The Summer of His Discontent
LeBron James’ weirdly miserable offseason is finally over.
by Ryan Jones
It ended Tuesday, and regardless of the opening-night outcome, I have to imagine LeBron James is happy as hell to have another season of basketball to distract him. What a uniquely f*cked-up summer this man just endured.
I use “endured” with some hesitation. LeBron is hardly a reluctant celebrity, and he does plenty — and did, this summer, especially — to draw the spotlight to himself. He’s a big boy and understands criticism comes with the shine. No sympathy required or requested. All that said, it’s difficult to imagine a sillier swirling clusterf*ck of non-stories and pseudo-controversies than the ones that dogged LeBron over the past four or five months.
Even if he did bring some of it on himself.
I’m writing this for the Slamonline audience, so I should probably emphasize that my take on this is heavily influenced by same. I don’t read much about the NBA, because, with a few exceptions, other people’s opinions about basketball players don’t generally interest me. That includes most of the regular commenters on here.
Indifference aside, I’m aware of what the Slamonline audience thinks. So while I don’t actually believe that a sizable chunk of the greater basketball-consuming universe hates LeBron, I’m aware that a lot of you do. Writing this is at least partially a response to that. So, lucky you.
Anyway. LeBron’s summer, as it were, started a few seconds after the 2008-09 NBA season ended. Maybe you remember. The handshake thing was stupid, and even if LeBron was mostly right that there’s no precedent for the final game of the Eastern Conference Finals standing parallel with the Stanley Cup final or my 4-year-old’s soccer games, stupid is stupid. He should’ve found time to give Dwight a hug. He should’ve sucked it up and spoken to the press. He blew it. Stupid.
The reaction was so much stupider.
The reaction was overblown and dragged out and not remotely in proportion to the deviance of the act. LeBron could’ve squashed it with a timelier response, but the fact remains: Stupid, stupid, stupid.
This would mark the beginning of a trend.
You remember the t-shirt. Kinda funny. More than a little cocky. And, from a PR perspective, probably not the smartest move. Blogger/commenter hate? Off the charts. Naturally.
And then, something about a gate. I was there, as I may have mentioned. Of the hundred or so people in the gym that night, exactly three thought it was a really big deal: The guy who did the dunking (props, again, Jordan); the guy who shot the video; and the guy who confiscated the tape.
None of those guys was actually LeBron James. None of which mattered. Like the handshake nonsense, he should’ve addressed it sooner. He didn’t. Stupid.
Like the handshake nonsense, the response was a raging, seemingly endless flood of stupid. Collective stupid. Blinders-wearing, group-think stupid. The funnest kind.
What else? He’s too busy making movies, getting caught up in that early-career-Shaq multi-media feeling-himself ish. He’s too caught up in wanna-be moguldom (even if it is just a rumor a New York newspaper writer admittedly hocked into the virtual breeze). He won’t commit to the national team (even if it is in a non-Olympic year and no one outside of Europe and Argentina gives a f*ck about the Worlds anyway.) He’s a punk because he hangs out with guys who get in fights at nightclubs, and/or he’s a bad friend because he demeans his short-statured friends for being, um, short-statured.
I’m probably forgetting a few dozen other minor incidents of LeBron being uncouth, tardy for appointments, neglecting to write thank-you notes in a timely manner and not tweezing his eyebrows. Apologies. The point, I hope, is clear enough; that point being, LeBron was a real dick this summer. Wasn’t he?
Because I’m me, all this reminds me a lot of when LeBron was in high school. In fairness, a lot of things remind me a lot of when LeBron was in high school. This summer, though, more than most. What happened when LeBron was in high school was that he got famous very quickly, and people were impressed and sort of amazed and generally thought he was pretty great, and then a bunch of stuff happened that wasn’t really him doing anything wrong (or even doing much of anything at all, mostly), but all of which added up to reflect poorly on him and sort of snowball to the point that a lot of the same people who’d never heard of him a year or so earlier and then had only recently thought he was pretty great quickly started thinking he was a real dick.
Because some guy gave him a couple of jerseys, and because his mom (sort of) bought him a car.
It was weird. Maybe you had to be there.
Anyway, flash forward to 2009, six or seven years later, and dude is one of the most popular (and almost certainly one of the three or four best) players in the NBA. And yet he is simultaneously hated by everyone, a word I misappropriate here to mean “something like 59 percent of the Slamonline readership, who not only think he’s a dick, but actually also not even a good basketball player, and who just gets calls because of his Nike deal and his athleticism but otherwise, you know, not very good.”
(A note about that: If you are one of those people who likes to regularly comment about how LeBron actually isn’t that good at basketball, and who really seem to mean it — not just hyperbolic hate because you’re a Kobe fan or because you think he’s over-marketed or seriously, that crab-dribble crap just drives you nuts, valid points all — need to take a second right now for deep self-reflection and ask yourself if you’re serious, and if so, please, as a service, don’t come to this Web site ever again. We like to think we promote intelligent basketball discussion, and if you honestly, honestly think LeBron “sucks,” you are too stupid to function in a literate society, let alone contribute anything of value to Slamonline.com.
