Sunday, July 18, 2010

LeBron James: From Loyalty to Royalty?

Note: This is a baseball blog. But on rare occasions I'll focus on something else. This is one of those occasions.

If LeBron James refers to water boys as "Hey you," I'm not surprised. If he celebrates All-Star Weekend Tiger Woods style, I'm not surprised. If he sometimes takes ill-conceived advice from Maverick Carter, I'm not surprised. But if LeBron's behavior, as this Yahoo Sports article by Adrian Wojnarowski suggests, was so much worse than other NBA stars that Team USA seriously considered not taking him to Beijing, I am shocked. I never would have guessed that he had been that big of a problem, mainly due to his on-court success and so many other players seemed to like him.

I don't know what LeBron is like when the cameras are off. Although, my hunch is that some journalist out there will have a LeBron book ready by the NBA playoffs next spring, if not sooner.

Yes, I realize it's just basketball and there are a million things more important in this world, but as somebody who is originally from Ohio and whose first NFL TV-watching experience was "The Fumble," I've always been a fan of LeBron and the Cavs' resurgence. This whole free agency saga has intrigued me, mainly because I knew it would give us further insights into the real LeBron James. And this is bearing out.

A star is born: Cavs' fans hit the jackpot when Cleveland drafted their home grown talent, LeBron James. But maybe LeBron also hit the jackpot by playing in Cleveland, the only place where America could so quickly and so strongly perceive him to have that rarest of traits in professional sports: Loyalty.

From a basketball standpoint, LeBron's decision to go to Miami might prove to be the smartest choice. He gets to team up with another top 5 player and buddy (Wade), an All-Star big and buddy (Bosh), and an executive with championship, even dynasty, pedigree (Riley). And South Beach ain't bad either, especially with its proximity to the Bahamas. For a star who craves luxury and privacy...

I just never dreamt that LeBron would go on national TV and tell Cleveland that he was leaving them during a primetime reality show. But once the show was scheduled and his rumored leanings toward Miami surfaced in the media, I pretty much knew that he would indeed go on TV and stab Cleveland in the heart.

One aspect of the LeBron saga has been the perceived economic impact on Cleveland. Aside from Dan Gilbert losing about $100 million in the value of his Cavaliers franchise, some estimates have the economic community surrounding Quicken Loans Arena, where the Cavs play, as losing $20 million to $40 million per year. While I feel bad for the rabid Cleveland sports fans that LeBron is leaving, I don't feel bad for Cleveland. As a community, if Cleveland wants to stop being "The Mistake by the Lake," then they need to elect better politicians and implement smarter policies. It's not LeBron's fault that people have been fleeing Cleveland for 60 years.

As a Bulls' fan, I wanted to see LeBron James play for Chicago. Although, as I mentioned above, I can definitely respect his decision to play in Miami. My biggest problem is with how he made the decision. By breaking the news during a primetime TV special, he showed a lack of respect for Cavs' fans that was alarming. But then again, shame on me for being alarmed. We've actually seen this from him before.

What has impressed me most about LeBron, aside from his hometown pride, is how quickly he transitioned into the NBA. By age 19, he was already a bona fide NBA superstar. And there's no doubt that I enjoy watching him play more than anyone else in the league. However, my first "uh oh" moment with LeBron came at the end of the 2009 season. Do you remember what happened then?

After the Cavs were eliminated from the playoffs by the underdog Magic, LeBron walked off the court without shaking hands. He then proceeded to skip his media duties and disappeared into the night. When he was finally asked about his poor sportsmanship in defeat, rather than apologize or at least acknowledge that he should have handled it better, LeBron dug in and offered this:

"It's hard for me to congratulate somebody after you just lose to them. I'm a winner. It's not being a poor sport or anything like that. If somebody beats you up, you're not going to congratulate them. That doesn't make sense to me. I'm a competitor. That's what I do. It doesn't make sense for me to go over and shake somebody's hand."
At the very least, a disconnect in LeBron's world was being revealed. When he wins, it's great for other people to come up and shake hands with the "King." But when he loses, for some reason it doesn't make sense for him to show the same type of respect to others?

In fairness, LeBron apparently did email congratulations to the Magic center, Dwight Howard, after the game. And when his Cavs were eliminated from the playoffs this season, LeBron showed that he had learned his lesson and shook hands with the Celtics. But the memory of him walking off the court without congratulating the Magic, and then shrugging it off by saying that type of immediate congrats "doesn't make sense to me," lingered in my mind. LeBron wasn't being malicious by not shaking hands with the Magic. He wasn't even taking anything personal. He was simply in his own world. A world of rules that are foreign to you and me, but normal for him.

