Category Archives: Basketball
This piece was written by guest author Jack Rollo, a lawyer and sports & entertainment enthusiast. Please welcome him to the THIRDandFOUR family.
I would like to thank Chris Ryan for being unable to let something go. A few months ago, LA Clippers star Blake Griffin threw down a rather impressive dunk on Oklahoma City’s defensive-minded center, Kendrick Perkins. At the time, many commentators felt that it was necessary to not only praise Griffin’s athleticism, but to mock Perkins — who was simply trying to do his job — as well. This was disgraceful, and, sadly, representative of the sports media (and media in general) as a whole. I wanted to write something about it, but I was too busy and time passed. Now, two months later, Chris Ryan has decided to refer back to Griffin’s “postering” of and “mid-air obituary” for Perkins. In doing so, he perpetuates the most negative aspects of the media, but has reopened the door for me to say my peace. So thanks again, Chris Ryan.
Kendrick Perkins plays defense. And he plays it hard. Because of this, it is widely known that Perk is a Beast. Now, it shouldn’t be noteworthy that a man who gets paid millions of dollars to play a game actually works hard on the defensive end of the floor, but it is. Perkins is limited in his offensive abilities, but he is unquestionably a valuable NBA player because he is a large man (even by NBA standards) who plays defense and grabs rebounds with a fury that far exceeds most others in the league. This fury led to Perkins trying to defend Griffin on a play where, in reality, Perkins had little chance of defensive success. Griffin is too big, too athletic, had too much momentum, and was too close to the rim for Perkins to stop him. Of course, in real time, it’s hard to make that kind of judgment, so Perkins tried and failed. Griffin threw down an incredible dunk. Perkins was posterized.
This same fate has fallen upon other NBA players, which makes sense. If you work on the defensive end, it almost certainly will happen to you. Some of your opponents will have extraordinary physical gifts, and your attempts to stop them will be in vain. Of course, other NBA players are never posterized. They avoid doing so in a rather simple manner: they don’t attempt to play defense. When an opposing player elevates to dunk, they simply let him do so. Nobody ever writes their “mid-air obituaries.” They never look foolish on SportsCenter’s Top 10 Plays of the Night.
In fact, SportsCenter’s Top 10 probably perhaps best captures the problem I am addressing. How often on the Top 10 do you see some version of the following: “A monster dunk by Player X. His team lost by 20 points” or “A monster dunk from Player X, but he had a rough night overall. He shot 2-847 from the floor and had eleventy billion turnovers”? If his team got crushed or he had a terrible game, why should we celebrate Player X’s monster dunk? He had a bad night. He did not help his team win. He did not perform his job. We are celebrating the momentary individual achievement over the team. We are celebrating the meaningless over the valuable.
And in team sports, one of the most valuable attributes a player can have is defensive intensity. It is no coincidence that NBA champions frequently have a player on their roster who is there for his defense. Defense is fundamental to winning, and it’s fundamentals that should be celebrated. Kobe Bryant best illustrates this point. Bryant is a star because he is a prodigious scorer, but he is one of the greatest players of all time because of his fundamentals. He is widely known as one of the league’s elite defenders. Even his scoring is predicated largely on fundamentals, as he has one of the greatest mid-range games of all time. This gets ignored. Watch the Top 10 and tell me how many mid-range jump shots you see.
What I want is for us to celebrate consistent hard work and effort over a single flashy play; celebrate substance over style. Bryant has his fundamentals because he is a notoriously obsessive worker. Likewise, defensive success is predicated mostly on tenacity. Perkins, on that famous play, put forth effort and came up short. There are countless plays, however, where Perkins’s effort will lead to success. The Oklahoma City Thunder are one of the best teams in the league, one of the most complete teams in the league, and one of the favorites to at least reach, if not win, the 2012 NBA title. Kendrick Perkins is a major reason why.
We should all approach work and life the way Perkins plays defense. Work hard. Be tenacious. Make the most of the talents we have. And when we see our personal Blake Griffin charging toward the hoop, have the courage to step in and try to stop him, even if we probably can’t. Griffin’s dunk on Perkins should not be referred to as “postering” or a “mid-air obituary” or any other crime against the English language. It should be referred to as a man, Perkins, working hard to do his job and, in one moment, failing to succeed. Perkins should be praised, not mocked. Regardless, I would imagine that, because Perkins is a professional, he has shaken off that night and that moment. I would imagine he still plays defense with heart and without fear. I hope so. It’s a lesson that all of us can and should import into our own lives. Here’s hoping the sports media find some cute terminology to promote that story, too.
– Jack Rollo
Written by Guest Author Marcus Banks
Executive Editors: Nicholas R. Hector & Andrew Fine
About the Author: Marcus Banks graduated from Franklin Pierce University in 2010. He has previously worked for the National Basketball Association, THG Sports and Entertainment, Turner Sports, and Turner Broadcasting and Entertainment. He is now attending New York Law School and hopes to pursue a career in entertainment/talent and sports management.
I would like to first give a shout-out to Nick and Andrew for allowing me to share my thoughts. Second, what follows consists solely of my thoughts and nothing more. If anyone disagrees with me, please don’t take offense and feel free to provide me feedback through comments. Now without further ado, I present to you my first article for THIRDandFOUR, “NBA Athletes and Their Hip-Hop Counterparts.”
Over the past couple decades, The NBA has been infused by hip-hop culture, notwithstanding Commissioner David Stern’s disdain towards a comparison of his “white-collar” league to a group of talented yet sometimes rebellious individuals. Nonetheless, many of the league’s players have embraced the analogy. As a result, I shall attempt to write about something that, based on my knowledge, has never been previously addressed; I will draw strict comparisons of influential NBA Athletes to their hip-hop counterparts.
I’ll start with my God-father Jay-Z and his counterpart Kobe Bryant. I recognize that this comparison is not obvious, but hear me out. In my opinion, Kobe is arguably the best individual to ever play the game and Jay-Z is the best individual to ever pick up the microphone. For those asking, what about Jordan or Magic, don’t worry, we’ll get there. People have argued that Kobe is good, but the reason that those same people will never consider him the singular greatest basketball player of all time is because he never played against Jordan—the greatest NBA player in most people’s eyes during his prime. During Jordan’s prime, Kobe represented the kid with the afro who ran around the court and shot air balls, all the while veterans like Nick Van Exel gave him dirty looks. In contrast, Jordan was a star on the court. When Kobe eventually hit his prime, or at least commenced his ascension towards it, Jordan’s career was essentially done and he had commenced his ebb towards retirement.
Likewise, Jay-Z spent most of his career battling “ghosts.” I consistently hear he will never be better than Biggie and/or Tupac, but truth be told, you can never make a legitimate argument regarding that comparison because he never had an opportunity to battle either one of them. Just like Kobe and Jordan, when Biggie held the throne, Jay-Z was running around in Hawaiian shirts attempting to make a name for himself.
When he hit his prime (aka “took over the rap game”), Biggie and Tupac were gone. R.I.P.