So, yeah, six or seven years later, LeBron again, getting savaged by a lot of folks for not a whole lot of anything he actually did wrong, or did, period. I’m intrigued by it, and also, I see some irony (or coincidence, or maybe it’s just interesting to note) in the fact that this summer of LeBron’s perceived dickness so closely echoes a similar perception from when he was still playing for a team called the Fighting Irish and wearing school-mandated patches of athletic tape to cover up his tattoos.
Which looked silly, by the way.
The irony, if I’m using that tricky word correctly, is that the people in charge of making sure LeBron gets to be as rich and famous and influential as possible spent a good chunk of this summer reminding us what LeBron’s life was like when he was younger, and specifically when he was in high school and starting to get really famous, a time when a lot of people thought he was a real dick.
I imagine you heard about the movie and the book. The movie, as mentioned, is really good. If you like basketball, and your feelings about LeBron lie somewhere between “love” and “can tolerate,” you should see the movie. You’ll probably enjoy it. Don’t bother with the book. It tells mostly the same story as the movie, and doesn’t do it as well, and doesn’t have Drake on the soundtrack. (That one was for Holly. Drake cracks me up. Does anyone know how he’s living? Or what his voice sounds like without synthetic digital enhancement? I’m worried that he might not be making good money or having success finding girls to date. I’m worried he might be a droid. Say a prayer for Drake, y’all.)
The book, though, seriously. I actually wrote a book about LeBron’s high school years. It wasn’t that great, either, but it at least came out right after he finished high school, so it was timely, and plus I wrote it in like four months with very little in the way of direct cooperation from the subject. This new book is written by a guy who had all the time and access in the world, and who also by the way wrote one of the best sports books ever, which I read and loved and wouldn’t ever match if I spent the rest of my life writing sports books. But I’m not alone in thinking he appears to have mailed this one. Too bad.
But. So the irony here is the near-simultaneous release of a documentary film and a lamely ghost-written memoir, both of which cover the formative years of a seventh-year pro. And did I mention Nike’s marketing push for LeBron’s new shoe is all about his formative years? (Actually: Yes, I did mention that.) There are no accidents at this level, of course. There’s coordination and intent. And so what we got this summer was the present reality of a seventh-year pro, a multi-millionaire, one of the three or four most famous and relentlessly marketed athletes on the planet, and everyone (even if, again, “everyone” only actually means 59 percent of Slamonline readers) seems to think he’s a dick. And all the marketing is about reminding us where he came from, and the essence of who he is, and how much he values his roots and his hometown and the people he came up with, and how those are the same people he’s brought up with him, and how all those people still think he’s pretty great.
(Now that I think of it, this part might’ve been an accident; smart and connected as they are, I don’t think LeBron’s marketing team thought it would be a good idea for him not to shake hands with the Orlando Magic and then get dunked on by a college kid as his own camp, thus drumming up hate which they could counter with a terrific global marketing campaign. Yeah, that was an accident. Just not the rest of the stuff.)
But so then two other things. One, did you notice the marketing blitz for the movie and the book? It went a little somethin’ like this: A quick Q&A in Esquire. An appearance on The Daily Show, where Jon Stewart’s “please join the Knicks” shtick was his least inspired work since The Faculty. A book excerpt in Vanity Fair. An interview on — and I honestly still kinda don’t believe this one — NPR. (Jay needs to sample that little “Morning Edition” guitar intro pronto.) You probably remember him being on 60 Minutes in the spring, too.
Notice a trend?
Mainstream, baby. It’s the Jay-Z influence, sure, and also a testament to the well-connected NYC media folks steering things. He is appealing to the highest of the high-level media taste-makers, because that’s what one does when one is aiming higher than you can even imagine. And, again, it’s no sort of accident.
And this brings us to timing. Because — and you might’ve read this somewhere — next year, LeBron will be a “free agent.” This is a basketball term that means his playing contract with his NBA team, the “Cavaliers” of Cleveland, Ohio, will be up in such a way that he might possibly sign another contract with another professional basketball team. Crazy, isn’t it?
I’ve rambled here, so let me try to sum up. The dumbest summer of LeBron’s NBA life just ended. It included a steady, Internet-fed stream of hyper-criticism for transgressions that were minor when they existed at all, all coinciding with a multi-media, worldwide marketing push that emphasized his loyalty to his hometown roots in the last summer before he might well forsake that loyalty and those roots for allegedly greener pastures and a spotlight that doesn’t seem like it could get any brighter if you plugged that sh*t into the sun.
What a weird couple of months. I never thought LeBron’s rep could end up more complicated than Kobe’s.
Imagine how much you’ll hate him when he signs with the Raptors.