Lebron James has supported causes like racial justice, youth programs and voter registration. Keith Allison / CC BY-SA
Lebron James has supported causes like racial justice, youth programs and voter registration. Keith Allison / CC BY-SA

The National Basketball Association has been front and center in the two defining stories of this historic moment. Recall back in March—way back in the Paleolithic period by 2020 standards—the NBA became a sort of ground zero for fully understanding the seriousness of the pandemic in the United States after Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19; soon after, the season came to an abrupt halt.

Later, thanks to an airtight bubble and strict testing protocol, the NBA season resumed, only to halt again for a few days when the Milwaukee Bucks, and ultimately the rest of the league’s players, made a historic stand for social justice. Some noted the irony in the NBA being able to isolate from COVID-19, but not from systemic racism.

The NBA itself is known for being relatively progressive among the major sports leagues, and the recently minted NBA Foundation pledged an initial $300 million over the next decade to spur economic growth in the Black community. Each team will donate $1 million annually, or $30 million collectively, over those 10 years.

Teams have taken collective action and the league has stepped up, but for years now, several individual players have been wading into the realm of social justice and charitable causes, some quite early in their careers.

We’ve been tracking the philanthropy of young NBA stars in particular, and for good reason. Many of these celebrity athletes are earning more than players ever have before. The top 10 NBA players alone earned about $367.7 million in salary during the 2019-2020 season. Some have already begun to donate, but with the bulk of their attention focused on their playing careers, these figures have plenty of time to iron out and deepen their giving interests later.

In other words, the giving we’re seeing now from NBA athletes could pale in comparison to the philanthropy that might happen when these players hang it all up and have more time for other interests. Consider the recent emergence of Michael Jordan the philanthropist; at 57, he has plenty of time for a third act supporting causes he cares about.

With that in mind, here’s a rundown of some of the current NBA’s top philanthropic players:

1. LeBron James

In recent years, LeBron James has led the way as one of the leading voices of his generation of athletes in speaking up about social issues. James, former teammate Dwyane Wade and others once suited up in “I Can’t Breathe” apparel referencing the broader discussion about police brutality and reform. And James continues to be active on those issues today.

The LeBron James Family Foundation (LJFF) invests time, resources and attention in the kids of LeBron’s hometown of Akron, Ohio. LJFF’s flagship I PROMISE program serves more than 1,400 Akron-area youth and has partnered with the University of Akron to provide four-year scholarships.

LeBron and his business partner Maverick Carter donated $2.5 million to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, supporting “Muhammad Ali: A Force for Change,” an exhibit on the late boxer’s commitment to social justice. In 2020, LeBron also partnered with comedian Kevin Hart and others to form More Than a Vote, an organization that supports African-American voter registration and addresses voter suppression.

2.  Stephen and Ayesha Curry

Perhaps second only to Wilt Chamberlain in Golden State Warriors lore, sharpshooting guard Stephen Curry brought three championships to the Bay Area last decade. In 2019, Steph and Ayesha Curry launched the Eat. Learn. Play. Foundation, focusing on three vital pillars for a healthy childhood—helping end childhood hunger, ensuring universal access to quality education, and enabling healthy, active lifestyles.

In the education space, the foundation has linked up with organizations like Oakland Promise Initiative, College Track, and East Oakland Youth Development Center. Another partner, Students Rising Above, focuses on preparing kids not just for college enrollment, but for degree completion.

Foundation CEO Chris Helfrich breaks down some of the early aims of Eat. Play. Learn: “We are not going to do this alone. We want to align with organizations already doing incredible work in our community, and in partnership, create collaboration opportunities that take the best of what those organizations have to offer, and also add in some ‘Curry magic.’” That “magic” doesn’t just come in the form of funds, but also from the Curry family’s time, voice and networks.

The foundation also partnered with Revolution Foods, the leading provider of kid-inspired, chef-crafted meals serving schools and community sites nationwide to provide nutritious summer breakfasts and community dinners for local children and their families. Grantmaking will touch on women’s and girls’ issues, as well, consistent with Ayesha Curry’s own interests.

3. Kevin Durant

When Kevin Durant returns to the court with the Brooklyn Nets, the squad will be a force to reckon with. The 31-year-old moves philanthropy through the Kevin Durant Charity Foundation (KDCF), which aims to enrich the lives of at-risk youth through educational, athletic and social programs. KDCF committed $10 million over 10 years to create College Track at the Durant Center in Durant’s hometown of Prince George’s County, Maryland. KDCF also runs Team Durant, a youth basketball program that “provides coaching, mentorship and character development for 15 boys and girls teams for ages eight to 17.” The foundation also works on homelessness. Additionally, KD is a supporter of his alma mater, the University of Texas at Austin, donating $3 million, $2.5 million of which was earmarked for the men’s basketball program.

4. Draymond Green

The pugnacious Golden State Warriors forward’s giving focuses on education and youth, and his home state of Michigan. He made a $3.1 million gift to the Michigan State University Athletics. Green has also directed sums to Saginaw Community Foundation, which “works to improve the quality of life in Saginaw County by linking donor interests with the community’s most pressing needs and promising opportunities.”

5. Jrue and Lauren Holiday

The New Orleans Pelicans guard and retired U.S. womens’ professional soccer player recently launched the Jrue and Lauren Holiday Fund (JLHF),  committing an initial $5 million to support local Black-led nonprofit organizations, city-wide initiatives that seek to bring about equitable outcomes for Black and brown communities, and HBCUs. The family has decided to focus on regions where they have ties — New Orleans, the Los Angeles area, and Indianapolis.

6. Marc and Pau Gasol

Standing at a combined height of about 14 feet, Spanish-born Pau Gasol and his younger brother Marc established the Gasol Foundation, which works to reduce childhood obesity rates through the promotion of sports and physical activity, healthy eating, sleep quality, and the emotional well-being of children, adolescents and their families.

The Gasol Foundation’s motto is “Make It Healthy, Make It Fun,” and the public foundation focuses on programs like VIDA! Health and Wellness program, in collaboration with Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, which has impacted a few hundred students, so far.

7. Russell Westbrook

Launched in 2012, the Russell Westbrook Why Not? Foundation is dedicated to supporting “community-based education and family service programs while encouraging youth to believe in themselves.” The foundation launched Russell’s Reading Rooms, a literacy initiative created to provide school children access to books in a safe environment where they can read with friends. Westbrook partnered with businessman Chad Brownstein and the L.A. Conservation Corps to launch the Westbrook/Brownstein Green Tech Program (WBGT), an initiative steered by a partnership between the Why Not? Foundation and Brownstein. The Houston Rockets guard has also donated to his alma mater UCLA.

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It’s worth noting how many of these athletes focus on education and youth in their philanthropy, perhaps recognizing that while their success in sports is powerful and inspiring, there are other ways for youth to rise like they have. Between these current NBA athletes and others we might’ve mentioned, as well as retired stars like Jordan, Dwyane Wade and Dirk Nowitzki, the sports world is yet another arena to watch in this new era of major philanthropy.

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