Additionally, for the lack of better words, Kobe Bryant is starting to appear worn-out. His performance in the 2010-11 playoffs was not too impressive; though, he got very little help from Pau Gasol. However, the Kobe we all know and love and/or hate, would’ve put the Lakers on his back and pulled them through the challenge to complete the three-peat. The same performance withdrawal has plagued Jay-Z. Every Jay-Z album has been a great compilation of music. But his last performance on the album “Watch the Throne” was far from his best work. As a whole, the album was a masterpiece, but it often sounded like a Kanye West album featuring Jay-Z, rather than a compilation. Now, don’t get me wrong, I still regard Jay-Z as the best lyricist, but he seems either a little disinterested or repetitive in his flow. Maybe that’s just what happens when you’re worth half of a billion dollars. Whatever the reason, he no longer provides the same level of aggression and rawness that we have grown accustom to experiencing and appreciating. And when I say, “we,” I mean the real Jay-Z fans and not the ones who just started listening to him upon his release of The Blueprint album. You can possibly make the argument that Jay-Z is more like a Bill Russell, primarily because of Russell’s eleven rings and Jay-Z’s eleven number one albums. You can also make the argument that Jay-Z is more like Jordan because he’s the greatest NBA player of all time. Whatever your argument might be, more power to it. I would love to hear it. But, as I previously mentioned, my argument is based primarily upon the fact that Jay-Z will never have an opportunity to go up against Biggie or Tupac, particularly when all three artists were in their prime; nor will Kobe ever have an opportunity to go up against Jordan or Magic when all three athletes were in their prime.
Next on my list is J. Cole and his counterpart Derrick Rose. There are many reasons why these two individuals mirror each other, so let’s start at the beginning: Derrick Rose is slowly taking over the game of basketball. But what I love most about him is the way he is doing it. He has attacked the sport like a snake lying in wait for his prey. He has not made a big spectacle out of it nor has he been abrasive. Moreover, he’s quietly becoming an on-the-court assassin. When Derrick Rose steps on the floor, you know he’s bringing 100% effort and heart, much like a modern day version of Allen Iverson who can also pass the ball exceptionally well. D-Rose may not have the best jump shot, but it’s improving.
To further touch upon D-Rose’ assassin mentality, in the 2008-09 Bulls vs. Celtics playoff series, many of you probably recall that Ben Gordon was clutch and that John Salmons had his coming out party. What many people fail to notice is that Derrick Rose—as a rookie—had a solid 16 points and 6 assists per game. Derrick Rose is considered the future of the NBA, particularly for those fans who like gritty and aggressive basketball players, rather than a bunch of “pretty boy” jump shooters. Derrick Rose serves as a reminder of when some of us adults were kids playing basketball in the park: when you got the ball and if you were man enough, you drove to the basket, took the hit, probably switched hands and maybe even impressed yourself with a lay-up that miraculously went into the basket. Finally, Derrick Rose is very reserved and smart, doing his best to protect his brand and professional image. You won’t find him living too lavishly or beyond his means or in the streets with an entourage.
The same sentiments translate to J. Cole. I remember the first time that I heard J. Cole rap. I experienced the same feeling that I received when I first saw Derrick Rose play basketball at Memphis as a freshman. I just knew that if he fell into the right environment and remained focused, he would take over the industry as a hip-hop artist one day. J. Cole is slowly becoming the most relevant rapper in the industry. He paid his dues, took his time and is progressively getting better. Just like Derrick Rose, J. Cole is taking over his profession quietly and strategically. His growth is most evident if you listen to his first mix-tape through his current album. He is not the best lyricist, but he’s certainly getting there. He has become more versatile, developed a better flow, displayed more charisma, expounded on genuine issues, and become a better performer. If you enjoy real hip-hop music—not the nonsense that we’ve dealt with for a while now—J. Cole is your guy.
Moreover, J. Cole, similar to D-Rose, is also very reserved and smart and is doing a good job thus far of preserving a solid image. For instance, J. Cole has both turned down a limo ride from P. Diddy and a diamond chain from a jeweler. Why? Well, because at the time, he had just signed his record deal with Roc Nation and didn’t want to promenade around New York City as if he was “the man.” Most importantly, he knew that he had not reached that level yet. J. Cole is a breath of fresh air, a sign that good music is still possible, a sign of better days to come. Last but certainly not least, J. Cole’s debut album hit number one on the billboard charts, which was much deserved. When J. Cole creates lines like, “I promise baby you can bet the bank on me,” you can’t help but notice his humble confidence. These two words wouldn’t normally find themselves aligned, but when you consider Derrick Rose and J. Cole, the description fits them perfectly. They are both so talented, they know it, yet they don’t boast about it. In fact, they are both extremely underrated. When Derrick Rose won the NBA MVP award this past season, the“naysayers” criticized the League’s choice, saying he was good but not good enough, or that he was not better than Chris Paul or Deron Williams during the season. J. Cole, as well, still faces criticism about him not being better than Drake or other young hip-hop artists in the music industry. It still remains to be seen how good these two men can be, but what the World does know is that J. Cole has the number one album and Derrick Rose holds the MVP trophy. In my opinion, the future of hip-hop and the future of the NBA are both in good hands.
Next up, I will discuss Earvin “Magic” Johnson and his counterpart Tupac. In the infancy of their careers, critics viewed Magic Johnson as flashy yet fun, while they classified Tupac as rigid and rough around the edges. Though the two stars may have been polar opposites in there respective fields, they are actually very similar because they always did things their way. When Tupac came on the scene in the 1990’s, he was a young kid rapping about being on the wrong side of the law. It worked for him considering he amassed an immense base of fans. Then, Tupac diversified himself when he began rapping about his appreciation of females in one of his most popular songs to date, “Keep Your Head Up.”
Indeed, “Keep Your Head Up” conveyed a complete opposite message from what his fans were used to hearing. Tupac transitioned his lyrics from “gun-busting” to “appreciating and loving your sister.” As a result of him making this transition, he obtained an even larger fan base. This served as a successful tool for Tupac to grow his brand because critics no longer labeled him as merely a Death Row Records advocate. He was versatile. They labeled him as a poet from the hood, a gangster rapper and arguably, the face of hip-hop. By both holding up and standing under both umbrellas, he drafted the blueprint for rappers that followed in his footsteps, such as Nas and DMX, who sought to deliver a versatile mix of hardcore gangster rap and poetic, thought-provoking rap.
Likewise, Magic Johnson represented similar versatility. The NBA has been and is a game of drastically diverse styles: the LeBron James power game, the Allen Iverson street game, and the Shaquille O’Neal dominance game, just to name a few. Very few NBA players since the Jerry West and “Pistol” Pete Maravich era have successfully emulated their flashy but conservative style of basketball. Then, “The Magic Man” entered from stage left. He immediately made the former style of flashy yet conservative basketball popular and extremely entertaining, so much so that he changed the name of his team. Indeed, the Los Angeles Lakers were no longer just L.A.’s team, rather they were Hollywood’s team; they were nicknamed the “Showtime Lakers,” and mostly thanks to Magic’s no-look passes, fancy dribbling and all around entertaining style of basketball. Lakers’ fans grew to love and anticipate this style of basketball every time they entered the Forum. Though Magic’s style wasn’t as popular throughout the rest of the League, he continued to do things his way, and we can all agree that he was great at it. Magic’s style of play spearheaded a basketball revolution, and not only did he gain a strong fan base in California, he was loved around the World, except for maybe in Boston.
