Eight Years and Counting
It’s time for King James’ image to change.
by Bryan Crawford / @_BryanCrawford
A lot of people hate LeBron James. A lot of people openly root for him to fail. I’ve been lumped into both categories at times, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.
My biggest personal dislike and quite possibly the thing that makes most people root against him is the way he’s been packaged and sold from Day 1 as the greatest basketball player we’ve ever seen with nothing more than his size, ability and potential to back it up.
Even more distasteful to some is the sacrilegious “King James” moniker which plays into the “We are all Witnesses” campaign which feeds the self-serving “Chosen 1” title. But it doesn’t stop there…
Most annoying to many are the legions of basketball fans who bought into all of these narratives and because of it, feel obligated to defend James even when he comes up short like he did in the NBA Finals this year. But the real question is why?
There are no easy answers, but plausible theories do exist; here’s mine.
LeBron’s arrival on the scene while he was still in high school came in the midst of the ESPN and internet explosions. Add in Nike who has a cult following of its own and you have the perfect storm brewing for a lot of people to cash in.
Yes ESPN had been around for years prior, but as it began to transition and ascend into a global sporting news network, and as its signature show, SportsCenter, started gaining ridiculous popularity, who do you think made LeBron James a household name while he was still trying to find a tux for his prom?
And once he hit the League as the No.1 draft pick, Nike launched the “King James,” “Witness” and “Chosen 1” campaigns to easily gain the support of (mostly young) basketball fans everywhere. The nicknames were catchy, the movement sounded cool, so people latched on.
But that’s also where things began to spiral out of control as LeBron found himself in the middle of two huge corporate machines and a tool gaining popularity as the connecter of the world (the internet), all selling him to the masses as the greatest basketball player of our generation. Greater than anybody we’ve seen before and greater than anybody who would come after.
He was “It,” and many people bought in.
Ironically, not too long after LeBron’s entrance into the NBA, there was another set of people gaining fame on the worldwide web and who’d seemingly already bought into the LeBron hype as well, only this group would have actual evidence to back up the claims being made.
LeBron James has long been the poster child for the advanced stat community and quite possibly the reason why both have become insanely popular over the years. Plus, when a guy like LeBron (the hottest player in the game) comes in second to Michael Jordan in player efficiency, that’s all the validation you need to promote and legitimize your product.
And along with the arrival of advanced stats came the underlying notion that winning championships was an archaic way to judge great players. Efficiency became the “in” thing. Put up efficient numbers and the stat set had Player X’s back and would sing their praises to the high heavens. Be less than efficient and Player X becomes overrated, regardless of mainstream popularity.
No single player has benefited from these combined factors the way that LeBron James has.
It doesn’t need to be said but LeBron James is good, like, crazy good. But it’s worth questioning if the fame and notoriety he’s received since high school has somehow quelled that fire in his belly necessary to win a title? That fire that all the greats before him seem to have had inside of them.
A championship has long been what the “greats” in the NBA have strived for. Players have always known that once you win a title, not only does it legitimize you, but if you win enough titles, it can put you in the conversation as some of the all-time greats.
But what incentive is there really for a guy like LeBron who was automatically thrust into that conversation before he even crossed the stage at his high school graduation? What incentive is there for a guy who was paid upfront as one of the best ever before he’d even signed his NBA contract? What incentive is there for a guy who has routinely come up short but has so many people to tell him that it’s OK when he does?
Maybe that’s the problem? Maybe that’s what makes him such an enigma? And now the billion dollar question after seeing him disappear in the Finals is this: What’s LeBron’s motivation?
At 26 years old, there’s still time for him to get it right. Still time to strip away that old image, the one that incites hateful rhetoric among some fans of the game, and transform himself into a winner, a “real” winner.
It’s not too late even though his reputation as a player will take a hit for the foreseeable future, mostly due to his personal actions, but largely due to circumstances beyond his control; circumstances that he himself didn’t create, but circumstances that he was more than willing to participate in.
Maybe now, LeBron with all of his “talents” will be held to higher accountability standard that will spark his transformation. That’s what should happen given how much people have “fronted” him over the past eight years. It’s high time they at least started recouping on some of their emotional investment (sorry, no refunds on the LBJ merch though).
But whether or not LeBron James makes a conscious choice to change his image, he still has a legacy all his own; one that will never be matched by anyone.
He will go down in history as the first and last of his kind; a product of a three-headed monster (a shoe company, media outlet and the internet); a Frankenstein-like experiment. You’ll never see anyone like him again.
And maybe that’s a good thing.