BRIDGEWATER, N.J. — Ahead of campaigning in Ohio on Saturday, President Donald Trump unleashed an attack on the state's favorite son LeBron James in a late-night tweet that derided the intelligence of one of the nation's most prominent athletes.
Trump blasted James after seemingly watching an interview the former Cleveland Cavaliers star did earlier in the week with CNN anchor Don Lemon in which he deemed Trump divisive. Although James has long been a Trump critic, calling the president "U bum" in a 2017 tweet, the Friday night tweet was Trump's first attack on the player, who just opened up a school for underprivileged children in his hometown of Akron.
"Lebron James was just interviewed by the dumbest man on television, Don Lemon," Trump posted. "He made Lebron look smart, which isn't easy to do."
Trump then, unexpectedly, appeared to weigh in on the growing debate over who is the greatest NBA player of all time, James or Michael Jordan, by writing "I like Mike!"
Many former and current professional athletes, including Jordan, jumped to James' defense.
"I support LeBron James. He's doing an amazing job for his community," Jordan said in a statement to The Associated Press through his representative via text Saturday.
Ohio Gov. Josh Kasich, a Republican who at times criticizes Trump, tweeted: "Rather than criticizing @KingJames, we should be celebrating him for his charity work and efforts to help kids."
James, who campaigned for Trump's opponent, Democrat Hillary Clinton, and has not been shy about using his celebrity for social causes, did the interview from the public school he opened for at-risk kids in Akron, called the "I Promise" school. Every student receives free tuition, as well as free food, a uniform and even a free bike.
In the interview, James said he "would never sit across" from Trump, though he would talk to former President Barack Obama. James' publicist declined to respond to Trump's tweet, but early Saturday afternoon, James retweeted a post from the "I Promise" school and said, "Let's get it kids!! Love you guys."
Lemon responded to the president, invoking both the administration's forced-family-separations policy and first lady Melania Trump's social media etiquette campaign.
"Who's the real dummy? A man who puts kids in classrooms or one who puts kids in cages? #BeBest" Lemon tweeted.
A spokeswoman for Melania Trump said in a statement Saturday afternoon that it appears that James is "working to do good things on behalf of our next generation" and that the first lady would be open to visiting his new school.
The White House did not immediately respond to a request to clarify Trump's remarks. But even some Trump allies chided the remark.
Geraldo Rivera, the journalist and Trump confidant, broke with the president to say he wished Trump "turned other cheek re @KingJames & @donlemon While I disagree with their conclusion that @POTUS is using sports to divide America along racial lines, they're both sincere & intelligent men. LeBron just pledged millions for a school for underprivileged kids."
A number of athletes spoke out in support of James.
Pro Football Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe tweeted: "It should be beneath the dignity of a sitting POTUS to take racist shots at D. Lemon and Lebron James." NBA player Karl-Anthony Towns wrote: "So let me get this straight: Flint, MI has dirty water still, but you worried about an interview about a man doing good for education and generations of kids in his hometown?"
Before entering politics, Trump frequently praised James and his own family tried to recruit him to the New York Knicks in 2010.
James played for over a decade — and in two stints — with the Cavaliers and delivered a title to the championship-starved region in 2016. Although he departed for the Los Angeles Lakers earlier this summer, the superstar remains very popular in the Buckeye State.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.