"It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you'll do things differently. " -- Warren Buffett
This isn't an opinion about how bad of a person LeBron James is. Or how he destroyed the hopes of a city or fled for the easy solution to enhancing his basketball legacy.
This is about irony over how his approach to free agency destroyed the thing he cared about the most: his brand.
Not just his image, but his brand.
Over the past seven-plus years, LeBron always spoke about his personal goals beyond basketball—a "global icon" who would use basketball as a springboard to create a business empire. His ideal narrative was "hometown boy from a hard-scrabble childhood had the savvy to rise to the top of the sports business world."
And he would do it by being the antithesis to Allen Iverson and Kobe Bryant. Where they gunned for individual stats, he would focus on involving his teammates.
Where they annihilated their peers on and off the court, he would preach unity in the court and strong friendships off of it.
Where they would find drama off the court through indiscretions, he would stay away from the clubs and loved nothing more than hanging out with his childhood buddies in Akron.
And it worked! "More than a Game" helped the LeBrand establish a coherent narrative of loyalty to friends and family above all else. His State Farm and Cavaliers commercials connected his image to the joy of friendships and teamwork. Even the Nike slogan, "We are All Witnesses" carries an undercurrent of LeBron inviting a city, a fanbase, and a country into experiencing the pleasure of watching his basketball genius.
All of these things were planned by James and his team and all were lauded by fans and non-fans alike as intelligent marketing acts of a teenager growing into a self-aware man and possible mogul.
And in a few moments, he burned that image down. Gone is the loyal teammate. Gone is the hometown hero. Gone is the devotion to lifelong friendships. Gone is the feeling that LeBron James knows how to market himself. Gone is the happy-go-lucky kid James who could sell millions of product with a smile. Long-live unsmiling, brand-discussing King James.
That's what separated Michael Jordan from the rest. Jordan understood that you carry your image on and off the court. And if you give the impression that you care about others, you will sell more. It's why he never dressed in casual clothes on the way to and from the game. He always knew that someone was watching and if they only glanced at Michael Jordan live once, they deserved the best presentation possible.
But you also noticed that the player Jordan never spoke about the "brand" Jordan in interviews. He lived it every day, but he never wanted to discuss business (Bulls, Nike, or otherwise) with Jim Gray. Such cold discussions would wound that brand, because he knew that sports are so emotional that fans willingly blind themselves to the unfeeling business aspect. We didn't want to hear about the brand and he didn't want to tell us.
And so when unflattering aspects of his personality (see Sam Smith's The Jordan Rules or watch his Hall-of-Fame speech ) surface, we ignore the negatives because he never betrayed his brand (and us) as a player. In fact, we accept and admire his hyper-competitiveness bordering on mania.
Watch Jordan's SportsCentury or read Bill Simmons's chapter on Jordan and the words, "psychotic," "killer," or "rage" are used. We use those words to describe mass murderers, not beloved athletes. But we still love him.
LeBron James will never be Michael Jordan. Not because he won't get the scoring titles or championships. But because he has behaved like a child throughout this process. Not the kicking-and-crying child, but the kind that comes home from college his freshman year, has a glass of wine, and wants to lecture everybody about geopolitics based on his International Studies 201 class.
In other words, he's so insecure about being an adult that he makes loud proclamations about his maturity to prove that he deserves a seat at the big boys' table.
From the Larry King interview to the not-so-secret meetings in Cleveland to the Twitter account to the one-hour fellatio on ESPN, LeBron nakedly craved the adoration he apparently never received from a father figure or the college recruiting process. All the while, he proclaimed that this is a business decision.
Watch the post-decision interviews and you see a man who clearly relishes not the choice, but the ability to tell Michael Wilbon, Jim Gray, or Robin Roberts that he's a MAN MAKING A BIG DECISION! All by himself, too. It's like watching President Bush tell the cameras that he made the Iraq War decision all by himself and Cheney, Rumsfield, and Wolfowitz had nothing to do with it because he's the decider, dang it!
But, as most adults know, the devil is in the details. Sure, leave Cleveland. That's not the issue. But to mention that you've done everything for the city without talking about how tough the decision was to leave your home rings hollow. Have a prime-time one-hour special to discuss your choice.
But a courtesy call to Dan Gilbert in the morning (when he apparently made his decision) would've covered your bases against coming off as deceptive to the franchise and city you said you loved the past seven years. Make the decision in a neutral site.
But to say it was all for charity without discussing the amount raised or allowing a commercial spot for the Boys and Girls Club is such a stupidly condescending move that your business acumen has to be called into question.
LeBron James says that he wants to be a global icon. Global icons are respected and admired because they cultivate their image in a responsible manner. Even if they don't respect the fans or consumers, they engender a coherent story that we all know or relate to.
Outside of South Florida, who did he impress? Let's say he wins the championship next year or scores 101 points in a game. Will his winning reaction carry as far as Jordan crying and hugging the trophy the first time or laying prostrate on the ground with the ball the fourth time (remembering his murdered father) he won?
They won't, because our connection with Jordan's wins were much stronger. We could relate to accomplishing something after years of hard work and disappointments. We can relate to rising above a personal tragedy. But we can't relate to one-hour decision specials and people who speak in the third person repeatedly. That emotional disconnect comes with dollar signs, Mr. James.
Obviously, we will watch the Heat this fall. Obviously, LeBron will still have his share of YouTube clips and endorsements. But his method in leaving Cleveland was so transparently ugly, there's no way to see how he enhanced his brand by this stumbling, bumbling mess of a free agency process to stroke his own ego.
It's not his fault that we bought his previous persona, but it is his fault that we hesitate buying LeBrand 2.0 from South Beach.