Nike just released a black and white spot titled Together, starring Lebron James. Many people forwarded it to me, and it was posted a lot in my Facebook and Twitter streams, to almost universal adoration. In it, thousands of citizens of Cleveland join Lebron and his teammates in the pre-game huddle, infusing their team's upcoming season with an almost spiritual civic calling.
Maybe I'm a cold-hearted cynic, but it struck me as simply the slickest of propaganda, a bit like the recent Derek Jeter Gatorade ad. The Jeter ad was also grandiose, black and whtie footage showing him mixing with the people of New York on his way to the stadium, but at least it was a retrospective, and Yankees fans mythologize him in a way that probably makes it feel as if he's a man of the people, someone who belongs to them, even if he isn't, not any more than most celebrity stars (the most honest part of the ad was when some bar owner says to Jeter “We've been waiting for you to come into here since 98 at least” and Jeter retorts, “You never invited me.”).
It's understandable, Nike and Lebron have been trying to couch his entire return to Cleveland as motivated purely by his loyalty to his home city. It began with the letter he wrote announcing his resigning with the Cavaliers (emphasis mine):
Before anyone ever cared where I would play basketball, I was a kid from Northeast Ohio. It’s where I walked. It’s where I ran. It’s where I cried. It’s where I bled. It holds a special place in my heart. People there have seen me grow up. I sometimes feel like I’m their son. Their passion can be overwhelming. But it drives me. I want to give them hope when I can. I want to inspire them when I can. My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball. I didn’t realize that four years ago. I do now.
When I left Cleveland, I was on a mission. I was seeking championships, and we won two. But Miami already knew that feeling. Our city hasn’t had that feeling in a long, long, long time. My goal is still to win as many titles as possible, no question. But what’s most important for me is bringing one trophy back to Northeast Ohio.
I always believed that I’d return to Cleveland and finish my career there. I just didn’t know when. After the season, free agency wasn’t even a thought. But I have two boys and my wife, Savannah, is pregnant with a girl. I started thinking about what it would be like to raise my family in my hometown. I looked at other teams, but I wasn’t going to leave Miami for anywhere except Cleveland. The more time passed, the more it felt right. This is what makes me happy.
But this is not about the roster or the organization. I feel my calling here goes above basketball. I have a responsibility to lead, in more ways than one, and I take that very seriously. My presence can make a difference in Miami, but I think it can mean more where I’m from. I want kids in Northeast Ohio, like the hundreds of Akron third-graders I sponsor through my foundation, to realize that there’s no better place to grow up. Maybe some of them will come home after college and start a family or open a business. That would make me smile. Our community, which has struggled so much, needs all the talent it can get.
Really? Lebron always knew he was going to go back to Cleveland? He wants to lift up the local economy?
Would Lebron have gone back to Cleveland if they didn't have Kyrie Irving and back-to-back first overall draft picks in Anthony Bennett and Andrew Wiggins, who they parlayed into Kevin Love? Let's look back at the two previous times Lebron has been on rosters in decline and see what he did. He left both times.
I'm sure going back home was one checkmark in the plus column for him, and given fans were burning his jersey the last time he left, I don't blame Nike and Lebron for trying to flip the narrative on his return to try to win back the Cleveland fans. I didn't watch his first home game last night against the Knicks, but I saw a highlight of him in the tunnel with his teammates, gathering them in a huddle, telling them this was one of the most important games in history.
Why would it be one of the most important games in history? There's only one reason, because he was playing back in Cleveland. Either he buys into this vision of him as an economic messiah for Ohio, or he's playing the part as scripted in the Nike ad, but either way it's a comical level of self-importance.
No argument here, he's been the best player in the NBA for several years, he's one of the all-time greats. I also don't think players owe their teams a lifetime commitment of employment, especially since they don't have much choice in who drafts them. I don't hold it against players when they sign where they can get the most money, it's the same thing most people in any profession would do. Frankly, a player like Lebron is grossly underpaid, as are star young athletes in most sports given artificial salary restrictions in the years after they're drafted up until they become free agents.
This is also Nike's brand, they're famous for trying to transform a mundane pair of sneakers into a golden ticket into the community of elite go-getters. Growing up in Chicago a Bulls fan, I can recall many of Michael Jordan's Nike ads by heart. But almost all of them were centered around his mastery of the craft of basketball, and the transference of that skill to his shoes in the typical halo of excellence that all brands dream of for their products. They didn't show Jordan hanging out with people on the streets of Chicago, they didn't pretend he was accessible or normal in any way. From all accounts, he's a competitive sociopath, and the greatest basketball player of all time, and lots of people idolized him. His Nike spots never tried to deny that, they worked with it.
An honest reading of Lebron's return to Cleveland is that it ended up meshing with his own self-interest in being with a roster on the upswing, with two young All-Star talents and room to maneuver at the trade deadline. That wouldn't make for a great commercial, though, and so we post his new spot to social media with captions like “Chills!” I can't even blame the fans of Cleveland if they've bought into this new narrative. It's more fun than holding a grudge.
And hey, cool kicks.