Waiting For LeBron

LeBron James' outraged response to the horrific shooting of an infant in Cleveland suggested the game's biggest star might become its loudest activist. And then he went silent. Why?

Charles Wakefield buckled his 5-month-old daughter, Aavielle, into his Oldsmobile, tightened the straps on her new car seat and double-checked the infant safety locks.

His girlfriend climbed into the driver's seat, and Charles kissed her goodbye before stepping back from the car. "Be safe," he told her, because that was what he always said, even though his girlfriend, mother and daughter were driving just four blocks to Save-A-Lot to shop for his birthday cake. Tomorrow he would turn 38.

It was the first day of October and also nearly the beginning of the NBA season -- his favorite time of the year. The Cavaliers had long been his preferred distraction from the blight of East Cleveland, and this year he coveted escape more than ever. The past month had been the city's most violent in recent history, with 19 people shot dead, including several shootings near Charles' house. He had grieved for three friends and two neighborhood toddlers caught in deadly crossfire, and each time he had pushed Aavielle in her stroller to their memorials.

"Mini-me," he called her, because she had his dark eyes, his rounded cheeks and his throaty laugh, and because she went with him everywhere during the day while her mother worked. Charles had already bought her a LeBron James T-shirt to match his own.

Charles walked back toward the apartment where he lived with his girlfriend and Aavielle, but his cellphone rang before he could reach the door. It was his mother, who had promised to call from Save-A-Lot to give him a choice of frostings. "Tell me they got the buttercream," Charles said as soon as he answered the phone, but on the other end he heard muffled screams. "What is it?" he asked, and now he thought he could make out sirens and hysterical sobs. "What? What?" he shouted.

"It's the baby," his mother said, finally. "She got shot."

During a terrible year of gun violence and racial tension in Cleveland, in a historically bad month, Charles began sprinting from his apartment toward the city's latest crime scene. There, in the fading daylight of rush hour, was his Oldsmobile, riddled with bullets because shooters had mistaken it for a different car. There, sprawled out on the hood, was Aavielle. One of the bullets had pierced the edge of her plastic car seat, hitting her in the side. Charles' mother had lifted her onto the hood to administer CPR, and with each chest compression blood trickled out from the baby's nose. "Oh god!" Charles screamed, and he thought he saw Aavielle lift her eyes at the familiar sound of his voice. But when he picked her up, she was limp in his arms.

He cradled her at the crime scene, at the hospital and then for a long while after doctors said there was nothing more they could do. Her skin started to gray. Blood soaked into her sweater. Charles asked doctors to bring more blankets so he could continue to hold her, and as he rocked his daughter at the hospital, the leaders of a city inured to gun violence began repeating Aavielle's age on the nightly news and grieving not only for her but for what Cleveland had become.

"When are we going to stop counting babies being killed in our streets for nothing?" police chief Calvin Williams said that night. "This pervasive violence is crippling us at our core," said Marcia Fudge, a U.S. congresswoman.

In those first few hours on Oct. 1, one voice in Cleveland resonated loudest of all. LeBron James was the one person in the city who remained equally popular with politicians, big corporations and residents on the Lower East Side. For more than a decade, he had moderated his political voice, usually speaking in universalities, but on this night he heard about Aavielle and reacted on social media with raw indignation.

"Like seriously man!!!!" he wrote on Twitter to his 23 million followers. "A baby shot in the chest in Cleveland. It's been out of control but it's really OOC. Ya'll need to chill the F out."

Then, three minutes later: "C'mon man. Let's do and be better! This can't be the only way."

JAMES HAD BEEN watching TV on the couch in his living room when he first saw pictures of Charles' anguished face come across the news feed on his phone. James' own children, ages 11, 8 and 1, roamed the family's 19-room estate on Idlebrook Drive. Their house was set on 7 acres in the hills between Akron and Cleveland, less than an hour from Charles' apartment, protected by 24-hour security, steel gates and a series of guardhouses scattered across the property. It was the safest place in the state.

