LeBron James joined some rare sporting company on Thursday when he was named Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the year. He became just the second person in history to receive the award twice, and it was fitting after the unbelievable year he had.

James didn’t just have an incredible year on the court where he led the Cleveland Cavaliers to their very first NBA championship, ending a 52 year drought without a professional championship trophy in the city, he was also led athletes as an ever present voice when speaking on social issues and the need for a better future. In a year riddled with police violence towards African American civilians, as well as racial tension and political turbulence, James was a constant voice throughout the rough periods in the community and an individual people could look up to in times of need for guidance.

James told Cleveland.com even though he may experience difficult times in his profession, he understands it doesn’t measure up to the magnitude of what predecessors and some of his idols had to go through before him.

“For what I do on the court, it’s second nature,” James told cleveland.com. “I put my time into it, I put my life into the craft and it’s incredibly difficult. The most challenging thing you can do in life is to try and win a championship. But I also know what all the trials and tribulations and the magnitude of things you had to deal with in the era of Ali, and the era of Jim Brown, the era of Kareem, the era of Bill Russell, in sports and outside of sports. Just the civil rights and the movement and things going on and blacks not being allowed in certain places. The racism at an all-time high, and Dr. Martin Luther King being assassinated because of that.

“You put it in perspective of saying what I’m doing and what we did was the most difficult thing ever, but it’s probably the lowest on the totem pole when it comes to what we’re talking about with what Muhammad Ali went through and what those guys went through growing up.

“And that’s why I give so much back to those guys, as much as I can — my words, my voice, my time. Because I just now the path that they gave us to where now we can, I can sit here and talk to you (a white reporter), free. It means a lot.”

It’s fitting James receives this award when idols and fellow social activists in Jim Brown, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Russell receive the Muhammad Ali Legacy Award, which will take place at the Sports Illustrated gala in Brooklyn on December 12th. Ali was also one of James’ heroes, and the Finals MVP understands how important an award in his honor means.

“The fact that Jim and Bill is getting the lifetime achievement award, or the Muhammad Ali award, this award means more to me but it’s basically dedicated to Muhammad Ali and people understanding what he stood for,” James said. “We all know he was a champ. The people who don’t now need to understand what he meant outside the ring, what he stood for and what he meant. So for me to receive this award and to know that Jim Brown and Kareem and Bill and Ali is such a big part of this whole thing, that’s what really means more to me than anything.”

Despite the countless accolades and awards that come James’ way, when he’s acknowledged for his work outside of the arena, they are usually the awards that indicate to him he’s doing what he’s supposed to do, given the powerful position he’s in. He will always be humbled by these awards, and despite his initial shock when first receiving the phone call, he continues to try and be the best leader he can be.

“I’ve done something right I guess, what I represent,” James said. “I was surprised when (spokesman) Adam (Mendelsohn) called me and told me I was receiving the award. I hadn’t thought about it, it wasn’t even in my mind, and I don’t know. I try to live my life the best way I can and be a leader.”

It’s rare to find an athlete with the stature of James that also feels so strongly towards making a positive impact on others and the future. No one in professional sports comes close to James when giving back to community, or sharing his insight and stance on issues within our society.

I’m not sure we’ll ever see a basketball player use their influence to make a difference quite like James has done throughout his career.