How LeBron salvaged Kobe’s reputation

I was originally saving this post for the big relaunch of the site, when I would have a week of exciting, interesting posts. Various factors have been continually pushing that back much further than I ever intended. But the relaunch should go through next weekend, sometime between the 15th and 17th, as I’m very close to taking care of both those factors and the last few tweaks needed before relaunching the site.

In the interim, in our 24/7, hypermedia world, we’ve already forgotten and moved on from the LeBron dunk story. The word came out that Nike suppressed the tape of LeBron being dunked on by a college journeyman, we all laid shame on Nike and LeBron, crappy, Zapruder-like tape came out and we all ridiculed Nike and LeBron some more, saying we would have seen the footage and forgotten about it if LeBron had just let the tape go… and then we forgot about it.

But I think that, in the big picture, LeBron James, in the space of a few months, has done more to salvage the reputation of Kobe Bryant than anything Bryant himself could have ever done.

LeBron was supposed to be the good guy. He was supposed to be the guy who helped his teammates, didn’t get into legal trouble, came from Akron and helped the local small-market team to an NBA title. He was supposed to be everything big-market, me-me-me Kobe wasn’t. Kobe was a petulant individualist who was accused of sexual assault in Colorado and was poison to team chemistry, ultimately driving out Shaq and demanding to have the Lakers to himself, to carry a team on his own shoulders. The hopes of NBA purists rested on LeBron to give Kobe what for.

But three things have happened to completely reverse the roles. In reverse order: One, the LeBron dunk controversy. Two, Kobe DID carry a championship team by himself. And three, LeBron’s reaction to losing the Eastern Conference Finals, refusing to shake hands or address the media.

Bracketing Kobe’s title win were two events that create a new narrative of LeBron James. The dunk controversy in particular makes LeBron come off as a carefully crafted persona, too perfect, a fake, a creation of Nike. (After a shorter career with fewer titles, LeBron is more visible in Nike ad campaigns than Kobe.) Getting dunked on may have seemed harmless, but it didn’t fit the Nike storyline of perfection, so Nike tried to erase it from the narrative and in the process exposed the true LeBron. Kobe Bryant, by contrast, is human, and (unlike LeBron) lets his human foibles come through. Kobe is one of us, what we would be like if we had Kobe’s talent. According to this narrative, LeBron couldn’t handle losing the Eastern Conference Finals because it didn’t fit into The Plan as laid out by Nike, which says that LeBron must always find success.

We may end up seeing Kobe’s career from 2004 to 2008 very differently than we did at the time. We may see it as the struggles of a tortured man to find his individuality and find fulfillment, struggling to balance the demands of NBA stardom with his own needs and desires. Finally he managed to find the magical combination that could lead him to the title he could claim as his own. As for LeBron, probably the only way he can even hope to kill the narrative, the only way he can go back to being Michael Jordan instead of Tim Tebow, is to stay in Cleveland, or at least move to another mid-sized market. If he moves to New York, the Clippers, or even Portland (capital of the Nike empire), all moves that would be driven by Nike’s marketability needs more than anything else, I’m going to start calling him LeNike or LeSwoosh.

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