Saturday, July 12, 2014

Not 1, Not 2. . . Certainly Not 7 -- What LeBron James Also Implied

The decision -- rather, the announcement of it -- was ill-advised.  A hard-working, earnest guy did the wrong thing, alienated an area he loved and went off to a glamorous place for glory that he helped create.  No one really argued with the substance of the decision -- competitive people want to go to places where they can succeed.  So, it wasn't the what, it was the how.

This time around, the how was great -- a humble article about how the self-described (see his Twitter handle) King James was returning to his hometown, a place with real meaning for him, and a place where most people his age move away from in order to find opportunity instead of moving back there.  The reasoning was sound -- he wants to give back to his area, he wants to raise his kids in that area, and he wants to bring a championship back to an area starved for good news.  He preached patience, but after 11 seasons of wear-and-tear on his body, it's hard to know how much of his elite tread remains before people might start talking about him the way they are talking about Dwayne Wade and Kobe Bryant now, that they used to be among the greatest but now they cannot strap a team to their backs anymore.

James's seemingly magnanimous decision -- and to a degree it is -- also is a concession that in continuing to build his brand he cannot out-Michael Jordan Michael Jordan and eclipse The Greater Player Ever's six titles in the modern era.  He alluded to the possibility of seven titles during a longer Miami tenure than actually will have taken place, but by moving back to Cleveland he's finessed the comparison.  Because if he delivers on a single championship in Cleveland, he'll both have played on elite stage elsewhere and won a few titles but also will have brought a title back to an area that hasn't won one in a very long time.  That Michael could not do.

But it's also a concession that he won't win seven titles, won't come close, won't come close not only to Bill Russell (who is in a category of his own) but also Jordan and perhaps even Tim Duncan of the Spurs, whose outstanding career gets eclipsed because he's been, well, the best team player since number 6 laced them up for the Celtics decades before the internet and instance media and instant messaging took root.  No, that's not the story, it's about good, old American values juxtaposed next to a max contract (note to fans, Duncan's contract for 2014-2015 calls for $10 million in salary, leaving plenty of money left over for teammates whose talents warrant good contracts).  It's about King James, but not an autocratic king but a benevolent one, letting his loyal subjects warm to him once more and get closer to the aura of his greatness because after years conquering far away lands he's bringing it all home.

LeBron is one of the greatest players ever.  I'm not sure he is the greatest, but when you are that good and in the top of the pantheon what does it really matter?  By coming home to Cleveland he's coming full circle, righting a wrong that was more because of how he delivered a message than what he said, by setting an example that you can win at home and help revitalize people's thinking about an area that you hold dear.  It's a great public relations story, and it's a "feel good" story as well.  LeBron, after all, seems to be a pretty good guy.

But it's also a branding and business decision, one that the LeBron acolytes in the sports media -- who depend on him for access and stories -- aren't necessarily covering because they love being in the aura and they love the "Disney Sports Movie" aspect to this, so much ask that they might be a little weepy.  The other story is "LeBron Conceded He is No Michael Jordan."

And that might not be such a bad thing.  Michael is perhaps the most competitive person on the planet, and perhaps ever.  There are good and bad sides to that.  So while James is saying that he's giving up on competing with Michael, he also might be saying that you don't always build your brand by winning all the time.  That's something that Michael Jordan would never do or admit.  By implying this through his actions, LeBron James is saying that his brand is more than just about basketball and winning.  It's about both those things and a community greater than the NBA and the basketball world.  It's not clear whether he'll pull that off, but right now, that's his message.

And it's working.

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