Moreover, commentators considered Magic Johnson a “freak of nature” because of his excellent ball handling skills and court vision, despite his abnormally large 6’9’’ frame. To Magic’s advantage, he was probably the most versatile athlete in the NBA during his prime. He could play every position on the court, including Point Guard, Shooting Guard, Small Forward, Power Forward and Center at any given time. It was not surprising to see Magic dribbling between his legs against the 6’1’’ Isaiah Thomas or shooting the famous hook-shot over the 6’10” Kevin McHale and the 7’0” Robert Parish.
Both of these well-accomplished and admired men shocked the world through their abrupt and controversial career-ending moments. Tupac was gunned down on the Las Vegas strip following a Mike Tyson fight in November 1996. His murderer has yet to be captured. Somewhat similarly, Magic Johnson retired during a nationally televised press conference just before the start of the 1991-92 NBA season after contracting HIV. Not shockingly, the world was distraught, bothered, hurt, and upset by both of their departures.
Next, I will discuss Eminem and his counterpart Dwyane Wade. I draw this comparison based on two factors: (i) their “business partners;” and (ii) the brief professional interruptions during their careers. With respect to business partners—who are often referred to in the hip-hop and NBA cultures as “running mates”—Eminem teamed up with 50 cent to form Shady Records/Aftermath Entertainment. When 50 cent stormed onto the rap scene, many people immediately crowned him as being great, forgetting about the enormity of his running mate. Granted 50 Cent sold millions of records and garnered a grandiose fan base, he has shown that he is nowhere near as talented of an artist as Eminem, primarily because his tracks lack sincerity, originality and depth. Though the fans and critics momentarily disregarded Eminem and placed him on the back burner upon 50 Cent’s arrival, they have come to realize that Eminem is still the superior artist.
Eminem, accordingly, has come back with a vengeance. His “Relapse” album wasn’t great, but “Recovery,” released on June 18, 2010, was a masterpiece. In short, the album proved that Eminem remains a lyrical genius.
Similarly, Dwyane Wade, the star Shooting Guard for the Miami Heat, had to momentarily hand over the keys to Dade County when LeBron James took his talents to Miami at the commencement of the 2010-11 NBA season. A large contingency of NBA fans immediately crowned the Heat NBA Champions, while they simultaneously crowned Lebron James the most talented and seasoned basketball player on the team. Though LeBron James may be as talented as D-Wade, most NBA fans can agree that his performance in the 2010-11 Finals proved that Dwyane Wade dwarfs him with respect to veteran experience and an innate ability to take over critical games. During the 2010-11 Finals, Wade was clutch, smarter with respect to his shot selection, a better defender, a true leader, and most importantly, Wade exuded professionalism and a drive to win at all costs. Ultimately, Dwyane Wade displayed that Miami remains his team.
In final, Dwyane Wade and Eminem both took brief hiatuses from their professional careers, yet they weren’t missed. Eminem took a leave of absence from the music industry because of his confessed drug addiction. Dwyane Wade took an involuntary leave of absence from the NBA due to injuries and a personnel shakeup within his team. When the two entertainers disappeared, rumors spread that their careers were complete. Nonetheless, they both reemerged and exploded on the scene, reminding us fans why we should have never counted them out.
After taking a long hiatus, I’m trying something new this week with some Monday Musings on some hot topics in sports and entertainment. Today we’ve got scandal, celebrity, and a little athlete career management.
Penn State, JoePa, Sandusky and Scandal
The biggest scandal of the weekend may be the biggest sports scandal and/or coverup we’ve seen in decades. On Saturday, former Penn State Defensive Coordinator and longtime assistant to legendary Penn State Head Coach Joe Paterno, Gerry Sandusky was arrested on over 40 charges including many involving sex crimes against children. The charges stem from a 15 year period from 1994 to 2009. It’s important to note that Sandusky was a member of the Penn State staff until 1999 when he surprisingly resigned. While all of the charges are heinous, the most shocking story may come from a 2002 incident when then graduate assistant and current Penn State assistant coach Mike McQueary observed Sandusky engaging in a sex act with a young boy (approximately 10-12 years old) in the Penn State lockerroom/showers. McQueary, after consulting with his father, went to Coach Paterno the next day and told him he saw something, but according to Paterno and the Penn State administration, what McQueary told them wasn’t nearly as explicit as what McQueary later told the Grand Jury. Paterno then told his Athletic Director Tim Curley who in turn shared the conversation with his boss and Penn State Vice President Gary Schultz.
And then…..nothing happened. For 9 years, nobody came forward, nobody said a thing, nobody further investigated. Both Schultz and Curley have been charged with perjury based on their testimony during the Grand Jury hearings. And on Sunday night, Curley took a leave of absence and Schultz resigned. But what about living legend Joe Paterno?
His son Scott, a former lawyer himself, claims that JoePa had no obligation to do anything but report what he had heard to Tim Curley because by 2002 Sandusky was no longer a member of Paterno’s staff.
“Unfortunately,” Scott Paterno said, “once that happened, there was really nothing more Joe felt he could do because he did not witness the event. You can’t call the police and say, ‘Somebody tells me they saw somebody else do something.’ That’s hearsay. Police don’t take reports in that manner. Frankly, from the way he understood the process, he passed the information on to the appropriate university official and they said they were taking care of it. That’s really all he could do.”
Scott is right that the testimony of Paterno would have been hearsay in a court of law, but as far as a police investigation goes, I’m sure they would have listened if Coach Paterno had picked up the phone. What the police can investigate has nothing to do with what is admissible in a court room. Forgetting the legality of it all, the bigger issue here is a lack of a moral compass by anyone. If McQueary didn’t properly articulate what he saw, he should be ashamed of himself. If he did, and Joe Paterno and his superiors didn’t aggressively pursue an investigation, they should be ashamed of themselves. And even if he didn’t articulate it, but merely mentioned that he saw inappropriate behavior between Sandusky and a young boy in the Penn State locker room that should have triggered an outpouring of concern for the victim and contempt for Sandusky. Yet nobody in State College felt compelled to pursue this. Not McQueary, not Schultz, not Curley, and perhaps worst of all, not Paterno. Perhaps he was protecting a friend, perhaps he was in denial about what he heard, but his actions were inexcusable. And to now try to hide behind a legal curtain that doesn’t exist is shameful.
Joe Paterno spent over 60 years in college football, developing leaders and molding boys into men. Yet his coverup and/or willful ignorance of this tragic scandal will not only end his football career, it will permanently tarnish his legacy.
Switching gears completely to last week’s news of Kim Kardashian’s filing divorce papers against hubby of 72 days Kris Humphries….
