SAN ANTONIO — It is easy now, as Donald Sterling has thrown up his hands in surrender, to forget what it was like on April 26, in the hours after a bombshell of an audio recording was released. The outrage over the racist rants was instantaneous — except from where it might have been expected to be greatest. The N.B.A., it seemed, was stunned into near silence.
Doc Rivers, the Clippers’ coach, expressed anger and hurt, but he took questions for his players, not wanting them to be distracted, as if that were possible, from their task of winning playoff games.
Two owners, Micky Arison of Miami and Peter Holt of San Antonio, issued brief statements condemning Sterling’s remarks but reserving further judgment.
Commissioner Adam Silver withheld comment until a previously planned news conference that night.
Into that vacuum, the Clippers released a statement pushing back, questioning the authenticity of the recording, impugning the motives of the woman who had made it, and emphasizing that if the audio was real, it did not reflect Sterling’s true feelings.
At the moment, it was not clear where the nascent controversy was headed.
Then, about an hour before taking the court for a playoff game, LeBron James emerged from a brief meeting with his Miami Heat teammates and addressed reporters.
He was emphatic.
James said the comments were offensive no matter your race and urged the new commissioner to take strong, swift action before the situation got out of hand.
“There’s no room for Donald Sterling in our league,” James said. “There’s no room for him.”
Much has been made in recent years of James’s metamorphosis as a basketball player, still a transcendent talent but now one who no longer shrinks from big moments, or the burden of carrying a franchise to a championship. But along with that has come a broader, not unrelated evolution. It was not long ago that James embodied the insular, tone-deaf modern superstar. Now, he is willing to speak out on social issues, displaying a level of engagement that celebrated athletes often avoid.
James and his teammates posed two years ago for a photo in hoodies in the wake of the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. He has filmed a commercial promoting the Affordable Care Act and gave strong consideration to running for president of the players union last year. James also maintained a consistently strong voice as the Sterling affair rolled on.
“I’m really proud that he’s matured to where he’ll take a stand on things,” the Heat president, Pat Riley, said, emphasizing the last word. “He’s not afraid to give a very cogent, coherent opinion — not just with his team, about how to play or what we’re doing right or wrong, or effort, but about social issues, which a lot of people don’t want to do.”
He continued: “There’s always somebody you look for in the league to take on that role of O.K., what do you think about what happened? I think he’s willing to step up and express himself. He’s smart. He’s tremendously intelligent. He has a reservoir of knowledge. And I think he’s confident enough to speak out on anything. I don’t think he cares about the push back.”
San Antonio guard Danny Green, a teammate of James’s in his last season in Cleveland, said James would “probably not” have spoken out on such subjects back then. In fact, in 2008, James was one of three Cavaliers who declined to sign a letter that Ira Newble, then a forward with the team, sent to the Chinese government on the eve of the Olympics, protesting the sale of weapons that fueled mass killings in Darfur.
“Maybe I felt like I wasn’t mature enough to speak on it, didn’t have enough knowledge to speak on it,” James said Friday. “When you become more comfortable with yourself, you start to feel like you can do other things as well. And for me, I speak on issues that I believe is either right or wrong and go from there.”
Two of them were the Martin and Sterling cases, because they hit close to home for James, as a parent, as a basketball player, as an African-American.
“Obviously, the Donald Sterling piece, because I’m part of this league and I want the league to stand for the right thing,” James said. “This league should stand for the game being the greatest sport the world has to offer, the greatest athletes, the greatest owners, the greatest coaches and so on, the greatest fans. And I spoke on the Trayvon Martin piece and it hit home for me because I have two young boys at home and I couldn’t imagine sending my boys off and not seeing them again.”
It was not lost on some that when James first expressed his opinion about Sterling, it was in Charlotte, N.C., where the local N.B.A. team is owned by Michael Jordan.
As the league’s singular star throughout the 1990’s, Jordan also personified the shift away from the activist athletes of earlier generations toward those less inclined to say anything that might offend sponsors, a bountiful new source of income for top stars. Jordan cemented this standing when he explained why he did not stump for a Democratic candidate who was running against the North Carolina senator Jesse Helms, who opposed a national holiday for Martin Luther King Jr.: Republicans buy sneakers, too.
“He’s learned what it means to be a leader and he takes his leadership position seriously,” Arison, the Heat’s owner, said of James. “I think that’s what leads him to do the things he’s done, which I think is great.”
Riley believes that social media has taken down the rope between athletes and the public, forcing players to engage. He noted that when he played for Kentucky against Texas Western in the landmark 1966 N.C.A.A. championship game, pitting the program that was the standard-bearer for the all-white Southeastern Conference against an upstart with an all-black starting lineup, it did not seem anything more than an important game. “Years after, all of a sudden it became a watershed, crossroads game,” Riley said. “Today it’s different. You used to be able to hide somewhat.”
Indeed, shelter is rare for James. When he left the N.B.A. finals opener Thursday night with cramps after the air-conditioning system failed, turning the arena into a sauna, James again was a magnet for attention.
Soon, Twitter was abuzz. A rival to the sports drink manufacturer endorsed by James said he wouldn’t have cramped up if he drank its product. And, rather bizarrely, Jonathan Martin, the football player who was victimized in an N.F.L. bullying scandal with the Miami Dolphins, called James out on Twitter for not toughing it out.
James just shrugged, saying he abstained from social media during the playoffs. And besides, he does not care what others think.
It sounded, on the surface, like typical athlete blather.
It was not long ago that it mattered greatly to James what people thought of him, but perhaps not so much anymore. He has gotten the championships he came to Miami for, but he also may have gained something else in the bargain — his voice.