Barack Obama details phone call with LeBron James, Chris Paul that helped save NBA season

Sunil Kumar
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New details about the midnight phone call from the president of the National Basketball Players Association, Chris Paul, to the former President of the United States, Barack Obama, that helped save the NBA season have surfaced.

Appearing as a guest on LeBron James‘ barbershop-themed talk show “The Shop,” which aired Friday on HBO, Obama described the discussion that unfolded hours after the Milwaukee Bucks‘ wildcat strike in response to the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man, in Kenosha, Wisconsin, put the league’s bubble in jeopardy.

“I think it was close to midnight when Chris, CP, calls with LeBron, Carmelo [Anthony], I think Russ Westbrook was on the phone, and the conversation we had was along the lines LeBron spoke about,” Obama said of a call that sources said also included Miami Heat forward Andre Iguodala. “Protest is useful in terms of raising awareness, but given the power that the NBA players had, my suggestion was that we use that platform to see if you can start asking for some specifics. This isn’t something that’s just a one-off. That’s sadly what we’ve seen, as it happens again and again.

“So, one of the suggestions I had for the players was: Is it possible for you guys to set up an office that allows you, on an ongoing basis, to take best practices that are going to start making incidents like [Blake] less likely?”

James said that in the moments before speaking to Obama, as the Los Angeles Lakers were in the middle of a first-round playoff series with the Portland Trail Blazers in a run that would eventually earn L.A. its 17th championship and James his fourth ring and fourth NBA Finals MVP distinction, he was prepared to abandon the season.

“There was a time where we were ready to leave too — the Lakers. Myself included, we were ready to leave,” James said. “And we were trying to figure out if we leave or if we stay, what is our plan, what is our call for action? And I’m lucky enough to have a friend, the 44th President, that allowed me and allowed CP and allowed us to get on the phone with him and get guidance.

“When there’s things going on — when it’s chaos — when people don’t know which move to make or how to handle a situation, the best thing you can do is have someone that you can talk to and give you guidance and have that type of leadership. And I’m lucky enough to have a friend that gave us those words of leadership and those words of saying, ‘OK, this can be a plan of action; this can be something you guys can ask for. And if we can get that, then we can continue to push the needle and you guys can also continue the season, as well.'”

Obama’s suggestion took hold. Two days later, the NBPA and the NBA jointly announced an agreement to establish a social justice coalition composed of players, coaches and team governors with an expressed interest in increasing access to voting, promoting civic engagement and advocating for meaningful police and criminal justice reform. With that pact in place, along with a commitment from team owners to use arenas as mass voting centers and for voting-centric public service announcements to be aired during subsequent playoff broadcasts, the season continued.

“As I told them though, it’s not going to be solved overnight. This is something that we got to stay on. We got to keep on moving,” Obama said on HBO. “So the fact that LeBron then has also been working with More Than a Vote, working with my outstanding partner and the most popular Obama, Michelle Obama, in getting people registered, getting them educated, understanding the connection between voting and reform so that you combine protest and going to the polls, I think that’s the best outcome possible.”

Indeed, James’ More Than a Vote nonprofit organization has signed up more than 40,000 volunteers to work at polling centers next week for the general election in an effort to thwart voter suppression in Black communities. Earlier this month, the former first lady partnered her nonprofit, When We All Vote, with More Than a Vote to combine efforts.

Her husband, who made an appearance in the virtual fan section for Game 1 of the Finals nearly six weeks after that late-night, season-saving phone call, said he hoped the social justice coalition would field those types of calls in the future.

“Now, I did have a selfish reason, and I told all these guys, ‘Y’all need to set up a more permanent structure so you don’t call me at midnight,'” Obama said with a laugh. “See, the young brothers, they’re up until 3 a.m. anyway. So you’ll discover, even you, LeBron, by the time you get to 59, you may not be thinking as clearly at midnight. So we’re going to try to have a little bit more organization … we’re going to plan ahead of time on these things.”

The episode ended with a bonus segment from Obama’s talk with James in which he referenced the Lakers star’s age, as James prepares for his 18th season with his 36th birthday looming in December.

“You’re definitely going to have some minute restrictions,” Obama said. “I’m not sure he’s getting back on [defense] the first half of the season.”

James, who has ardently pushed back on load management in the past, went along with Obama’s teasing suggestion.

“The first half of the season? I’m cherry-picking the whole first half of the season,” James said with a laugh.

“Hey, you got to save yourself for where it counts,” Obama added. “Let Anthony Davis do all the work, man.”

There was no argument from James.

“That’s what I got him for,” he said.



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