Here’s what I don’t understand – Kim Kardashian has made millions of dollars off of carefully protecting and shaping her brand. Ever since the Kim’s sextape dropped and she became everyone’s favorite “celebrity”, she, with an assist from mother Kris, has done a better job than perhaps anyone in the world of managing her brand. So how could she have so badly miscalculated the public’s response to her divorce just 3 weeks after her “fairytale” wedding aired on E! network? There are a handful of rules you can never break in the court of public opinion, and rule #1 is never lie, or look as though you’ve deceived your fans. Yet this “wedding”, that earned Kim an estimated $17.9 million dollars, did exactly that. The hurried nuptials in time for the final season of her show, the immediate move to New York to film the next season with Kris, and the over the top media circus all reek of attention seeking. And to make matters worse, Kim’s public statement did nothing to quell the rumors of a staged wedding when she refused to even acknowledge why people might think that would be the case. Her love for Kris may have been genuine, but her defensiveness about the nuptials suggested otherwise.
Instead of telling the world that they were crazy to think she would marry for money or media attention, she should have been honest and open. She could have acknowledged that perhaps she and Kris rushed into things, and that they realized they wanted different things. She could have made mention that everyone makes poor judgment calls, and this was just one of those instances. It may not have helped the diehard haters who had made up their mind, but for those fans (consumers) who still wanted to like Kim, it would have made her seem like a real person who is fallible, and not a media seeker who is beyond reproach.
Now we hear Kim went to Minnesota to talk to Kris and try to salvage things. It sounds to me like just another way to get the cover of US Weekly again. At some point Kim is just going to have to be honest with herself, and the world, about what’s really important to her. Love, or fame. Right now every action seems to indicate the latter, but if she gets too callous with the American public’s trust, she’ll end up with neither.
Finally, today marks’ the 20th Anniversary of Magic Johnson’s announcement that he is HIV positive. While many today will comment about the great work Magic has done for AIDS research and awareness, or how far we’ve come in 20 years in our understanding, my take is a little different.
As an 11 year old in East Lansing, Michigan in 1991, the news about Magic was not just a global story, it was a local one. Magic had attended Lansing Everett High School, not far from where I grew up and had attended Michigan State University in East Lansing. As such, as a young kid, I had multiple opportunities to see Magic Johnson in person at basketball camps, MSU games, and local events. And while he was always the star of the Lakers, he was also the local hero. Even as an 11 year old, I immediately understood what the news about Magic meant for him.
Thankfully, we were all wrong, and Magic still continues to live a vibrant and healthy life as a businessman, entrepreneur, educator, broadcaster, and philanthropist.
And what occurred to me is that while Michael Jordan is the global icon for basketball, Magic Johnson should be the global icon for all aspiring athletes. Sure, Magic made some awful mistakes in his youth and wasn’t a perfect human being. And it probably took the HIV wakeup call to help him become the man he is today. But Magic is exactly what every star athlete should aspire to be in the post playing career afterlife. Magic wasn’t prepared for retirement when it hit him, but he adapted when he did. He became an ambassador for a cause, he became a businessman who made hundreds of millions of dollars, he failed as a talk-show host but eventually succeeded as a broadcaster, and he is still involved in the sport he loves, basketball.
Now not every athlete will have the same kind of success that Magic has had off the court. But if you’re an athlete who aspires to do greater things, Magic is the type of guy you’d want to emulate. He’s taken advantage of the opportunities presented to him, and found a way to benefit the people he grew up with by involving his hometown in those business interests. He’s a global ambassador for HIV, yet still does charity work in Lansing. And most importantly, he’s found a way to stay relevant. Many athletes are happy to just walk off of the court into a private life – and if that’s your preference, god bless. But if you’re interested in still finding ways to still be in the spotlight and use your celebrity as a philanthropist, businessman, or even for fun, Magic has provided the blueprint.
Directly following the Denver Broncos’ comeback win over the dreadful 0-7 Miami Dolphins on Sunday October 23rd, Broncos starting quarterback Tim Tebow, in signature fashion, kneeled in reflection while his other teammates wildly celebrated the improbable win. Tebow—a second year NFL quarterback who has acquired a reputation for publicly displaying his Christian faith since starring as a Heisman “quarterback” for the Florida Gators—has also gained a reputation for having the lowest quarterback rating (QBR) in the NFL while maintaining a starting role at quarterback this year.
Is anyone shocked, though? Tebow is not, and never was, the stereotypical quarterback. As a senior at Florida, he threw 21 touchdowns, yet rushed for almost the same number (14). Florida fans grew to anticipate and love his quarterback sneaks into the end zone, where he rode piggyback on the shoulders of his fullback or offensive line, or personally bulldozed several linebackers as if they were crash test dummies. Notwithstanding Tebow’s endless drive to excel and win, his former tactics clearly have not worked in the NFL. NFL players are bigger and quicker, and as a quarterback, you can’t sit in the pocket for nine seconds without getting rid of the ball. He has had flashes of brilliance this season mostly due to his pure athleticism, but they have been largely outweighed by his miserable decision making as the field general.
Surprisingly, conversation and criticism regarding Tebow’s poor play during his two starts as the Broncos quarterback this season have taken a backseat to banter regarding his signature kneel. Indeed, following his ugly comeback win against the Dolphins on October 23rd, an immediate Internet craze baptized his kneel as “Tebowing.” And since then, Detroit Lions linebacker Stephen Tulloch and tight end Tony Scheffler celebrated significant plays against the Broncos last Sunday by Tebowing. Orlando Magic center Dwight Howard tweeted pictures of him Tebowing in a fast food restaurant. Moreover, the media has butted heads as to whether such imitation amounts to either disrespect and mocking of Tebow’s faith or mere playful entertainment.
Personally, I haven’t quite decided who is right or wrong with respect to the issue. Nonetheless, I can confidently state that if you are a professional athlete, the act of Tebowing opens you up to more negative criticism than praise, even when your intentions are playful and innocent. How does it possibly promote your brand as a professional? It doesn’t. If anything, professional athletes who imitate the kneel risk coming off as absolute jerks who are insensitive towards other individuals’ faith and the ways in which they express it. They further risk alienating themselves from the aforementioned fan base.
Accordingly, I’d like to highlight another figure in professional sports who is worthy of more than mere imitation: Oklahoma City star forward Kevin Durant. This past Monday, October 31st, Durant—one of many NBA players who currently sits on the sidelines while Billy Hunter and the Player’s Association negotiates with the league and its owners regarding a new collective bargaining agreement—decided to engage his twitter followers by expressing his boredom and need to be active. Soon thereafter, the following tweets were exchanged between Durant and Oklahoma State student George Overbey regarding a possible opportunity for Durant to join George’s Fraternity in a flag football game that night:
@KDTrey5: This lockout is really boring..anybody playing flag football in Okc..I need to run around or something!
@groverbey: Got a game tonight in Stillwater!! I need a deep threat!! RT @KDTrey5: This lockout is really boring..anybody playing flag football in Okc..
@KDTrey5: @groverbey can I play
@groverbey: Can you catch?? Weve won the ‘ship for 3 years! Tonight @ 10 RT @KDTrey5: @groverbey can I play
@KDTrey5: @groverbey forreal?
