We recently included NBA superstar Lebron James on our list of top philanthropists of color. The 31-year-old athlete made a major philanthropic splash last year with a scholarship gift in his native Ohio. The Lebron James Family Foundation (LJFF) partnered with the University of Akron to provide four-year scholarships to the Ohio school for students in his “I Promise” program who qualify. The scholarship should cover the costs for more than 1,000 kids, which, according to some sources, could cost his foundation a total of $41.8 million. That's serious money for a young philanthropist.
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This was by no means King James' first assist, however. One of LJFF's first moves was giving away bikes to local Akron students. This turned into Wheels for Education, a program that works with third graders to make sure they're on track to graduate from high school, providing school supplies as well as bikes. More recently, LJFF established the I Promise Institute, aimed at helping students and their families transition to college life. Much of Lebron's emerging philanthropy has focused on his native Ohio, where he recently brought a world championship.
Now comes news that Lebron and his business partner Maverick Carter have donated $2.5 million to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) in Washington, D.C. The newly opened NMAAHC has raked in $1 million or more each from at least 143 individuals, charitable foundations and corporations, including the Lily Endowment, the Oprah Winfrey Charitable Foundation, and David Rubenstein. According to the New York Times, the museum has received nearly three-quarters of its individual gifts from black Americans, a stream of funding that says a lot about the rise of philanthropists of color. Included in this group are legendary athletes Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson.
Lebron James joins this list of storied athletes, and wouldn't you know it? His $2.5 million gift to the museum will support an exhibit honoring another legendary sportsman—the late Muhammed Ali. The funds support "Muhammad Ali: A Force for Change," which will focus on Ali's commitment to social justice. What got Lebron involved with NMAAHC and jazzed about supporting an Ali exhibit in particular?
Well, part of the story involves NMAAHC founding donor and American Express CEO Kenneth Chenault, who reached out to Lebron James over the summer. Lebron has long been a fan of Ali, and when presented with the opportunity to contribute, met with Lonnie Ali, the late great boxer's widow. The two became friends, and as Lebron puts it, "When it was presented to me later in the summer, I wanted to make sure I got Lonnie’s blessing... Once I got her blessing, I told the museum it was a go. Full throttle. Let’s get it going."
In recent years, Lebron has been one of the leading voices of his generation of athletes in speaking up about social issues. He, former teammate Dwyane Wade, and others once suited up in "I Can't Breathe" apparel referencing the broader discussion about police reform. And earlier this month, Lebron pushed back against legendary coach and current Knicks President Phil Jackson when Jackson referred to Lebron's business associates (Maverick Carter among them) as a "posse." Lebron argued that these comments were disrespectful and wouldn't have been made if his partners were white and hailed from the Ivy League.
With this context, Lebron's affinity for Ali makes sense, as does his gift to honor the late boxer. This also might mean that Lebron's charitable efforts are expanding beyond his Buckeye State purview, which is another reason the NBA superstar is an emerging philanthropist to watch carefully in the coming years.