But James had grown up in subsidized housing in a part of Akron that was much like East Cleveland, hollowed out by foreclosures, disappearing jobs and rising crime. He had started a foundation aimed at providing college scholarships for more than 1,000 children in those neighborhoods, and now his own daughter, Zhuri, was just months older than Aavielle. His reaction to her death was that of a father and fellow citizen -- guttural and immediate.

"I know what I see. I know how I feel," he said the next day to the press corps that awaited him after practice, asking about his tweets. "Obviously you're not going to be able to take every gun out, but if there's some big-time penalties or rules or regulations, people will second-guess themselves."

In a career mostly spent avoiding controversy, this was perhaps James' most unfiltered comment, and his closest observers wondered whether it might be a sign of more to come. For a decade, James had been trying to find his cultural voice, torn not only by his responsibilities to corporate sponsors that paid him $44 million each year but also by a contradiction within himself. He loved and admired the apolitical business instincts of his idol, Michael Jordan, whom James once referenced when he said in 2008: "You want to keep athletics and politics separate." But he also admired the courage and "authenticity" of his other idol, Muhammad Ali, and wanted the freedom to "speak openly on the issues I care about," he said in 2014.

“A baby shot in the chest in Cleveland. It's been out of control but it's really OOC. Ya'll need to chill the F out.”

- LeBron James, on Twitter

Split like this, James cushioned his social criticism in generalities and cautious gestures. He had hosted a rally for Barack Obama in 2008, but before endorsing the candidate, James had spoken about the universal importance of voter registration. He had posed in a hoodie for Trayvon Martin -- but surrounded himself with his Miami Heat teammates. He had worn an "I Can't Breathe" shirt to protest police brutality -- but only after a few other NBA players had done so first. When asked about the country's growing racial discord in 2014 and 2015, he said things like: "We have to grow together and not apart." Or: "I'm not pointing the blame at anybody." Or: "Society has come a long way, but it just shows how much further we still have to go."

The difference between James and every other athlete was that because of his basketball dominance and global fame, even his careful activism had the ability to drive the news cycle -- a responsibility he seemed ready to embrace when he announced he'd come back to Cleveland in 2014. "My calling here goes above basketball," he wrote then.

And now here came one of those opportunities to lead, on gun violence in Cleveland, which had experienced an 18 percent jump in homicides and a 31 percent increase in assaults with a firearm that year. Instead of going halfway, this time James had been unequivocal: "There's no room for guns," he said, during that same news conference after Aavielle's death.

Afterward, gun control groups thanked him -- while gun rights groups called him a hypocrite and posted photos of him firing a machine gun at a shooting range. Activists encouraged him to push for policy reform. Four days after Aavielle's death, the Cavs followed James' example and invited Charles and his family to a team scrimmage. The Cavs offered Charles box seats and gave him a tour of the court and then the locker room, where he had been hoping to meet James. He stood outside and waited, but a locker room attendant came out to apologize. James had an NBA season to prepare for, a commercial to film -- so many audiences to please.

"I wanted to thank him and see if we could keep pushing the issue," Charles said, but he didn't blame James for not meeting him or read too much into it. "People are paying attention because of LeBron," Charles said. "He's trying to make sure we get some justice and see this city change."

A few weeks later, the Cavs opened their season in Chicago, and when James walked onto the court, there was Obama, seated with the Secret Service in the front row. The president had made gun control a priority in his final year in office, and he had come to think of James as not just a great basketball player but a possible ally -- an athlete who was potentially willing to break the mold of "just be quiet and get your endorsements and don't make any waves," Obama said.

"We forget the role that Muhammad Ali, Arthur Ashe and Bill Russell played in raising consciousness," Obama once said. And now came a season of unrest in America in which James would have the rare opportunity to add his name to that list, if only he could first resolve the conflict within himself. Jordan or Ali? Athlete or activist?

Could he not only provide Cleveland with a distraction from its problems but help solve some of them?

"Good luck," Obama told him, as James ran onto the court.