@groverbey: Only if you bring your A game. Yes for real! Come up early and hangout, go over some plays RT @KDTrey5: @groverbey forreal?
Durant and George subsequently exchanged several private twitter messages and text messages, which led to Durant picking up George and several of his friends from their residence in his lavish—but very modest—van and driving them to the flag football game in Stillwater, Oklahoma.
On the football field, Durant further cemented his reputation as being both an elite athlete and a stand up guy. Though the Oklahoma City Thunder could have likely voided his five-year $86 million contract extension due to kick-in this year had Durant sustained a serious injury on the field that night, he played the entire flag football game, recorded four touchdown passes on offense and three interceptions on defense. He left the game in the same modest fashion by which he arrived, signing hundreds of autographs and interacting with just about every fan that reached out to him.
Most importantly, Durant left his fans with the sentiment that he doesn’t consider himself special or incapable of interacting with any of them on any given day. Clearly, he’s just another one of the guys. George Overbey summed it up best:
@groverbey: Had one of the best nights of my life tonight.. Game ball goes to @KDTrey5 . 4 tds and 3 picks! Thanks for coming up bro!
As a young professional, often your success directly correlates to the small decisions you make along your career path. Thus far, Durant has figured “it” out, and has made all of the right decisions to propel his professional image off of the charts. To all of you professional athletes who are attempting to brand yourself in a similar fashion, try “Duranting.”
 Most NBA Team-Player contracts establish that teams have the discretion to void players’ contracts where they engage in any activity that would subject them to more than a normal risk of injury. For instance, in 2003, the Chicago Bulls waived the contract of second-year player Jay Williams following his involvement in a motorcycle accident that seriously injured him. The team maintained that his contract was no longer legally enforceable and that it did not have to payout his remaining salary because he violated the contract by riding a motorcycle and injuring himself. Williams, nonetheless, received a $3 million buyout from the Bulls as a parting gift.
Celebrity and athlete endorsements are without question some of the most useful marketing tools that a brand can use. The way fans idolize their favorite athletes allows brands to capture those positive feelings by using those athletes to endorse their products. With many products that use athlete endorsers, the suggestion that the average person can jump higher or run faster by using a particular product makes the endorsement all the more powerful.
While there are literally hundreds if not thousands of brands that have partnered with athletes over the years, there are several products and campaigns that have stuck with us through the years. These particular brands managed to use their athlete endorsers to not only help sell products at that moment in time, but to
also create a lasting image that garnered positive feelings for that brand long after that commercial or campaign had been shelved.
Today, we’re going to take a look at a handful of those campaigns, and what common themes they utilized to make their ad campaigns iconic, much like their spokesmen.
MEAN JOE GREEN DRINKS COKE
This commercial debuted during the 1980 Super Bowl, and ever since then, it has ended up near the top of every list of the best Super Bowl commercials ever. Besides using an iconic pitchman like Mean Joe Green, the real key here is the juxtaposition of the tough football player and the young generous boy. The message here is pretty strong – the implication is that drinking a Coke can improve anyone’s mood – as Mean Joe becomes a nice guy after drinking the Coke. While the jingle itself isn’t that catchy, the end catchphrase of “Have a Coke and a Smile” works because it’s easy to remember, and fits into everyday conversations. But what really sells this commercial is the young boy’s reaction when Mean Joe goes from hard-ass football player to a giving soul. His face lights up, and we get the secondary catchphrase, “Thanks Mean Joe!” That’s the lasting image from this commercial – and over 30 years later it still gets replayed every February when everyone is talking about Super Bowl commercials. For that, this campaign ranks among the best ever.
TIGER WOODS GOLF – NIKE
At the end of the millennium, no question existed as to who was the best golfer in the world–Tiger Woods. He was in the process of obliterating the course record at the Masters and was already anointed as the one who would pass Jack Nicklaus, even though he had only won a few majors at that point. Nike had launched its entire golf product line by partnering with Woods, and instantly gained credibility in the market. And while that probably would have happened regardless of their ad campaign, one commercial served as the catalyst for Nike Golf, and Tiger Woods.
Unlike the other campaigns on this list, there was no catchy jingle, no catchphrase, nor any additional celebrities. Instead, it consisted of Tiger Woods bouncing a ball on his golf club without it hitting the ground, using the club to toss the ball into the air, and then taking a half golf swing and crushing the ball into the distance. The message was what we already knew; that there were things Tiger Woods could do on a golf course that nobody else was capable of. The key was that you had to see it to believe it, so people made a point to see it.
The other advantage this campaign had over others was that it happened in the internet era. While YouTube wasn’t in place, this ad and campaign still spread like wildfire. And it’s still a popular view today, with almost 1.8 million hits on YouTube. It’s so popular that the bloopers from that commercial shoot have over 1.1 million views. It’s easily the most popular golf ad ever and certainly ranks in the Top 5 of most powerful sports endorsement campaigns ever too.
ITS GOTTA BE THE SHOES – NIKE AIR JORDAN
While some of the other campaigns Michael Jordan has been involved with may have been more memorable, he’s still best known as the original, and really the only, spokesman for Nike’s Air Jordan Brand. Starting in the mid-80’s, Jordan was synonymous with basketball, dunking, and Nike. While there were many great commercials involving Jordan, the signature campaign included Jordan and a loud, scrawny character named Mars Blackmon, played by rising director and actor Spike Lee.
While Jordan dribbled, shot and dunked, Mars asked Jordan what made him the best basketball player in the world. Jordan never gave a definitive answer, while Mars continually asked what became a rhetorical non-question: “It’s gotta be the shoes?!” And even if nobody really believed that Nike’s shoes made Jordan as good as he was, kids playing basketball across America eagerly pointed to their shoes after a made shot or dunk and repeated the phrase.
In the end, the name Mars Blackmon may have been more popular than the phrase itself, as the new Nike ads with Spike became highly anticipated events themselves. But the combination of Jordan, the phrase and Mars Blackmon is something that every male teen and pre-teen of that era remembers.
BE LIKE MIKE – GATORADE
By 1992, there was no bigger star in sports than Michael Jordan. He was far and away the best player in all of basketball. He had already won his 1st NBA Championship, was well on his way to his 2nd and he was about to lead the Dream Team to a Gold Medal in the 1992 Olympics. Anything he endorsed on or off the basketball court was going to turn to gold too. But Gatorade managed to take the icon to another level with its Be Like Mike ad campaign. The visuals of the commercial itself aren’t anything spectacular – just Jordan doing what Jordan does. But the message couldn’t have been any clearer – if you drink Gatorade, you will BE LIKE MIKE.
The catchphrase itself was enough to create a national word of mouth campaign, but what made this campaign one of the best ever was the jingle written by Bernie Pitzel and composed by Ira Antelis and Steve Shafer. As a 13 year old, I memorized the lyrics, which I still know today. I even bought a CD with the song on it. If iTunes had been around back then, it easily would have moved a million units. The jingle was that popular then, and for those individuals who came of age in the early 90’s, it’s still synonymous with Gatorade.
