There’s this really great documentary, Hype!, that documents (duh) that exciting and absurd moment in the early ’90s when a handful of Seattle-based bands changed the face of rock music. The exciting part was how good some of these bands were and how they blessedly altered the generally crappy state of rock at the time. The absurd part was the incredible amount of overblown attention this “grunge scene” drew, from wannabe stars, wannabe fans and largely clueless media alike. It’s such a good movie that you needn’t be a grunge fan to appreciate it (or this analogy); even occasional slamonline.com contributor Khalid Salaam — whose tastes run more to Celtic folk music and death metal — once told me that he stumbled across it on cable and found it so compelling he stopped and watched the whole thing.
And that title: Hype! If you were in your formative years, which I guess I sort of was, and you were into music that had guitars in it, which I still am, sort of, there is no more succinct way to summarize both the excitement and the absurdity of that time, the idea of this one random thing (like vaguely retro-sounding futuristic pseduo-classic punk rock, or some tall kid from Northeast Ohio) from one random place (like Seattle, or Akron, or wherever) changing everything… which brings me to the point of this column. As seven or eight of you may know, I wrote a book about LeBron James that came out just before the start of his rookie year. The subtitle of this book, which was not my idea and which I never really liked, is, “Believe the Hype: The LeBron James Story.” It was my editor’s decision, and because he’s edited a lot of books and I’ve only written one, his opinion won. I think it’s kind of clunky, but the more time passes, the more I’m glad “Believe the Hype” is on there, mostly because LeBron continually reinforces the appearance that I knew what I was talking about.
What this has to do with anything: The book happened because, two and a half years earlier, I first interviewed LeBron for SLAM. And this is where “hype” enters the conversation. As you may or may not know or remember or care, we were the first national magazine to write about LeBron. Sophomore year, before SI or ESPN or anyone else, we gave him a 5-page feature and put his name on the cover. Junior year, still before SI or ESPN, we had him writing our Basketball Diary. Granted, as a basketball-only magazine, we should be beating everyone else to the punch on guys like this. The point, though, is that we didn’t just shine the light his way: We cranked that b*tch, 20 million watts worth of shine, right from the jump. We blew LeBron up.
Generally speaking, we don’t give high school sophomores full-length features, if we talk about them at all. LeBron was the exception. Before him, we’d limited the Basketball Diary assignment to seniors only. LeBron was the exception. Before him, we had never put a high school kid on the cover, and really hadn’t even thought about it. A few months later, LeBron became the exception. So, hype. Yes, we hyped the hell out of this kid, giving him two covers before he ever played an NBA game and (I think?) four more since. We have never hyped a player, any player, the way we have hyped LeBron James.
Some of you might argue that we’ve overdone it. I’ll get to that shortly.
Another example of a “hype” benificiary/victim would be Sebastian Telfair. Some of you would argue that we overdid it with Bassy, and in that case, you’re probably right. Like LeBron, Bassy landed a couple of cover spots (not solo, but still) before he played his first NBA game — in fact, they shared their first cover, which regardless of anything will always ranks as one of the cooler memories in my time at SLAM. Of course, the implication — which is harder and harder to justify in retrospect — of putting a then-HS junior and a then-HS sophomore together on the cover is that they were, roughly, equals.
We know now they are not. But at the time — and I will always maintain this — they were essentially the best players in their respective classes, and they’d become good friends, and so it just made sense. Hindsight being what it is, you can mock it now, but in the spring of 2002, that cover was the joint.
Whatever. Back to the point.
Basically, there are two kinds of hype: Deserved, and undeserved. That second category can be divided into two more sub-categories: Hype that’s undeserved because you’re just not that good, and hype that’s undeserved because, while you may in fact be pretty good, the pace of hype is simply too extreme to keep up with.
As such, running with my Hype! analogy, LeBron James is some sick hybrid of all the Seattle bands that earned critical acclaim and sold a gazillion records and influenced every other band that came out in the next 10 years. He’s Pearl Jam and Nirvana and Soundgarden all at once. Did those bands get “overhyped”? You could say so, but then, all that critical acclaim and all those gazillions of records sold and all that influence peddled makes you think that “overhyping” might not be possible. The hype was deserved because they justified it.
(For the record, Bassy is Mark Arm from Mudhoney, or maybe one of the fat guys from Screaming Trees — good bands who caught some of the excess hype of the big boys and ended up getting more attention than their ability justified, but good bands nonetheless. Whereas, say, Ndudi Ebi is one of the guys from Gas Huffer, only worse, because at least we never had to hear about Gas Huffer being good. Aren’t you glad I made that clear?)
Why I’m writing this now: Because of all you f*cking haters, is why. Listen, I understand why people are sick of LeBron — we were getting letters from a lot of y’all while dude was STILL IN HIGH SCHOOL, wondering why we were “overhyping” this kid, because he was only in high school, and anyway, he couldn’t be as good as we were making him out to be. You were mad about the hype, and you held it against him, and a lot of you still do. Whatever your issues with him now — the regular-season coasting, the stretches of not asserting himself, those Sprite commercials — the vast majority of LeBron haters cut their teeth on the alleged overexposure that started when he was still a high schooler.
I don’t know what’s going to happen now: Maybe the Cavs close out this weekend, or maybe they win in seven, or maybe they lose. If they do make the Finals, I certainly don’t love their chances against the Spurs — but then, I didn’t love their chances against the Pistons, either. But none of this matters right now. What matters is that, four years in, he has answered every question he’s been asked. He’s had unclutch moments and been criticized for them, and he’s come back and proven how clutch he is. He’s had moments where he should’ve taken over and didn’t, and he’s heard about it, and now he’s shown he can and will take over on the big stage. He’s had moments where he didn’t assert himself, didn’t lead, didn’t play the superstar role, and he’s caught exceptional amounts of sh*t for it — and then he has come back and asserted and led and played the superstar as convincingly as anyone ever has. Last night most especially.
No, he still hasn’t won a damn thing. But there’s plenty of time for winning. Fact is, LeBron has stepped up to EVERY SINGLE CHALLENGE we’ve put in front of him. Maybe not on the first try, but that arguably only makes what he’s accomplished — and what he’s accomplishing right now — that much more impressive. Every dose of hate has been countered with success. And what I’m trying to tell you is, this isn’t new. This is the track record. This is proven, and we’ve been telling you about it for damn near seven years now. This sh*t is documented. The history is written in the pages of our magazine, and elsewhere. All the things you keep trying to say he can’t do, he’d either already done or is doing right now.
What I’m trying to tell you is this: We’ve gotten a lot of sh*t wrong over the years, and we will get a lot more wrong before we’re done. But with LeBron, not only have we not been wrong; we’ve arguably never been more right. We may even have been understating it. Believe the motherf*cking hype.
Or don’t. In which case, oh well. Whatever. Nevermind.