Wakefield and his family would spend the months after the shooting wondering whether LeBron would follow his statements with action. Michael F. McElroy for ESPN

CHARLES WATCHED THE same game on TV from his new bed, a sloping couch in the living room of his mother's rental apartment in East Cleveland, where he'd been living for the past few weeks. Aavielle had been dead for a month, and so much about his life had begun to unravel. His girlfriend, Aavielle's mom, had left him because of her own grief. He had been out of work for a year and couldn't find a job in a neighborhood with high unemployment. He had no working car, no money and no choice but to live off his mother's disability check in an apartment two blocks from where his daughter had been shot.

Charles turned on the game and watched in the living room with his mother. The team blew an early lead. LeBron had a last-second layup blocked by Pau Gasol. "The Cavs lose," the announcer said.

Charles had been a devoted Cavs fan since he was a teenager, back when he was a good high school player himself, but now he was so desperate for the predictable simplicity of a game that he rewatched each broadcast several times in the night. The investigation into Aavielle's shooting had stalled without any leads, even though the prosecutor had offered a $25,000 reward. James had yet to mention the shooting again, and Charles' gratefulness for James' public reaction was now tinged by the fact that he wished James would say more. Each time the replay of the game ended, Charles had nothing to do but lie on the couch and think, and his mind always went back to the same awful night.

Now the game started again on TV. Charles sat up on the couch. "The Cavs lose," the announcer said.

For several weeks, Charles had been afraid to go to bed. He took naps, but whenever he tried going to sleep for the night, bad dreams followed. His nightmares played out to a soundtrack of the frantic 911 calls he had heard witnesses making from the scene of the shooting. Charles had gotten tapes of the calls, hoping he would hear the final sounds of his daughter's voice. But instead, each call was more hysterical than the last, until even the seasoned 911 operator began to lose her composure. "A baby? It's a baby baby?" she had said in disbelief.

Charles turned up the volume for another broadcast, and by now he could remember each possession. The sound of dribbling echoed in the living room.

"How should we respond?" some of his friends had asked that first night, assuming Charles would retaliate, but instead he handed out fliers asking for leads and passed a good tip on to investigators. He researched how to make steel-plated car seats and how to improve the city's 911 response times. He took over a Facebook page called "Put the Guns Down Movement" and began remodeling himself as (an activist, emailing politicians and organizing rallies.

He continued to hold out hope that maybe James would join him and say something more about Aavielle or about guns. "We can't just keep moving on and turning away and hope the problem gets better," he said. "We have to do something."

Now it was 8 a.m., and the sun was coming up. One more replay. One more chance for distraction as he watched James run across the screen.

More than most star athletes, James has been willing to step into the political arena, if only cautiously. Tony Dejak/AP Images

TO BE THE Chosen One in the instant-media moment of 2016 meant that every action birthed a chain reaction, which for James had become both a benefit and a burden. He once expressed an interest in acting, and suddenly he had TV shows on two networks and a prominent role in a Hollywood comedy. He tweeted a request for new music at Kendrick Lamar, so Lamar released an entire album early to fulfill his request. He spoke for a few minutes about the shooting of a 5-month-old girl, and protesters traveled from around the state to line the streets of East Cleveland for rallies and marches, many of them wearing James' No. 23 jersey.

But the spotlight also meant that James' most banal actions could lead to unease. He laughed with opponent Dwyane Wade during pregame warm-ups in Miami and his bosses questioned his loyalty. He unfollowed the Cavs on Twitter and fans wondered whether he was preparing to leave Cleveland for another team again.

Sometimes it seemed as if the scrutiny could make him withdraw. As the season wore on, he entered into what he called his "Zero Dark 23 mode," limiting social media and barricading himself in a corner of the locker room with headphones, because, he said, "I don't need nothing creeping into my mind that don't need to be there." (James declined to comment for this story.) For LeBron, basketball had always come first, in part because his play on the court earned him his power. So instead of talking more about guns or social issues in Cleveland, James chose to stay silent, and whether out of a single-minded focus or cautious self-regulation, he refused to comment late in the year when asked about the presidential race, the upcoming Republican National Convention in Cleveland and even the biggest story in the city: the tragic death of Tamir Rice.

