Is The King Losing The Court?

Noah JampolFeatured ColumnistJuly 23, 2009

CLEVELAND - MAY 12:  LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers goes through his pregame ritual of applying powder to his hands and throwing it up in the air against the Boston Celtics in Game Four of the 2008 NBA Eastern Conference Semifinals on May 12, 2008 at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

It was just weeks ago the "Shaqtus" had departed from the Desert to become the Big Witness and perhaps propel the Cavaliers to a long sought-after championship. Yet, Shaquille O'Neal's out sized figure and even more gargantuan personality have not even been the biggest entity in the past week of LeBron James' life. No, that would be Jordan. Not his airness, pray tell. Not the one who has unfairly been the measuring stick for every emerging athletic star of the past 10 years.

Instead, it has been one, heretofore unknown, Jordan Crawford. Crawford, of course, jump-started the imagination of all following basketball when he dunked on the King only to see all documentation of the event lost(or so we thought). Nike Basketball, and by extension we must assume LeBron James, were sufficiently fearful of the footage and its potential harm to LeBron's aura and mystique that they attempted to have all traces removed immediately. The footage of course has come out, and is now widely available. As it turned out, I'd wager most people would prefer the version they had in Dreamland to the decidedly ordinary display that it truly was.

Still, Nike's behavior and attitude towards the whole scenario is part of an evolving quest to form an image of LeBron. The vision for what it should be has changed markedly over the years as have LeBron's appropriate actions to mold the sought-after brand

In his first years in the league, LeBron played the humble and mature beyond-his-years prodigy to perfection. His team was often over matched, the level of talent surrounding him inadequate. Yet, he refused to throw his teammates and management under the bus. His interviews were carefully choreographed and performed. He talked about "execution", "teamwork", and always respected his competition. Fans loved the guy, his demeanor, his attitude. He was a selfless superstar who made his teammates look better and put on spectacular performances.

His often jaw-dropping displays of athleticism in a 6'8 265 pound pack brought upon a campaign to glorify this unprecedented specimen. We were "all witnesses" to this athletic marvel. He was the "chosen one". The one to dominate basketball in every facet like Jordan once had.

In 2007, LeBron James took his brilliance to a new level with his solo dismantling of a thoroughly superior Detroit Pistons squad. His performance was almost unparalleled in basketball history. He scored what seemed like his teams last 20 hoops in the 4'th quarter and overtime. The Pistons once-vaunted defense knew exactly what they were going to get and by God did they get it. It was the biggest triumph of his young career. "The Witness" campaign had been validated as we looked at the dumbfounded expressions of the patrons at the Palace in Auburn Hills.

In the finals, his Cavaliers team was exposed. They were a bunch of yeoman grinders- they excelled at defense, and defense only. Gregg Popovich put on a Belichickian performance in scheming to take away the one thing the Cavs did well on offense: funneling the ball through LeBron James. The King's coronation would have to wait another year. So far, management had failed to give him the help he needed. Still, LeBron was a consummate teammate and continued with his humble attitude and emphasis on teamwork and execution.

The 2007-2008 season saw the Cavaliers, excluding LeBron James, struggle. This was not just as expected on offense, but on the one thing that could allow LeBron a chance- the team's defense. Still, through a renewed commitment to defense in the playoffs the Cavaliers found themselves matched up with the Celtics. The series was ugly in the first six games. Saying it was physical would be an understatement. Scoring 80 points, considering the clogged-up paint and swallowed whistles of the officiating crew, seemed it would be enough to prevail in the games. The Celtics held their home court and took a 3-2 lead in the series, and then quite simply LeBron James, the brand, the image, changed.

"A LeBron James team is never desperate"

The words leaped out at us then, and still are striking now. Was this the same guy? The LeBron James we had been treated to the past few years had never talked in third person. Surely, we knew he must be confident. All the great ones must be. Still, using third person and taking the mantle as the team seemed downright out-of-character. It made all his followers uneasy. Had we been duped all this time?