When I first heard that LeBron was scheduling a one-hour primetime TV event to announce his free agency decision, I didn't believe it. This is a joke, right? But when I realized it was not a joke, I immediately went back to LeBron not shaking hands with the Magic and then explaining it away with his own set of special rules which he takes for granted as much as the air he breathes. His primetime TV event, "The Decision," by all appearances was setting up to be "The Non-Shake: Part II." LeBron was going to publicly do something that seemed perfectly normal to him, but it would be perceived by most people as borderline delusional.

Cleveland sports fans have suffered through Red Right 88, The Drive, The Fumble, The Shot, The Move, and Jose Mesa. Now you can add The Decision.

Going into the free agency summer, LeBron was admittedly facing a situation where his brand image would be permanently affected, no matter what. This is partly due to the fact that he obviously wouldn't be able to please everybody (can only play for one team), but it's also partly due to the nature of his brand.

 When I think of LeBron's branding from 2003 to 2009, here is what I most associated with him:
  1. Superstar basketball talent. Possibly the best player in the NBA? People always respect that. 
  2. Fun phenom. Not only did LeBron reach a truly elite level as a basketball player, but he did it in record time at age 19. Just a kid, "Bron Bron" brought his own brand of fun to the NBA with his make-believe team photos, half-court pre-game circus shots, and chalk-exploding spectacle. 
  3. Loyal. It was a feel-good story when the Cavs were able to draft the hometown kid. And it only grew as LeBron continued to lift the franchise to new heights--and re-signed with the team the first time in 2007.
A few things to note: The "fun phenom" tag is steeped in youth. When you're 24 and leading your team to the best record in the league, the make-believe photos of your teammates are cool. But once your team starts getting upset in the playoffs a few times, it stops being cute. And, of course, people are always looking for who's going to be "the next superstar." You can't stay young forever, so from the beginning this fun phenom tag was a ticking time bomb.

The other thing to note is what's absent from the above list: Champion. LeBron has stated that this is what was most important to him. And it probably is, especially considering that winning a championship is the best way to take your brand to the next level. While we can debate Kobe vs. LeBron here in the U.S., there's no debate in China where they tend to respect championships even more. When it comes to selling apparel in China, Kobe owns LeBron.

Now that LeBron has made his free agency decision, how has his brand image changed? Well, by leaving Cleveland, we knew the Loyalty tag would be diminished. But by announcing it on TV during his own primetime special, LeBron has destroyed the Loyalty tag. Granted, I could tell by Gilbert's comments after the Cavs lost in this season's playoffs that he would be a terrible owner to play for and that LeBron should leave. But the manner in which he left has made himself look like an egomaniac not just in Cleveland, but across America.

It's often been said in sports that "Winning takes care of everything." And it's no different for LeBron. If he can win the NBA championship next June, King James will have legitimized his nickname and officially become NBA Royalty. He also would be well on his way to forging a moneymaking brand image stronger than he's ever had.

Miami 3-Heat: LeBron and Co. have a chance to be the biggest NBA rock stars since the Jordan/Pippen/Rodman Bulls of '95-'98. Much like Tiger Woods, LeBron needs to win in order to clean up his PR mess.

Ideally, I think LeBron would have wanted both Loyalty and Royalty. But when he realized that he couldn't have both, he had to make a choice. I don't blame him for choosing Miami, the path that he thinks will best lead him to Royalty. But for now, the only thing we know is that he's shed Loyalty. We'll see if he can seize Royalty.

8 comments:

Chairman said...

Well, D-Wade's the King of Miami, and Pat Riley is the behind the scenes overlord. So what's LBJ's title? Skip Bayless has been using Prince James for a while. But maybe a Count? Or a Duke?

But here's the thing - if he does finally win a championship, he'll only be 1 behind Pau Gasol for the title of best sidekick.

Greg said...

We know LeBron likes to have fun and get laughs. How about Court Jester James?

Seriously, though, I remember when Jordan came back the first time, some people were saying that now it would be "Pippen's team." It took Jordan two or three games before people stopped saying that. It will be interesting to see what type of roles D-Wade and LeBron settle into--and whether or not the LeBron sidekick jokes persist.

