Commentary: Off the court, LeBron James’ vital role as father

Originally published in Chicago Tribune, Feb 17, 2020

“I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.” The remarkable line from author Ralph Ellison’s book “Invisible Man” may seem hard to apply to LeBron James, a 6-foot-8 African American man known for his unparalleled athleticism on the basketball court. But, for a father with unmatched enthusiasm for the success of his sons, society has struggled to view James as the loving dad that he is.

Nevertheless, slowly he is silencing the belief present in society for many years that black men do not play a role in raising their children.

James’ enthusiasm at his son’s basketball games has been seen as juvenile, outrageous and childlike to some who refuse to see the love, compassion and fortitude in his movements. I remember as a young athlete looking into the stands and seeing my father — a validation of my dedication and being. In a similar manner, I suspect James is teaching his sons one of the most important lessons my father taught me: The world is full of opportunities for you to discover, and if you must, to create.

LeBron James, who then played for the Cleveland Cavaliers, celebrates with his sons LeBron Jr. and Bryce Maximus after defeating the Atlanta Hawks during the Eastern Conference Finals of the 2015 NBA Playoffs on May 26, 2015, in Cleveland, Ohio.
LeBron James, who then played for the Cleveland Cavaliers, celebrates with his sons LeBron Jr. and Bryce Maximus after defeating the Atlanta Hawks during the Eastern Conference Finals of the 2015 NBA Playoffs on May 26, 2015, in Cleveland, Ohio.(Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

In 1972 a young black man, trunk packed and ticket in hand, boarded a bus headed to Philadelphia. For the first time in his 18 years of life, my father, Thomas Campbell, was leaving home in pursuit of a college degree — the only one of his siblings to do so. One of eight children, born into modest beginnings, my father persevered to college at a time when only 20% of black men had achieved more than a high school diploma. This was only the beginning, as he persevered to earn a law degree.

 

Forty-six years after my father embarked on his journey, I climbed six shallow steps to receive my medical degree. In that very moment, what I struggled to understand is what my father must have felt as I was declared “Dr. Campbell.” Growing up with a father who could neither read nor write, it must have been unimaginable for my father to believe he could cement a path for my sister and me to earn five degrees between the two of us.

 

But, in actuality all of my father’s actions have continuously encouraged my sister and me to pursue opportunities he never had. Thus, the magnificence of our achievement truly belongs to him. Similarly, James continues to inspire his sons to not only dream but to believe in the realism of their dreams.

LeBron James and my father serve as shining examples of the many black fathers who have created a future for their sons to change the world — a far cry from society’s vision for young black men. These fathers exemplify a view of the world where the finish line is not dictated by the starting line, but is full of boundless direction and achievement — and is not tied to skin color.

Once criticized for their invisibility, our black fathers are now visible, illuminating their brilliance for the world in a way they always have — for us.

Visible Man: An Illumination of My Black Father

“I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.” The subtle yet remarkable line from Ralph Ellison’s book Invisible Man published in 1952 continues to be a declarative voice in today’s society: Black men do not play a role in raising their children. There are so many, including my grandfather and my own father, who have proven this stigma to be incorrect.

Despite being considered invisible, black fathers have remained beautiful statues to emulate for their children. It was the year 1972 and a young black man, trunk packed and ticket in hand, boarded a bus headed towards Philadelphia with his parents’ directives echoing in his head’— “Work hard and good luck, son.” For the first time in his eighteen years of life Thomas Campbell was leaving home in pursuit of a college degree—the first of his siblings.

The opportunities many black fathers have generated are now profoundly evident in the accomplishments of their children. One of eight children, Thomas Campbell was born in 1953 in the Northeast corridor of Washington D.C. A year after his birth in 1954, the Supreme Court reversed Plessy in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka declaring segregation in public schools unconstitutional. Fifty-three years later, I was graduating as one of a few African-American students from a private high school in Washington D.C.—a vicarious atonement of what may have been for my father had his parents been able to afford the tuition when he was accepted to a similar school. “I wanted you and your sister to have more than I could have ever dreamed of as a kid. When I grew up my family never had a car and never went on family vacations,” he remarked.

There are a multitude of young black men changing the world owing the qualities that have made them successful—dedication, commitment, and perseverance—to their black fathers.

“Jason, remember you can be whatever you want when you grow up.” As he tightened my tie on that Easter morning looking his ten-year-old son in the eye. “If you put your mind to it, then it’s yours.” Nineteen years later as I climbed the six shallow stairs in the auditorium at my medical school graduation ceremony my father’s words reverberated. A story nothing short of recurrent and delivered dreams: receiving a private school education followed by three more degrees—the last one permanently attaching the initials MD to my last name. What even I struggle to fathom is what my father must have felt when I walked across that stage and was declared a ‘Doctor.’

The magnificence of my achievement truly belongs to my father. Despite having grown up in a home where his own father could neither read nor write he journeyed to earn his law degree. Subsequently, he cemented a path for me and my sister to earn five degrees between the two of us. My father’s example serves as a declaration for my sister and I that boundaries do not exist.

Grown J and dad

Like a multitude of black fathers, Thomas Campbell exemplifies a vision of the world where the finish line is not dictated by the starting line.

Once invisible men—now visible. They are black fathers.