Made in Akron
Nike brings the world to meet the Air Max LeBron VII.
by Farmer Jones
The timing is interesting.
If you cop a pair of Air Max LeBron VIIs when they drop in late October (or if you bid on the pair(s) this sneaky bastard is selling waaaay earlier than he should be) you will most likely notice a theme in Nike’s presentation: The box will feature images from key locales—the community centers and Salvation Army gyms where he first learned the game, or the high school gym where he began to perfect it—in LeBron James’ life and basketball development in Akron, Ohio. Purely as a marketing angle, this makes perfect sense. LeBron is the Akron kid balling just up the road in Cleveland, the dude who has backed up his long-stated goal of “putting Akron on the map” by basing his high school camp and the bulk of his charitable work in the 330. He reps his hometown as hard (if not harder) than any superstar ever has.
So it made sense, as well, to bring something like 70 media members from around the world to Akron to mark the release of his latest signature shoe. The inspiration behind the shoes (and more than likely the hook for the marketing push behind them) is the importance of LeBron’s roots. If anything, it’s surprising that Nike didn’t do this earlier.
A year from right now, LeBron either will or won’t be a Cleveland Cavalier. If he is, it’ll be because he either a) signed a long-term extension, or b) exercised the one-year option in his current deal. If he isn’t, it’ll almost certainly be because he decided that the Cavs didn’t offer him the best chance of winning an NBA championship.
Please read that last part again. Commit it to memory. I’ll wait.
Anyway, as LeBron reiterated on Friday in Akron, he’s in no hurry to re-up with the Cavs just yet. Worth noting: This is something the Worldwide Follower sent that lady with the maroon hair all the way to Akron to “confirm” — though apparently they forgot their cameraman. From now on, when I mention that I don’t watch this network unless it’s absolutely necessary, and people ask me why, I’ll refer them to these excerpts from the flashing-red BREAKING NEWS blurb:
DISEMBODIED VOICE OF LADY WITH MAROON HAIR: I think the most interesting thing he said… he pointed out that he specifically signed a three-year contract on purpose… that it wasn’t an accident…
GUY IN STUDIO WITH NICE TEETH: And no surprise here, LeBron’s been saying basically this all along, that he did do the deal that way for just this occasion.
So, in case you’re one of those people who has a hard time following straight lines: Breaking News! LeBron is doing exactly what he, common sense, and middle-school-level reading comprehension have been telling us he’d do for a few years now! Which is not actually news! At all!
Anyway. Back to the point, which is: On the eve of a season in which a lot of people (most of whom work in New York) will repeatedly ask LeBron redundant questions that will draw redundant answers—all of which will focus on the possibility-slash-likelihood-slash-inevitability (depending on which guestimate you read) of LeBron bailing on his hometown—Nike chose to bank a pricey pair of sleds and a months-long marketing campaign on the idea of LeBron’s loyalty to his hometown.
Which is interesting. The timing, I mean.
This could be coincidental. As anyone familiar with the sneaker game at this level knows, the product design and marketing process for someone on LeBron’s level starts way in advance. Maybe the potential irony wasn’t obvious at the time. Maybe the scope of it wasn’t entirely clear. Maybe I’m the only one who finds it interesting. Certainly, most of the media Nike flew in for the event (FTR: I drove) didn’t know or care about LeBron’s contract situation. For most of the folks from Beijing and Buenos Aires and London, many of whom repped fashion outlets (and at least one of whom was there from a design and architecture magazine!), this was a chance to get a peek at LeBron’s new shoes, and more importantly at LeBron, on his home turf.
Let’s get to the shoe thing before I forget to get to the shoe thing: The Nike Air Max LeBron VII is set to drop October 24. Retail will be $160. Nike says it’s the company’s first ever basketball-specific Max 360 air sole. I’m not sure I love them visually, at least not in the initial red/white/black makeup (although some of the alternate colorways I’ve seen online look kinda hot). I can tell you, from about 45 minutes running in them on LeBron’s high school court, that they are very comfortable. The Air is not a joke. Being LeBron’s shoes, these are no lightweight, low-top joints. It’s a serious shoe, but I don’t imagine many people taking issue with the comfort or performance. That’s my review. Put it on a poster or something.
