutable assertion has often not been acknowledged.

On another level, Shut Up and Dribble allows that because top athletes become famous, their words are amplified.

That can create a minefield. It can also create an opportunity. Even those who pay a price, James, Carter, and Hill tell us, can move and have moved the greater cause forward.

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