Sometimes I dream
That he is me
You’ve got to see that’s how I dream to be
I dream I move, I dream I groove
If I could Be Like Mike
Again I try
Just need to fly
For just one day if I could
Be that way
I dream I move
I dream I groove
If I could Be Like Mike
*For the full story on how the Be Like Mike campaign came into existence, check out Darren Rovell’s First in Thirst: How Gatorade Turned the Science of Sweat Into a Cultural Phenomenon.
BO KNOWS – NIKE
Much like the Be Like Mike campaign, Nike’s Bo Knows campaign originated in the early 90’s. It centered around the greatest athlete of his time, Bo Jackson – the superhuman running back and baseball player for the Los Angeles Raiders and Kansas City Royals. While there were several different commercials associated with the Bo Knows campaign, the most memorable one was probably the Bo Diddley version, which in fact featured Blues legend Bo Diddley.
The concept was creative yet relatively simple – Bo Jackson is a great football player and baseball player, but what else does he “know”? Utilizing athletes and legends from every other major sport, including the likes of Wayne Gretzky and John McEnroe, Nike used celebrities and the catchphrase “Bo Knows” to create a memorable ad campaign. Certainly the presence of other athletes gave
the campaign credibility, but the often repeated phrase of “Bo Knows” is what
sets this ad apart. The icing on the cake was Bo Diddley telling Bo Jackson, “Bo, you don’t know Diddley!”—a phrase that made its way into the American lexicon for several years. It even served as the title of Bo’s autobiography
“Bo Knows Bo”.
Subsequent versions of this campaign featured a similar theme of Bo Jackson, the super athlete, competing in every sport, and even a cameo from Sonny Bono poking fun at the Bo Knows campaign.
In the end, Bo’s injuries and shortened career took him out of the spotlight sooner than expected. But if you mention his name to anyone of the age range 25-40, they will ineveitably make some mention of Bo Knows.
So as a brand looks to partner with an athlete for a national campaign, what kind of lessons can they learn from the Cokes, Gatorades and Nikes of the world?
The first lesson is to secure A+ talent. With the possible exception of Mean Joe Green, the other athletes used were the absolute best at what they did at the time. If you’re trying to convince people to use your product, you have to be able to convince them that the best athletes in the world use your products. And if you have the budget to bring in other celebs or athletes, do it. They don’t have to be the principal endorser, but they’ll help provide that extra oomph.
The second lesson is to find a catchphrase that resonates outside of the commercial. Be Like Mike and Bo Knows caught on not because of the 30 second spot, but because of the two and three word phrases that kids and adults repeated over and over again. Use the athlete’s name, keep it short, and make it repeatable.
The third lesson is to think bigger than the 30 second spot. 3 of the 5 campaigns on this list weren’t one-off advertisements, but rather a series of ads based around the same theme. Mars Blackmon was a running theme for Nike Air that spanned several years. Bo Knows included several ads that all focused on the Bo Knows themes, but were different variations in their own right. Be Like Mike not only served as a jingle for the Gatorade commercial, but it became its own revenue stream when the company began selling the single.
Finally, be original. For instance, (i) the reason the Be Like Mike ad succeeded was because nobody saw it coming from Gatorade; (ii) an acclaimed director/actor playing a central role in a basketball shoe commercial had never been done before Nike did it; (iii) Tiger Woods bouncing a golf ball on his golf club was an unconventional way to show his skill; (iv) Mean Joe Green was one of the first athletes used in a Super Bowl commercial like that; and (v) Bo Knows was one of the first commercials to use several other athletes and celebrities to sell a product primarily marketed by another athlete.
Over the past few years, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (the “NCAA” or the “Association”) has flexed some serious muscle with respect to its enforcement arm in Division I College Football. The Association has investigated and/or sanctioned a number of elite programs and former or current student athletes, including my alma mater the University of Southern California (USC) and former USC running back Reggie Bush. The NCAA has therefore been perceived by many as the guardian of college football: an organization willing to take extreme measures to clean up the sport and prevent agents, boosters, and similar individuals from exploiting the student-athlete. Unfortunately, a thorough review of the NCAA Compliance Rules and records exposes the Association as a fraud; while declaring that its number one priority is education and ensuring that student-athletes experience college in a manner no different than the general student body, the NCAA is an organization that makes annually hundreds of millions of dollars off of the same student-athletes it supposedly protects from similar professional and commercial “exploitation.”
The NCAA is a body or organization consisting of semi-volunteers who govern collegiate athletic programs. The Association is funded by revenue generated from, among other things, (i) regular and post-season play; (ii) television and marketing rights; (iii) sponsorships; and (iv) sales related to its 1,281 institutions, conferences, and organizations (among three divisions). According to its website, the NCAA returns more than 90 percent of its revenue to its member conferences and institutions in the form of direct distributions or services. Therefore, individual institutions benefit from the success of the Association. Though it maintains a non-profit status, the NCAA upholds many of the qualities of a private, profit-generating company. In particular, the Association is driven by its ability to generate revenue. Indeed, in 2009, the NCAA doled out $6 million to compensate fourteen of its highest-ranking executives. The Association has its own marketing and licensing arm. Moreover, its total operating revenue for 2010-11 amounted to $757 million.
The Association therefore has structured and designed its Compliance Rules to sustain the revenue it has grown accustomed to realizing. After spending two weeks delving into the NCAA’s 2010-11 Division I Manual—consisting of the Constitution, Operating Bylaws, and Administrative Bylaws governing Division I institutions and student-athletes—I liken the Manual to a screen play consisting of three Acts, where the audience doesn’t realize until the last 15 minutes of the Third Act that the apparent hero (i.e., the NCAA) is actually the villain. While the NCAA governs nearly twenty different collegiate sports, the focus of this article is the relationship between the NCAA Compliance Rules and the “big two” revenue making machines—college football and college basketball.
In Act I of the NCAA’s 2010-11 Division I Manual (the “NCAA Manual”), the Association is the guardian of the student-athlete—an innocent young adult who has chosen to participate in college sports on a “recreational” basis as a hobby. The Association’s primary goal is to ensure that the student-athlete assimilates with the general student body, excels in academics, and is protected from exploitation by the professional and commercial villains.
For example, Constitution, Article I of the NCAA Manual asserts that “[t]he purposes of this Association are to initiate, stimulate and improve intercollegiate athletics programs for student-athletes and to promote and develop educational leadership, physical fitness, athletics excellence and athletics participation as a recreational pursuit… A basic purpose of this Association is to maintain intercollegiate athletics as an integral part of the educational program and the athlete as an integral part of the student body and, by so doing, retain a clear line of demarcation between intercollegiate athletics and professional sports.”
Similarly, Constitution, Article II of the NCAA Manual states, “[i]ntercollegiate athletics programs shall be conducted in a manner designed to protect and enhance the physical and educational well-being of student athletes… Student-athletes shall be amateurs in an intercollegiate sport, and their participation should be motivated primarily by education and by the physical, mental and social benefits to be derived. Student participation in intercollegiate athletics is an avocation [i.e., hobby], and student-athletes should be protected from exploitation by professional and commercial enterprises.”