Here’s how the rest of the event—officially tagged the LeBron James Innovation & Inspiration Summit—broke down: Put up in a downtown Cleveland hotel on Thursday night, we gathered Friday morning and boarded buses for the half-hour ride down to Akron. First stop: The Ed Davis Community Center, one of the spots LeBron balled in as a kid, and where Nike had set up a maze-like exhibit recapping the first six years of LeBron’s NBA (and sneaker) career. Then we piled into the gym—60 or 70 media, plus an equal number of local middle- and high-school age kids, there to watch the unveiling. Keenan Thompson came out to act as MC and was welcomed warmly (by all the Good Burger fans, I guess?), followed by LeBron VII designer Jason Petrie and LeBron VII namesake, um, LeBron.
They BS’d for a while, took questions—a mix, predictably, of shoe questions and contract questions; after a Nike PR guy (I see you ‘Juan) politely asked the assembled media to stick to shoe questions, since, you know, most of us were on an all-expense-paid junket, LeBron announced he’d answer questions about anything—and he did. After that, we caught lunch and I ended up sitting with some of the international folks—Jonas Falk from the German magazine Basket, James Harris-Hogarth from the British site Basketball247, and occasional SLAM (and former Striker) contributor Sam Pilger. Good dudes all.
After lunch we caught the buses for the short ride to St. Vincent-St. Mary High School, Bron’s alma mater. I was having flashbacks to the first time I’d been on campus, eight years earlier, to interview a 16-year-old sophomore and his teammates, fresh off their second state championship. Some of the “kids” I’d met on that trip—Dru Joyce, Romeo Travis, Brandon Weems, Willie McGee—were around now, all grown-ass men. And this time, sadly, they’d be watching me play. Nike hustled us into the St. V locker rooms, where full uniforms and pairs of the VII awaited each of us.
St. V coach Dru Joyce (“lil’” Dru’s dad) came in to offer a little bit of history, and at one point he nodded in my direction. Apparently, I was changing in LeBron’s old locker.
We hit the courts—again there were about 70 of us—jogged through a few minutes of stretches and layup drills, then got broken up into teams for 4-minute games. Our team won its first two games and qualified for the “championship” game, where we caught the L. The level of talent was horrendous, but it was fun, and I was (comparatively) pretty good for the eight or so minutes I was on the court. LeBron came out and briefly joined the consolation game, dunking a couple of times to the crowd’s delight.
All in all, not a bad way to spend an afternoon.
Saturday morning, we were back in Akron for a screening of More Than a Game at the historic Civic Theatre. The setting was crazy, and the movie was really, really good. Those of you who know my LeBron history may smell bias here, but check the trailer, and then trust me when I tell you the movie is better—and even less about LeBron—than the trailer lets on. The only thing it lacked was a SLAM mention, but it was good enough that I let that go. I’ll post a more in-depth review closer to the October release date.
After the screening, we hit the local Salvation Army gym and the Summit Lake Community Center (where, as you can see, the SLAM love was in effect), two more of the gyms where Bron first learned the game. The day and trip ended with a visit to Swenson’s, which I’ve written about here before. I don’t have to tell you how it was.
Back to Friday night for a second: At dinner with my new English and German homies, I was asked if I thought LeBron would be gone next summer. Apparently, people in the rest of the world assume he will be. I gave my take, which is that he certainly might leave, but that—unless the Cavs seem to be headed clearly downhill after this season—I don’t think he will. They were surprised but seemed willing to buy my logic. Marketing angle or no, having spent two days in Akron, the place LeBron comes from and very much still calls home, it was hard to imagine him anywhere else.