clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

A Reverse Chronology of LeBron James’s Persona, Told Through His Commercials

The King, according to Mad Men

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Today is LeBron James Day on The Ringer. We figured nothing else was happening in the NBA world, so why not celebrate Bron, right? Thanks, Vlade and Vivek! Seriously, though, LeBron is having such an interesting season — on top of the most interesting career — and we wanted to look backward and forward with a collection of short posts about him. You can find all the posts here. Go ahead and make your trades. There’s only one King.

Superstar players use their commercials to sell product and sell a mass-produced perception of themselves. LeBron James’s career has always been freighted with expectation. Over the years, fans and the media expected too much from him, while simultaneously underestimating his impact. He’s going to save Ohio from sports purgatory and lift the city of Cleveland on his mighty shoulders, but also why doesn’t he take over in the fourth quarter. Over the years, James has increasingly used his advertisements as a way to establish a theme for the upcoming season. Here’s a look back at LeBron though his commercials.

Meta-Bron

LeBron James has been famous for half of his life. At this point, I know LeBron’s public persona better than I know some of my family members. Which makes sense. I might go a week without calling my mom (sorry, Mom), or months without calling an aunt or uncle. I see LeBron on my television or computer about five times a day, and that’s been the case for over a decade. What does LeBron do now that everyone is familiar with his image? He deconstructs it with this Tim and Eric–ian take on brand endorsement for Sprite. The acknowledgment of kayfabe is its own kind of kayfabe.

Prophecy-Fulfilled LeBron

Shooting in black and white is one of LeBron’s tells. It’s the format he uses when he wants to convey a serious, personal message while high-key slinging merchandise. In this case, LeBron uses his thrilling, legacy-sealing Game 7 block on Andre Iguodala as a keyhole to unlock a broader message of inspirational self-belief against overwhelming … and also, buy the shoes, the shoes are very good. It’s one of my favorite LeBron commercials. In part, because it appears to have repurposed some of my lines from this.

The Prodigal Son

BLACK AND WHITE ALERT.

DION WAITERS LOOKING PENSIVE ALERT. Did America’s no. 1 sports island destination know he was on the trading block when he filmed this commercial? Look into those haunted eyes. He had to.

“Together,” with its strong messianic overtones, Cleveland-as-Sparta speechifying, and maudlin Daniel Lanois–style soundtrack, is the most overwrought commercial of James’s career. The spot was created in secret, using numerous Cleveland-area extras. If you had seen this after waking from a coma, you’d have no idea that LeBron broke up with entire state of Ohio on television just a few years before. Which was probably the point. This commercial, built around the image of the citizens of Cleveland literally worshipping James, is the ultimate example of taking sports way too seriously.

The King Is for the Children

Featuring an unreleased song by La La Land star John Legend, “Training Day” shows James leading South Florida’s youth on a cardio-intensive excursion through the streets of Miami. Watching this back-to-back with “Together” is instructive. “Training Day” shows James acknowledging, and being acknowledged by, various characters from Miami’s cultural tapestry: Cuban dudes playing dominoes, teenagers on the stoop, beach-lounging retirees, a Caribbean carnival parade. LESS THAN A YEAR LATER, he was back in Cleveland. Authenticity is a valuable commodity that can be replicated as necessary.

The Ring Is the Thing

LeBron won not one, but two rings in Miami. “Ring Maker” is the only LeBron commercial to acknowledge his history in Cleveland while celebrating his then-current stint as a member of the Heat. The commercial shows a jeweler crafting a championship ring, as highlights from LeBron’s career play on an old television. The ad is a tacit admission that LeBron left Cleveland because he thought he’d never win a ring there. It’s also a victory lap.

I’ve Made a Huge Mistake

In the wake of The Decision, James was easily the most reviled athlete in America.

That’s a bad place to be if part of your job is to sell products such as sneakers, cars, smartphones, fast food, and insurance to a wide swath of the American public. What to do? Apologize. Kinda.

No Puppet, No Puppet

LEBRON AND KOBE TEAM UP FOR A LANDMARK NIKE COMMERCIAL! (Appearing as puppets voiced by actors because there’s no way these two guys don’t hate each other’s guts.)

The Ladies Man

In 2007, LeBron turned 23. The crushing weight of having not yet won a title that would darken his public persona was still a few years away. Kobe was still the league’s biggest star. James had yet to reach his peak. This was the pinnacle of the Fun LeBron era, when he could afford to do typical first-time celebrity shit like host Saturday Night Live. “After Six” aired in 2008 and feels very much an extension of James’s SNL experience. It features a silky-voiced Bron, wearing a wide-lapel pinstripe suit and a red ascot, slipping a pair of Nike Zoom 6s onto the delicate feet of the Pussy Cat Dolls’ Nicole Scherzinger, as his fish, Sir Charles, looks on.

Eddie Murphy Did It, Why Can’t I?

Here’s the difference between LeBron and Kyrie Irving. LeBron played every character in his commercial. Kyrie played only the old guy. The most jarring lines in this ad are, “You can’t get through Detroit training in no pool. You think Michael trained in the pool? Nah, I don’t think so.” Like, it’s amazing to recall that teams once worried about how they would get through the Pistons. That really happened.

The Chosen One

Featuring Bernie Mac at the pulpit and Doctor J and Jerry West bearing witness, “The Chosen One” poked fun at the savior narrative surrounding James. LeBron came into the league as a different kind of messiah, one who enjoyed making his teammates better more than dominating the box score. In 2005, this was a philosophical shift for Nike, which had spent the past 15 years espousing the domineering, kill-everything-that-moves personality of Michael Jordan and, later, Bryant. With James in the fold, Nike had to figure out how to make passing awesome, and not an abdication.