The NCAA depicts itself as being the guardian and facilitator of the student-athlete’s attainment of an education via the lifestyle of the stereotypical college student. However, if this isn’t deception by the Association, I don’t know what is. Let’s be real. The vast majority of student-athletes who have scholarships to play either college football or college basketball are treating the institution as a stepping-stone to “the League,” and the NCAA knows this. These young adults understand that if they put in enough time with the right coach, perform in front of the proper media channels, and stay away from considerable off-the-field trouble, they stand a good chance of getting drafted into their respective professional leagues. For these student-athletes, education is a far second on the priority scale below athletics, and with respect to their motivation of assimilating with the general student body, the only student bodies they intend on seeing are those that visit after the clock strikes twelve.
In Act II of the NCAA Manual, the Association, via its “hard-earned” revenue, provides the student-athlete valuable opportunities through athletic competition and an abundance of education.
Indeed, Constitution, Article II of the NCAA Manual elaborates on the NCAA’s role as the provider: “Intercollegiate athletics programs shall be administered in keeping with prudent management and fiscal practices to assure the financial stability necessary for providing student-athletes with adequate opportunities for athletics competition as an integral part of a quality educational experience.”
Here, the NCAA continues to portray itself as a hero. Based on a quick read of Section 2.16, one would think that the NCAA disburses most of its revenue in order to create for student-athletes the aforementioned rosy college experience. However, though the NCAA returns more than 90 percent of its revenue to its member conferences and institutions, the student-athlete rarely reaps much of the reward. Remember, in 2009 alone, the Association doled out $6 million merely to compensate its own executives. As I will further explain below, at most, the student-athlete receives aid from its institution for the cost of attendance and benefits constituting meals, lodging, travel, apparel, supplies, and transportation tied to competition. This fact leaves me, and probably you, wondering where does all of the money go (i.e., $757 million in 2010-11)? That’s a tough question to answer, but considering that the NCAA is a non-profit organization consisting of more than 430,000 student-athletes, each athlete conceivably earned, but did not receive, approximately $1,760 of revenue.
In Act III of the NCAA Manual, the Association finally reveals that the character it portrayed throughout Acts I and II constituted nothing more than a ruse. The NCAA fully adopts the role of the villain here. Particularly, In Constitution, Article II of the NCAA Manual the Association limits and controls the student-athlete where it matters the most—financial aid.
Section 2.13 states, “[a] student athlete may receive athletically related financial aid administered by the institution without violating the principle of amateurism, provided the amount does not exceed the cost of education… Any other financial assistance, except that received from one upon whom the student-athlete is naturally or legally dependent, shall be prohibited unless specifically authorized by the Association.”
Bylaw, Articles 12, 15, and 16 of the NCAA Manual further describe the restraints surrounding financial aid received by student-athletes. Article 12 emphasizes that a student athlete loses his amateur status by receiving improper pay, aid, expenses, awards or benefits. In particular, “[improper pay] is the receipt of funds, awards or benefits,” constituting “more than actual and necessary expenses for participation on the team.” Thus, a student-athlete may receive benefits and remain an amateur only where (i) the benefits constitute meals, lodging, apparel, supplies, transportation and similar benefits directly tied to competition; or (ii) “it is demonstrated that the same benefit[s] [are] generally available to the institution’s students…or to a particular segment of the student body (e.g., international students, minority students) determined on a basis unrelated to athletics ability.” Amateur status is lost where the student-athlete receives “any direct or indirect salary, gratuity or comparable compensation,” any abnormal “educational expenses,” or “preferential treatment, benefits or services because of the individual’s athletics reputation or skill or pay-back potential as a professional athlete.”
Similarly, the student-athlete may not receive “[c]ash or the equivalent thereof…, as an award for participation in competition at any time, even if such an award is permitted under the rules governing an amateur, non-collegiate event in which the individual is participating.”
Moreover, should the student-athlete garner a job or establish his own business, he may not use his “name, photograph, appearance or athletics reputation…to promote the business.” With respect to a job, he may be compensated solely “for work actually performed…at a rate commensurate with the going rate in that locality for similar services.” The student-athlete may not accept compensation for advertising, recommending, or promoting a commercial product or service.
Wow! That’s a lot to digest, I know. But basically, the student-athlete is entitled to very little from the NCAA or his institution, outside the cost of his education and the essentials for participating and competing in his sport. Additionally, the student-athlete cannot use his status as a college athlete to garner income.
Let me be clear, I do understand the NCAA’s justification for prohibiting the student-athlete’s receipt of aid, benefits, and gifts from agents, boosters, commercial entities, and professional organizations, because the financial opportunities provided to the student athlete should not be vastly different from those opportunities provided to the general student body. Moreover, if the aforementioned individuals are legally permitted to infiltrate college sports, you risk dirtying the water with student-athletes who are conflicted and incapable of fairly performing on the field or court. I also realize that it would be similarly risky to permit a student-athlete to promote or market a product or business based on his status as a collegiate athlete.
That being said, the NCAA conceivably could, and really should, provide student-athletes reasonable compensation for the time they spend practicing and competing away from the classroom, the library, and their friends and family. For instance, as a full tuition Trustee Scholar at USC, I worked at the school library and was fairly compensated by the University for the work I completed. Certainly, participation as a student-athlete on a college team for any of the Division I or Division II member institutions similarly constitutes work.
As further justification for the argument that the NCAA and member institutions should reasonably compensate student-athletes, merely observe the manner in which these parties exploit for revenue the name and image of their student-athletes, while prohibiting everyone else under the sun—including the student-athletes—from doing so.
Bylaw, Article 12 of the NCAA Manual states that “[t]he NCAA [or a third party acting on behalf of the NCAA (e.g., host institution, conference, local organizing committee)] may use the name or picture of an enrolled student-athlete to generally promote NCAA championships or other NCAA events, activities or programs.” Member institutions may exploit the student-athlete in the following additional ways: (i) to support its charitable or educational activities; (ii) “to promote generally its fundraising activities at the location of a commercial establishment”; (iii) to “distribute…player/trading cards that bear a student-athlete’s name or picture”; and (iv) to advertise an institution’s wallet-size playing schedule that includes the name or picture of a student-athlete.
You ask: what does the student-athlete get in return for his participation in these activities? Naturally, he receives “actual and necessary expenses…related to participation in such activity” (i.e., meals, transportation, lodging, etc.).
In sum, through a simple review of the NCAA Compliance Rules, one can glean that the Association is an absolute farce. Acting as both a hypocrite and a fraud, the Association has structured the NCAA Manual in such a way that it benefits from exactly what it prohibits—the use of student-athletes as income generators during the rising popularity of college football and basketball.
 The NCAA has also recently investigated and/or sanctioned the Ohio State University (OSU), former OSU quarterback Terrelle Pryor, Auburn University, former Auburn University quarterback Cam Newton, the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, Florida State University, and the University of Alabama Tuscaloosa.
