LeBron James is winning the PR battle he lost four years ago.
I became a Spurs fan mostly because I hated their opponent, the Miami Heat, and their opponent's star player, LeBron James. I have cosigned hashtags and sworn allegiances to the Pacers, the Celtics, and the Mavericks before settling on the Spurs. It was an easy calculus. And, I didn't have to think about it. You can call me a fair weather fan or a bandwagon one. But everyone likes nice weather - - even LeBron. South Beach is nicer in December than Cleveland.*
This weekend, for the first time in four years, I cheer for, not against, LeBron James.
He is the heir to His Airness. Give him a crown. Hell, give him two.
This got me thinking: what changed?
I analyze over restaurant choices, only to make a decision and perseverate about what to order. I choose vacation destinations only with the help of Yelp and Trip Advisor. I know the brand of markers with which I like to grade papers and the colors in which my kids like seeing As and seeing Fs. There is a difference.** I try to pay attention to detail in most areas of my life, as do most folks that I know.
So, how did every mindset I had about the NBA change, in one moment:
Mitt Romney flipped and flopped. President Obama either lied to America or couldn't live up to his promises.*** And, I don't think I can even write down what people think about our previous president. But LeBron? He burned bridges, Cleveland burned jerseys, and now everything is fine? How did we get here?
James is winning the PR battle because he is consciously invoking the original feel-good story: a fallen son's return home. He is a meta-conscious media icon first and a basketball player second. Four years ago, it was the other way around.
I don't know exactly how smart LeBron is. I don't know him. But I know he is smarter than he was four years ago. And, he is smarter than we think he is. You see, in America, politicians get to be smart, but athletes don't.
We know LeBron is smart because he consciously and conscientiously chose a narrative that America has already embraced. His camp could have done market research on how The Decision Two would play, but it didn't need to. There is plenty of evidence that America loves a Coming Home Story.
Ever since Adam chose a snack and a squeeze over his home in the Garden, humans have continued to leave home, only to yearn for a return. Some never get the chance to retrace their steps, but the lucky get redemption and a ticket home.
The Prodigal Son is the most famous, but plenty of other sons have left and returned home, either to a physical location or a more ethereal one. Simba sang some songs in the jungle, but eventually followed the stars home; Odysseus found time to meet most of the popular characters in Greek Mythology, but eventually made it back to his wife and son; the Jewish tradition has propelled itself for centuries with the hope of Home.
LeBron knows this. He may not trace it back to Moses and Odysseus, but he knows how powerful Home is. People hated The Decision. They hated The Decision because it was Hollywood, and not the least bit humble. They hated The Decision because he promised eight Rings - - more than Jordan and Kobe, more than Magic and Bird, more than Bilbo.
But people hated LeBron, more than The Decision itself, because he left home and he wasn't even a little bit sorry about it.
In one television segment, LeBron became the son who went to college and never called his parents; the girlfriend who enrolled at the liberal arts school three states over and broke up with her boyfriend at Thanksgiving in a text; the friend who married the girl of his dreams and never saw his friends again. He left, and didn't look back.
If you are media, you have to have an opinion about LeBron and you have to write about it. I am not even in the media, but I have an opinion and I am writing about it. And, if there were not a blog, there would be a water cooler. LeBron knows this now. He learned the hard way in 2010. In the echo chamber, opinions get amplified and regurgitated. Reputations are made and remade and LeBron knows this.
And he is taking advantage of us, like he has taken advantage of shorter and slower players throughout the NBA and like we took advantage of him four years ago. Since the season has ended, LeBron has been three steps ahead of all of us. He opted out a week before the he had to. He kept Pat Riley waiting. You can see the subtle cultivation in The Letter, published on SI.com. He writes with simple sentences, begging the reader to believe him at face value. And it has worked, mostly because America has underestimated athletes' intelligence for generations. We think they are entertainers, not intellectuals. They cannot keep track of decimals and digits. They cannot control their tempers or their childhood friends. We believe LeBron. He must want to go home, because to lie would require too much intelligence.
And, the most interesting part: it is all right in front of us. But when you are in the trees, it can be hard to see the forest.
You see, LeBron is the most meta-mindful athlete that we have seen. He consciously cultivates his legacy. He is more Obama than Jordan. I am not the first person to notice this. LeBron has said almost as much himself. Early in his career, he said he wanted to be a "global icon like Muhammed Ali." He didn't know what it meant then; he knows now. He was the first player to say that Donald Sterling had to go. He insisted on a Maximum Contract in Cleveland, not for his bank account, but to set a precedent for the NBA Players Association. He spoke out for Trayvon Martin. We should know how smart he is by now.
LeBron announced he was coming home, days before he announced any of the details about the contract. Those sorts of details could only cloudy his fair weather. He is smart enough now to know that some things can wait until later.
Within the last two weeks of my summer vacation, I saw high school friends and college ones. We told stories - - some were legendary, but most were embarrassing. LeBron has been on ESPN since he was in high school. That could not have been easy.
We should remember that. And, remember how smart LeBron really is. At least for the next couple of months. Because once the season starts, I will be too busy cheering for LeBron to notice.
*I teach weather to my sixth-graders. I do a day on the differences between weather and climate (which still seems a distinction more than a difference, but don't tell my students).
**Never fail a kid in red. It falls in the cruel and unusual category. The Constitution doesn't like that. Because America.
***Depending on your political persuasion