The 12-year-old boy had been shot by a white rookie police officer while holding a toy gun late in 2014, and a year later a grand jury declined to indict the officer. By late December and early January, the case had become national news. Cleveland verged on the same racial discontent that had manifested in Ferguson and Baltimore, where standoffs between police officers and thousands of protesters shut down the streets.

“Does anybody really have the power to change all of this?”

- Charles Wakefield

It was James' potential Ali moment, some activists said -- a chance to make a controversial stand and step firmly into the social and political space. Rice's mother asked for LeBron's help publicizing the case. A group of organizers from Black Lives Matter created a plan to spur him into action. They started a campaign asking him to sit out games in protest of the grand jury's decision.

"You are who you are because of your habit of rising to the occasion," wrote Tariq Toure, the activist who started the movement, in a direct letter to James. "This is an occasion that comes along every 50 years."

On Martin Luther King Day, protesters planned a vigil at the entrance to Quicken Loans Arena. "No Justice, No LeBron," they shouted. But meanwhile, inside, James took the court to play against the Warriors. He had never considered sitting out and had chosen not to speak much about Rice, saying only: "To be honest, I haven't really been on top of this issue, so it's hard for me to comment." It was time for basketball, after all, for Zero Dark 23 and nothing else, but on this day, James seemed as uncertain on the court as he did of his own social activism. The Cavs trailed by 15 in the first quarter, 30 in the second and 43 early in the fourth in what would be the worst home loss of James' 13-year career.

In a city where his influence was unrivaled, on a day when some asked for him to make the biggest stand of his career, he was still attempting to go halfway. Nike designed him a special pair of shoes. The sneakers were made to honor Martin Luther King Jr. and Black History Month. Nike had stitched a special message on the shoe that spoke not only to the power of a movement but also to James' unique influence.

"The Power of One," the message read, and it was stitched to the sole of the sneaker, where no one could see it.

WITH A MONTH left in the regular season, Charles splurged on a trip to his first Cavs game of the year. He drove by his old apartment and turned onto the street where his daughter had been shot, before continuing downtown to the arena, where he found a seat in the upper deck.

James was sitting down too, resting for the night to prepare for the playoffs. Charles had tried to send James a few messages in recent months about Aavielle and gun violence on his public Facebook page, but he hadn't heard back and didn't expect to. What he felt for James now, watching him recline on the bench in a T-shirt, was both a kinship and a sense of remove that seemed much farther than the view from the upper deck. "He did so much, but ultimately this is my life and my problem and he has other responsibilities," Charles said, and then he tried to lose himself for a few minutes in the game.

The music made him think of Aavielle. The birthday announcements on the scoreboard reminded him that her first birthday was just weeks away. "It's like I can't take being alone and then I can't take being with people," Charles said, and by the time the Cavs beat the Mavericks 99-98, he was happy to be headed back to his car.

He drove home, where on this night there was news waiting. The Cleveland Police Department had called to say it had made an arrest. The high publicity of the case had resulted in a tip that led to a suspect. And it wasn't the villain Charles had first envisioned but a neighbor -- a 30-year-old man who lived down the block. Charles had barbecued with him. They had watched Cavs games together. If Charles had expected a wave of joy or satisfaction or even relief, this wasn't it. His daughter was still dead. His neighborhood was still a mess. Cleveland was still divided by race and poverty and violence in a year when not enough had changed.

"Does anybody really have the power to change all of this?" he asked, thinking about James, realizing the difficulty of his choice, the impossibility of it even, the athlete and the activist.

He sank back down on the couch and turned to the distraction he always sought, his own version of Zero Dark 23. He put on the TV and began watching the first replay of the game.

Eli SaslowSaslow is a senior writer at ESPN the Magazine and a Pulitzer-prize winning staff writer at The Washington Post.

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