12 July 2010

The LeBron Show: Self-Celebration Becomes Self-Immolation

Chicago Tribune

If you're Allstate or Geico, do you run ads in Ohio (and beyond) that take a shot at rival State Farm because the company is among those partnered with basketball star LeBron James? Possible slogan: "Some good neighbor."

Should Burger King point out that it flame broils its sandwiches while McDonald's uses that Heat so many felt burned by? Will Pepsi and Gatorade harp on why Coca-Cola and Vitaminwater might now leave a bad taste?

James bid adieu to his likable image as a 25-year-old homegrown hero when he said goodbye to the Cleveland Cavaliers to join the Miami Heat in a live, nationally televised orgy of misjudgments, miscalculations and missed opportunities Thursday.

Blame James' free-agency decision. Blame "The Decision," the TV show his marketing team engineered to showcase that choice. Mostly, blame the graceless way in which James unapologetically shrugged off the idea that many who felt invested in him and the promise he might bring his city its first title in decades would feel betrayed.

"This is a business," James said when ESPN analyst Michael Wilbon presented him with the reality of a backlash as self-celebration became self-immolation. "I had seven great years in Cleveland. I hope the fans understand, and maybe they won't."

The fans may not get it? You know what those fans also may not get? The Big Macs and Nikes that James endorses.

No one who has bought tickets, or glanced at sports section news of seven-, eight- and sometimes nine-figure deals, fails to grasp the business of big-time sports, and that players come and go.

What defies their comprehension is when a jock fails to grasp the sting of emotion-free abandonment, when the athlete they have supported loyally can't even pretend to be sorry to have hurt the people who supported and placed their faith in him.

That's when the needle swings from disappointment to anger.

Add to it a bloated, self-arranged TV special, in which ESPN's customary mix of hype and glory to stress James' megastar status and his decision's importance only amplified the implicit insult of his announcement: He was leaving Cleveland, one of the rustiest notches in the Rust Belt, to "take my talents to South Beach and join the Miami Heat" because he wants to be a winner.

And what do people in Cleveland want, LBJ?

You don't think that's going to seem like an assault on sensibilities, not just in Ohio but almost anywhere within the sound of ESPN idolater Stuart Scott's purr as he ineffectively tried to help James with spin?

Golfer Tiger Woods, when he finally got on national TV after indiscretions changed his image and made sponsors uneasy, may have gone overboard with the apologies. But at least he said he was sorry and seemed to want to make amends — and all he did sleep with a lot of women who weren't his wife.

If you're a Cavs fan, or just someone who wants to believe pro sports are about more than negotiations, salary caps and young millionaires grabbing all they can get, this wasn't James cheating on someone he lives with. This was James cheating on you.

James didn't just damage himself and, perhaps, the marketing partners who collectively dwarf the payout of his NBA contract. The NBA, too, may have a very deep PR hole from which to dig itself out, especially with a leaguewide labor lockout potentially looming in the not-too-distant future.

It didn't help "The Decision" that Jim Gray, the once-respectable interviewer who famously held disgraced baseball star Pete Rose's feet to the fire on gambling long past the point of comfort on live TV, practically rolled over and played dead as James' hand-picked interviewer for the announcement.

Gray killed more than five minutes with 16 toothless questions before getting to the one that James' titular "Decision" was built around. He made CNN's Larry King, who tends to treat interviewees as if they are Faberge eggs, seem like "24"'s Jack Bauer in terrorist-interrogation mode.

As aggravation built with each additional tease, one imagined Gray's "Hamlet": "To be, or, well, before we get to 'the question,' how have you been sleeping lately? Perchance to dream?"

"The Decision" (or "Not in Cleveland") actually could have helped James if it had ended with him saying he had examined his options only to discover none better than home in Cleveland.

Miami-bound James might have been able to make the best of an uncomfortable situation if he had even tried to make peace with fans back home in Ohio. If he had said he gave his all, but ownership came up short in giving him support, it might have undercut the subsequent screed from Cavs owner Dan Gilbert.

The whole point, after all, presumably was to burnish James' image and manage his message.

Instead, James made it clear he was leaving Cleveland and taking his cavalier attitude to Miami, where his new Heat uniform will be the least of the differences everyone sees.

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