LeBron a winner outside the gym

The safer route for LeBron James, the pitchman with mass crossover appeal, is to say precious little about issues that have nothing to do with floor spacing, ball movement, and the chemistry he seeks with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love.

He could take the Michael Jordan approach, the Derek Jeter approach, the K-I-S-S (keep it simply sports) approach. James could protect his own corporate interests, remain three country miles away from the combustible issue of white and black in America, and remind himself that some of his many fans and sponsors don't believe the grand juries in Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island, New York should have indicted the white police officers who killed Michael Brown and Eric Garner.

You know, he could have privately told friends that Republicans buy sneakers and Cleveland Cavaliers jerseys, too.

But on the same day Attorney General Eric Holder all but identified Cleveland as ground zero in the national crisis created by excessive use of police force, James again embraced his platform as one of the nation's most visible African-Americans and spoke forcefully and responsibly about the young black men who have died in recent confrontations with white cops.

"As a society we just have to do better," James said Thursday before his Cavaliers beat the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden by a 90-87 count. "I pray for the families of the lost ones. ... This is our country. It's the land of the free and we keep having these instances happen -- innocent victims, or whatever the case may be.

"Families are losing loved ones, and I'm not pointing the blame on anybody that's making it happen. I think in this society we've come a long way, but it just goes to show how much further we still have to go."

To his credit, James has been no less consistent in his social awareness and engagement than he's been on the basketball court. He was moved enough by the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman to pose with his Miami Heat teammates in hoodies and tweet the photo with hashtags including #Stereotyped and #WeWantJustice.

James responded to the Ferguson grand jury's decision not to indict officer Darren Wilson in Brown's death by posting to his Instagram account an illustration of Brown and Martin walking with their arms around each other, and by writing, "As a society how do we do better and stop things like this happening time after time!! I'm so sorry to these families. Violence is not the answer people. Retaliation isn't the solution as well."

James knows that he doesn't have to go as far as he has, that he doesn't have to lead as conspicuously as he has. Not every athlete has it in him to occasionally summon the courage of Muhammad Ali, or to take even half the stand Tommie Smith and John Carlos took in Mexico City in 1968.

James takes his stand, anyway, and does it under the kind of social media surveillance and scrutiny that past superstars never faced. Reputations and legacies can get shaped and shattered within 140 characters now, and for a man with hundreds of millions of dollars on the line, hey, who needs it?

LeBron Raymone James needs it.

"It doesn't matter if you're an athlete or not," he said. "If you feel passionate about it or it hits home to you, you have the right to speak up on it. That's why we have freedom of speech. For me, I've never shied away from something that I feel for -- for people, for families that I feel for. And that's just who I am."

He spoke a day after a Staten Island grand jury declined to indict officer Daniel Pantaleo in the completely unnecessary death of Garner, a man accused of selling cigarettes he wasn't authorized to sell. The videotape of the encounter shows Pantaleo applying a banned chokehold and pressing Garner's head into the sidewalk while the man repeatedly tells officers he can't breathe.

"It doesn't matter if you're an athlete or not. If you feel passionate about it or it hits home to you, you have the right to speak up on it. That's why we have freedom of speech. For me, I've never shied away from something that I feel for -- for people, for families that I feel for. And that's just who I am."
LeBron James

The footage shows a Garner who could've been talked down from his agitated state with competent and compassionate police work, inspiring the New York mayor, Bill de Blasio, to concede that "the way we go about policing has to change." In other words, just because Pantaleo won't face criminal charges doesn't mean he's not a disgrace to his badge.

Meanwhile, in between protests in New York, Holder announced in Cleveland that an investigation of hundreds of incidents between 2010 and 2013 showed "there is reasonable cause to believe that the Cleveland division of public police engages in a pattern and practice of using excessive force."

On Nov. 22, a white Cleveland cop named Timothy Loehmann shot and killed a 12-year-old boy named Tamir Rice, who was carrying an airsoft gun that fired plastic pellets. Believing the black child was armed with a real, lethal handgun, Loehmann made his fateful choice within two seconds of arriving at the scene.

When first asked about the shooting last month, James declined to comment until he learned the particulars of the case. He doesn't believe in speaking on social and political matters if he doesn't know what he's talking about.

"I don't think we should add pressure to anybody, first of all, that doesn't have enough knowledge about it, that's not educated upon it to speak about something that they just don't know about," James said. "If you feel passionate about it, you speak up on it. If not, don't worry about it."

James knows the difference between obligation and opportunity, and he's seized the same opportunity taken by Charles Barkley, who absolutely had the right to say what he said about rioters and cops, and the five St. Louis Rams who absolutely had the right to make their "Hands up, Don't Shoot" gesture to protest the Brown killing in nearby Ferguson.

After it was announced Wilson wouldn't face charges, James said that American society had to "figure out a way to grow together and not apart," and that his public calls for justice and equality came as naturally to him as, say, a 12-assist night against the Knicks.

"It just feels authentic to me and it hit home for me," James said then. "It's who I am. I don't really get caught up in what other athletes do, that's not me. ... I've been one of those rare athletes, especially off the court, that this sport has ever seen. I understand I have a huge responsibility to speak on things that I feel is important."

Only a few seasons ago, James cast himself as a selfish, villainous figure who abandoned his hometown in pursuit of South Beach hedonism.

Today? James gets it as much as any 29-year-old athlete on the planet. If he doesn't overtake Michael Jordan as the greatest player of all time, he's already blown past Jordan and other titans as a champion who isn't afraid to impose his will on opponents outside of the gym.