- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 28, 2018

“When you come at the king, you best not miss.” — Omar from “The Wire”

Shots at LeBron James have been plentiful during his fabled 15-year career. But they haven’t stopped him or even slowed him.

The criticism apparently just made him bigger, stronger and better. Incredibly, at the ripe age of 33, he’s as dominant as his 28-year-old self. He’s at the height of his powers — on and off the court — playing the best basketball of his life and simultaneously making the greatest impact.

February was quite the month as James made yet more history. He closed it out by becoming the first player in NBA history with more than 30,000 points, 8,000 rebounds and 8,000 assists. No one besides him ever reached 30K-7K-7K either. James averaged a triple-double in February (27-10-10), a first for him in a calendar month.

“I’m just playing some good ball, and the most consistent thing for me right now is I’m available out there on the floor for my teammates,” he told reporters Tuesday after notching 31 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists in Cleveland’s victory against Brooklyn. “They give me the room to go out and do what I need to do to help them as much as I can.”

James’ interest in helping extends beyond the Cavaliers. The LeBron James Family Foundation helps thousands of kids and young adults with academic enrichment and other initiatives, with $41 million earmarked for full scholarships to the University of Akron. He calls the foundation “part of my journey” and he’s trying to bring along as many youths as possible.

James understands his role and responsibility better than many superstars at his level. That means speaking his mind about issues of importance, even if his opinion doesn’t always sit well with a political pundit like Laura Ingraham, who last month called him ignorant and said he should “shut up and dribble” after he criticized our 45th president of these United States.

“I will definitely NOT shut up and dribble,” James told reporters during the all-star break. ” I mean too much to so many kids who feel like they don’t have a way out and they need somebody to help them out of the situation they’re in.”

Basketball was his ticket out of poverty. But he realizes education provides the best odds for the vast majority of youngsters.

That’s why his foundation is opening an I Promise public school for third- and fourth-graders in the fall, with plans to have grades one through eight by 2022. That’s why an I Promise Institute exists on Akron’s campus. That’s why James provides so many resources and opportunities to students and their families as he attempts to create generational change in his hometown.

But don’t get it twisted. He understands that “going to college” doesn’t mean the same thing for everyone, especially teenagers in position to become multimillionaires a year later. James didn’t have to wait for his riches — he went directly to the NBA out of high school — but he sees how colleges capitalize on blue-chip players who layover first.

“I know what five-star athletes bring to a campus, both in basketball and football,” he told reporters Tuesday while discussing the FBI’s NCAA probe. “I know how much these college coaches get paid and how much these colleges are gaining off these kids. I’ve always heard the narrative that they get a free education, but you’re not bringing me on campus to get an education. You’re bringing me on to help you get to a Final Four or a national championship.”

He called the NCAA a “corrupt” organization, and there’s no argument from yours on truly on that assessment. Among possible remedies, James mentioned expanding the NBA’s G League and perhaps adopting models used overseas, where some athletes become pros in their mid-teens but might not reach the top level until years later.

James ascended to elite status right away, averaging 20.9 points, 5.5 rebounds and 5.9 assists as a 19-year-old rookie. Three years later, he led one of the sorriest teams to reach the NBA Finals. We’ve never seen anything like him before, and future version are no sure thing.

He’s taken for granted by many, but not by the NBA’s sharpest minds. San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, who also has interests from the hardwood to our social fabric, doesn’t understand how critics like Ingraham can assail James.

“I mean, think about when he came into public view, how young was he?” Popovich told reporters this week. “And to this day he hasn’t missed a step, he hasn’t fallen off the ledge, and he’s been a brilliant example for millions of kids, especially kids with lesser opportunity and who haven’t had the same advantages as others.

“They see in this guy somebody who has consistently exhibited excellence in the workplace, and gives them a voice and lets them know that you can speak about anything — there really is a First Amendment and you can have opinions, as a coach, as a plumber, as an astrophysicist and,” pausing for comedic effect, “a lowly reporter.”

Others might continue to take shots at James.

Good luck with that.

Deron Snyder writes his award-winning column for The Washington Times on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Follow him on Twitter @DeronSnyder.

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