 The NCAA has or recently had sponsorship contracts with AT&T, Coca-Cola, CapitalOne, Nissan (Infiniti), Hershey’s (Reese’s), LG, Lowe’s, Kraft (Planters), Unilever, and UPS.
 In 2010-11, the NCAA generated $680 million in revenue as a result of its “Television and Marketing Rights Fees,” $67.8 million in revenue through its “Championship Revenue,” and $9.2 million in revenue via “Sales, Fees and Services.”
 As an exception to the general rule, a student-athlete may receive aid from a source other than his institution or an individual upon whom the student-athlete is a dependent, where the aid is primarily received for reasons other than athletic ability.
It’s been almost 11 months since Lebron James made his ill-fated “decision” on national television where he broke the hearts of Cleveland, disgusted most die-hard NBA fans, and forever put an asterisk on his legacy. While many, including Lebron apparently, thought those sentiments would just blow over eventually, clearly they have not. With his team just two wins away from the NBA title one might expect that much of the anger and hatred towards the King would have subsided. But if Twitter posts, Q ratings, and sports talk radio are the barometers, there’s just as much hatred for Lebron as there was last July, perhaps even more. That’s unusual for an athlete who is the best in his sport who is playing an integral role in his teams’ path to the championship. So what is he doing wrong? And can he fix it?
Without question, the taste of The Decision still does not sit well with most fans outside of South Florida. Although the self aggrandizing hour long charade on ESPN and the spurning of Cleveland garnered much of the headlines, it wouldn’t have all been so objectionable had we really believed that there was a “Decision” to be made. Brett Favre has had more press conferences than the President and contrary to popular belief, Lebron wasn’t the first guy to leave a team for a chance to win a title – Shaq did the same thing when he left Orlando for LA. What still stings is the fact that we as fans were duped into thinking that Lebron actually considered the Bulls, the Knicks or staying in Cleveland. As more reports came out that it was clear Lebron, Wade and Bosh put this in motion almost two years prior, we as fans felt ridiculous for spending so much time and energy on the Lebron sweepstakes. It’s one thing to pull a fast one on other owners, but heaven help the athlete or celebrity who purposely misleads the public.
Worse, while Lebron has admitted that The Decision was a mistake, he still hasn’t made a full mea culpa. While it might be a case of too little too late, a public apology for leading fans on and acknowledging what we all know – that he and Wade and Bosh were teaming up no matter what – would go a long way to repairing his image.
ON COURT ANTICS
But it’s not just the decision that irks many about Lebron. His on the court gloating and preening do not resonate with a generation of fans that I grew up with. As a Michigan native, my idols growing up were Barry Sanders, Steve Yzerman and Joe Dumars – guys who always looked like they had been there before, and never would have considered showing up an opponent publicly. Now I’m not naïve enough to think that sports still operate the way they did in the 80’s and 90’s – celebrations, trash talk, etc. are all part of the game. But there is something that doesn’t sit right with the best player in the world (and let’s be clear, that’s what Lebron is), celebrating like he’s the 12th guy on a college basketball team who scored his first point on an alley-oop. When you’re as good as Lebron is, EVERYTHING you do on the court should be expected. I’m not saying he shouldn’t celebrate the big moments, but let’s make sure they are the big moments. A last second 3 pointer to close-out a 7 game series counts; a breakaway dunk to extend a lead to 12 does not. Part of Jordan’s greatness is that he always expected to make the shot, be the guy, and win the game. And while he certainly celebrated when he won, he knew when it mattered and when it didn’t. Lebron still doesn’t get what’s worth celebrating. And if you need any evidence, the way in which he acted after the Heat took out the Celtics in the second round is a perfect example.
While we’re on the topic of Lebron’s on-court demeanor, I’d like to remind Lebron that he is capable of fouling another player, getting a shot blocked without being fouled, and traveling. From the way he responds when a ref doesn’t give him the call he likes, you’d think they’d slept with his mother (too soon?). Lebron’s incredulous response to almost every whistle that doesn’t go his way is another reason nobody north of Fort Lauderdale is rooting for him. I’m not saying Lebron shouldn’t get the star treatment when it comes to calls – that’s par for the course when it comes to the NBA. And he has every right to work the refs from time to time. But every time a call goes against Lebron, you can be sure that the next shot on-camera will be Lebron with his hands on his head, a confused look on his face, and a half smile/half scowl hidden by his mouth-guard. Even the best players make mistakes, but from watching Lebron you’d never think he is fallible. All eyes are going to be on Lebron no matter what, he doesn’t need to do things to draw extra attention to himself, especially when he’s acting like a pouting teenager.
WE NEED A MOMENT
When an athlete makes the leap from great to immortal, it usually involves a signature moment that is seared into our minds for eternity. Those moments usually lead to championships, and together, they create a memory. And even if that player is unlikeable as a person, if the moment is awe-inspiring, we will let our grudge go to acknowledge what has been accomplished. When it comes to basketball, Jordan had his hand changing layup over the Lakers and his shoulder shrug against the Blazers, Magic had his baby hook, and Bird had his steal. Lebron had his 48 point game to take out the Pistons in the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals, but without the title, it didn’t make the leap to iconic status. Maybe it’s a last second jumper, or an incredible 4th quarter outburst, but Lebron needs to find his moment en route to a championship. Do that and even his most ardent critics will have to be silenced, and may even be forced to sing his praises.
LET YOUR GUARD DOWN
If Lebron is fortunate enough to have his “moment” this week or next, let’s hope he follows it by letting us peak behind the curtain and see the real Lebron, instead of the protected image he’s had since he was the anointed one at age 16. Remember, Lebron was the first high school star that garnered real television ratings while he was still in high school, and unlike most young phenoms, he’s actually lived up to the hype. But the downside to that is that Lebron has been in the spotlight since he was a junior in high school. He’s learned to carefully craft an image of who he is, or more likely, who he thinks he should be. He is notorious for his inner circle of friends from Akron who both manage his life and his career. They protect him, promote him, and surround him. And sadly, that’s led to a corporate image of an athlete we don’t really know. Almost everything about Lebron seems contrived or staged, and nothing seems genuine. In the age of media access we live in, it’s almost shocking that nobody really knows the real Lebron. I can’t entirely blame him, as I’m sure he learned at a young age that his talents were special, and that he needed to be concerned about people looking to take advantage of him. But that wall he puts up to protect himself also isolates him from the fans and the media. He’s never standoffish, but he rarely seems friendly or willing to share what he really thinks. Lebron doesn’t have to be an open book, but even if people don’t agree with what you think, they’ll like you more if you have the guts to say it, and defend it. Instead of telling people what he thinks they want to hear, Lebron needs to take down his wall and tell the world what he really thinks.
If the title doesn’t happen for him this year, it will happen for him soon. He’s too good for it not to. But winning a title by itself won’t give him the image he wants, and it won’t make people like him. That’s going to take some work on the court, and off. If Lebron is willing to make some fundamental changes to his approach, he can have it all. Otherwise, he may end up being the best player in the league with the least amount of fans.