Rather, looking back it might be more accurate to say we had been programmed. For Nike and LeBron had quite suddenly dumped the humble pie and moved to the alpha-male persona.

To his credit, LeBron played magnificently in the deciding game 7. The middle-school level sophistication of the Cavaliers offense- high screen by Z at the top of the key, LeBron kick, shoot or drive every play, almost did not cost the squad. It took the heroics of aging journeyman PJ Brown as well as a virtuoso performance by Paul Pierce to elevate the Celtics in their toughest test of their championship Postseason. LeBron was graceful in his post-game comments, and respectful of his opponents. Afterward, it was acknowledged by him and everyone else that the Cavaliers had fallen short for a myriad of reasons. The central one was the Celtics had 3 great players. The Cavs had 1. Still, a LeBron James team needed more than LeBron James.

The Olympics were the next haven for exposure for LeBron James. At first, it appeared we might see a return to the "old" LeBron James. We heard snippets about how LeBron was so proud to represent the stars and stripes, and to play with the greats like Kobe Bryant. Halfway through the tournament, it was easily apparent that the "alpha-male" LeBron was here to say. The rhetoric was similar to that of the playoffs. LeBron, by his own account and others, was the leader of the team. He made this abundantly clear to the media.

This was the next step for LeBron as taking command at the helm of a an enterprise like the Cavaliers was one thing. Being the man amongst older and more decorated superstars was certainly another.

During the 2008 summer, finally the Cavaliers got LeBron some serviceable help. The addition of Moe Williams finally gave the Cavaliers a guy who could accomplish things on offense without LeBron and his distraction of the other team's defense. The season was remarkable. The King frequently left entire fourth quarters to be contested by players who were punchlines in basketball fans' backyards. LeBron was the clear-cut leader, he was playing great defense and team ball, and he was using his teammates to devastating effect. His teammates still loved him, and with his jump-shot finally catching up to the rest of his game it seemed he was the perfect basketball prototype. Everything was going swimmingly in the king's palace.

And then he heard the music: Sore loser. Poor sport. Bad role model.

For the LeBron James image management had taken another shift. The gracious loser that had emerged after every defeat was whisked away. Out emerged the LeBron James who had always been a winner. The one that did not desire, nay adamantly refused, to be associated with losing. It seemed that the shocking loss to the Magic was one too many devastating defeat for the King to handle.

After all, Nike and LeBron could not have anyone remain under the illusion that LeBron James could accept losing. We were fed that LeBron James both abhorred losing and was allergic to it. In fact, he despised it so much and comprehended it so feebly that he would never make apologies for not showing a sliver of understanding of how one was supposed to act after it occurred. He was that competitive, that obsessed with victory, that bitter in defeat. LeBron James harped he was a winner, through and through.

The last evolution in the brand that was LeBron James manifested itself in the attempted cover-up of Jordan Crawford's shining moment. A refusal to take losing was one thing. A refusal to take the slightest hint of embarrassment or mortality, was an entirely different issue. Now, LeBron James, the brand, wasn't just a winner. He had to be an unblemished icon. LeBron could no longer be dunked on, crossed up, taken to school. He was the master, and save maybe only in the eyes of Kobe Bryant could he looked at as an equal.

How LeBron James evolves now is anyone's guess. Whether it be the Nike execs guiding the trajectory or LeBron James himself doing so only they know. Still, the sudden and momentous shifts in LeBron's image from the humble and selfless prodigy to the ultimate alpha male to the uber-competitive winner and lastly to the flawless icon give us a cloudy picture of who the man really is inside and what he will eventually want us to think of him.

Considering the generally negative reactions to his latest acts, it is safe to say that it may take an image correction to fully restore LeBron to the impeccable public figure he once was. Perhaps, instead LeBron believes he can truly reach the now-staggering standard of excellence demanded by his image. If he succeeds, his status as the "Chosen One" will never be more strikingly apparent.