Oct 31, 2010

To Be Or Not To Be?

"What should I do?" This is the question posed by none other than the ringless king himself, LeBron James, in his new Nike commercial, simply entitled Rise.

Having quickly glanced at the commercial when it was first released, I was immediately struck by how incredibly unoriginal it was. (Not to mention, I would have opted for Rico Tubbs over Sonny Crockett, but you'd have to find him first!)

The Wieden+Kennedy Nike ads are legendary at this point.  Considering that I've seen all of the Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, and Kobe Bryant introspective voice/over spots for all these years, I found LeBron's new joint to be just a tad cliched at this point.  Besides, LeBron has never done anything to signal that he was necessarily deep and introspective to begin with. But that for another time.

The fact that the same people who wrote the previous MJ, Tiger, and Kobe commercials are the same ones orchestrating LeBron's image in this one means that Rise registers as something less than a personal declaration of the ringless king's independence.  Instead it came across to me as akin to wearing the hand-me-downs of an older sibling; LeBron's young image dressed in Micheal's old, ill-fitting clothes.  Whereas the commercials with the multiple "LeBrons" and even those silly puppet commercials with Kobe came across as fresh relative to LeBron's youthful image, Rise seemed predictable as opposed to being noteworthy for its creativity.

I saw the commercial and quickly forgot about it. Yet as my week progressed everyone wanted to know what I thought about it.   Not much, I said, over and over again, but the people wanted more.  Every time I get out they pull me right back in!

My relative indifference to LeBron's commercial is perhaps indicative of a larger issue currently defining my life; age! I'm a man! I'm 40 (plus)! LeBron's narcissistic display of immaturity this summer caused me to shift my position on him.  He is undoubtedly a superstar, but whether or not he is a champion remains to be seen.  Call me when he starts winning rings.  All else is bosh at this point, and I don't mean Chris!

What does age have to do with this, you ask?  Well as I talked to various people over the last week, I noticed an interesting trend.  When talking to people of my generation, to a person, there was a consistent snicker at LeBron's opening night loss to the Celtics.  A snicker that I shared in, I must admit.  The snicker spoke volumes.  Holding one hour television specials to announce something that took all of five seconds is a lot easier than winning basketball games.  Though it was only one game, the self-indulgent ringless royal received a dose of reality in Boston that night which prompted all the OGs to clap in unison to the key of "I-told-you-so."

On the other hand, the new jacks with whom I spoke about LBJ were all engaging the rhetorical question posed in his commercial.  They wondered aloud what LeBron was really trying to say.  They took turns providing their own interpretation. They appreciated his jabs at Sir Charles and MJ.  They found meaning in his words.  

What I concluded from all of this was that sports stars are generational.  Our embrace of various figures tells us as much about ourselves as it does about the sports stars in question.  What I mean is that Michael Jordan will always be the star of my generation.  Having seen the game both before and after his arrival, I can't imagine a player who will ever match his feats of accomplishment as a baller and as a cultural icon.  But in many ways what I'm saying is that my generation was and will forever be better.  Now this sort of thinking made he bristle every time I heard someone refer to the World War II generation as "the greatest generation," in times past, but here I am in essence saying the same thing about my generation relative to ball.  It's inevitable though, because if I accept that my generation's greatest player is no longer the greatest than I'm also saying that by default my generation is no longer as relevant either.

Such is the same for my younger counterparts, who identify with LeBron, but who can only learn about someone like Jordan from a distance.  LeBron belongs to them, while Jordan belongs to us; I must add that Kobe belongs to another generation equally invested in his success and their own identity also.

A lot of people have suggested that I dislike new school ballers.  They've turned this into a generational war, where I hadn't noticed that one yet existed.  But stepping back from it all, this suggestion starts to make some sense, or at least the perception makes sense.  I do not dislike new school ballers though.  Not at all.  I do however dislike uninformed talk about issues in general, so when someone only has a grasp of current events while I'm looking at a much longer and broader history, such uninformed talk can be especially annoying.

For some it seems that it's as though LeBron is already on Jordan's level because he has generated so much media attention this summer, in spite of the fact that he lacks the comparable accomplishments of Jordan.  His dig at Jordan in the commercial about selling shoes is as obvious an example of "biting the hand that feeds you" as one could image considered that the shoes MJ sold are the same shoes that afforded LeBron his Nike contract in the first place.  In other words, there would have been no "decision" this summer if Jordan hadn't made the world friendly for the Nike brand and so many other endorsed products in the first place.

LeBron's commercial is on the "been there, done that" shelf as far as I'm concerned.  But for others, it's on the "what's happenin' now" shelf.  His contemporary relevancy is irrelevant to me, but quite relevant to his followers, for whom Jordan's relevancy is so last decade.  The generational war is on.  The legacy of the game verses this present narcissistic moment.  History verses his story.

LeBron's commercial didn't move me.  Perhaps I'm just resisting out of spite?  Maybe I'm just a hater? Could it be that I have a bias against the new school as they suggest?  Or is it that once you've seen the greatest, the knock off just doesn't have same impact?

Since 1995 we've had to watch boys develop into men on NBA courts.  As many went from high school straight to the league, we've been forced to watch the at times painful maturation process of millionaires coming to terms with their finances and their new station in life, while appearing on an especially big stage.  We who watch grow up and old as well.  Eventually there's a gulf the size of the BP oil spill separating generations from each other.

Jordan's a year older than me, so I've often marked significant moments in my own life relative to his career accomplishments.  LeBron on the other hand is twenty years younger than me.  In other words, it's hard to relate, as I'm sure it's equally hard for my young disciples to connect with a legacy as old as Jordan.  Alas, for me LeBron's Rise is insignificant in the bigger scheme of things.  For others though, the commercial represents the epitome of LeBron's significance, and their own generational significance as well. 
"What should I do," LeBron asks?  As far as I'm concerned, you can start by winning a title.  And then a second one.  On and on til' the break of dawn!

"What should I do," LeBron asks?  As far as his young colleagues are concerned, he's already done it!