I actually agree with D-Wade (and LeBron) when they say that Jordan, Kobe, Magic, Duncan, Bird, etc. didn't win their championships "alone." Those guys all had Hall of Fame helpers. (Although, I'm not sure if Duncan ever really had a Hall of Fame helper, especially considering that David Robinson was past his prime by the time they started winning. Speaking of which, how underrated it Tim Duncan?)

Apparently Jordan was asked about LBJ's decision recently, and he replied that he wouldn't have called Magic and Larry to see if they could play together, he wanted to beat them. And while I'm sure there's a lot of truth to that, it's also true that he already had a Hall of Famer on his team in Scottie Pippen. And when Jordan first retired in '94, Pippen had a great season and almost won MVP (lost to Hakeem Olajuwon).

It's also true that when the Bulls needed rebounding help after losing in '94-'95 to the Orlando Magic, Jordan didn't say, "I don't want Rodman on my team, I want to beat him." Instead, the Bulls traded for Rodman, the guy who they thought could best help them on the boards.

Westy said...

I tend to believe that 'stories' of Lebron's misbehavior on Team USA are somewhat apocryphal at this point. I’m sure he’s not perfect, but I also don’t think he’s probably any worse than many. And that Wade and Bosh like to hang with him says there aren’t overt personality red flags. Likewise, saying everyone thought Kobe was the secret to that team is a bit much. They were stacked and were going to win no matter what. Easy to be in the Kobe camp this year, but let’s not forget, Spain gave us a good game (largely due to Gasol) and he’s the same reason Kobe looks good in the NBA.

I agree with your synopsis, though, Greg. I don’t fault the decision, just the methodology. He’s not Jordan, and that’s okay.

Greg said...

Easy to be in the Kobe camp this year, but let’s not forget, Spain gave us a good game (largely due to Gasol) and he’s the same reason Kobe looks good in the NBA.

I enjoy hearing you and Roland (and C-Lauff) go back and forth on Kobe v. LeBron. It's a fun discussion.

LeBron, with his amazing passing skills from Day 1 in the NBA, has always reminded me a bit of Magic Johnson.

And Kobe, especially since he had the shaved head in high school, has always reminded me a bit of Michael Jordan, both in the way he carries himself and his scoring ability. I remember Jordan as a guy who could not only drive the lane, but also pour in the points from anywhere on the court. When Kobe gets in one of his zones, I can't help but be reminded of MJ.

In terms of who is better, Kobe or LeBron, for me it's a tough call. LeBron definitely adjusted to the league sooner (and thus at a younger age), so that would suggest more of a natural talent. Also, from what I can tell, LeBron has never had the supporting cast that Kobe had, yet he was able to twice lead his teams to the best record in the league - and in another season won the Eastern Conference Finals. My hunch is that LeBron can improve a bad team more than Kobe can.

But Kobe seems to be more of a "killer" - and a closer. That counts for something. He also has shown a great ability to learn and adapt as his career has unfolded. And yes, he's got the championships. But he played with guys like Shaq (in his prime) and Gasol. LeBron hasn't had those type of teammates yet.

Since LeBron hasn't won a championship yet, I have to give the edge to Kobe since he has repeatedly proven himself in big playoff moments. Although, it should be pointed out that Kobe and LeBron have both ended their seasons with common opponents each of the past three years (Boston in '08, Orlando in '09, and Boston in '10.) In each of those in-season series comparisons, LeBron's stats were better than Kobe's, including this year when he allegedly "quit."

Here's some food for thought. What if LeBron is able to beat Kobe in the Finals next June? In a way, that would be history repeating itself 20 years later. (MJ's first ring came against Magic, who had 5.)

Greg said...
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Greg said...
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Westy said...

But Kobe seems to be more of a "killer" - and a closer.

The key word there is "seems". The stats don't seem to indicate Kobe is any more efficient at the end of games. I'm not going to argue that it doesn't look 'prettier', but efficiency is what matters. And certainly, he isn't on the level of MJ.

Greg said...

Plus Kobe went 6 for 24 in Game 7 of these past Finals. So yeah, he has some blemishes on his closer resume.

Based on what I know right now, today I'd rather take LeBron on my team over Kobe. LeBron is 5 or 6 years younger, plus I think he can do just a little bit more for a team on the court.

However, if Kobe and LeBron were to both shock the world and announce their retirements today, who would I say had been the better player? It would be very hard for me to put LeBron over Kobe.

In terms of having the most natural basketball talent, who in our generation had more than Allen Iverson? Six-foot nothing, MVP, scoring machine, led his team to a Finals, and never practiced. ;-)