They were puppets. They also were hilarious.
Now one of three things has happened: (1) Nike has slowly turned what was a clever marketing idea into a modern-day version of Amos and Andy, (2) I've just come to my senses, or (3) it is a combination of both.
Whatever the case, these commercials have to go. Either that, or they need an extreme makeover. They are the anti-Barack Obamas when it comes to helping society rid itself of tired images of African-Americans -- and the Nike folks couldn't care less. The same goes for Kobe and LeBron. Otherwise, you wouldn't have storylines in each of these commercials that clearly are designed to entice as many black youngsters as possible to buy sneakers they can't afford.
Stereotyping. Exploitation. It's all here.
I mean, you have the two most famous players in the NBA -- Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, both heroes among many youth in the black community -- depicted by a couple of sports-obsessed, egomaniacal puppets.
Worse, these puppets mostly lounge around their apartment as they live in a world filled with rapping and folks speaking broken English.
Let's pause for a moment of silence. This being Black History Month and all, that groaning you now hear is coming from the graves of W.E.B., Booker T., Martin, Malcolm and the rest, wondering if this is the 21st century or 19th century.
Just like various poisons, these Kobe-LeBron puppet commercials have names, which brings me to the one that pushed me over the edge: "Shoes on fire." It begins with Kobe and LeBron returning home to a smoldering mess after an inferno at their apartment. They are questioned by a couple of firemen who are sifting through the rubble inside the shoe closet of the two players. After a while, the white fireman says to the black fireman, "Chief, I think we've got something over here," as the white fireman holds up one of Kobe's smoking sneakers with a pair of pliers.
Then the black fireman goes into his best Pigmeat Markham routine (you know, "Heah com du judge") by snapping his neck while saying, "I'm tell YOU as an official of the fire department -- this shoe right heah is just . . . TOO hot."
To which the Kobe puppet says to the LeBron puppet with glee, "LeBron, you hear that? My shoe hot."
The more I think about it, those Kobe-LeBron puppet commercials around Christmas set the foundation for my current outrage. There was "Dunking on Reindeer," and then there was "Santa Rap." They both were filled with needless Ebonics -- well, needless unless you were trying to make a point -- and they both featured as many references to "the hood" -- as in Nike's targeted audience -- as possible.
"He all nervous."
"I'll be flyin' around the hood cruisin' fast. My sleigh be movin' snow. You be eatin' grass."
This is in addition to the butchered language in those other Kobe-LeBron puppet commercials, ranging from, "Who's her?" to "You ain't got no defense." And here is one of the most disgusting things about this situation: Neither Kobe nor LeBron speaks that way. They are among the NBA's most-polished players.
We're back to the bottom line. And, with apologies to Malcolm, this trio of Kobe, LeBron and Nike is selling shoes by any means necessary.
Where's the outrage? If not from Kobe and LeBron, who have the power to stop this but have chosen to yawn while counting their dollars from it all, then why not from others around the league and throughout society?
Guess too many people were lulled into apathy, especially after those initial Kobe-LeBron puppet commercials grabbed our attention as natural extensions of the Lil Penny ones of Penny Hardaway lore. And Lil Penny was funny and harmless. You can say the same for that Kobe-LeBron puppet commercial of nearly a year ago that had Kobe gloating over his three world championship rings at the time in front of LeBron.
The chalk commercial worked, too, with a hand-clapping LeBron puppet filling the apartment with the white stuff as a spoof on his routine of sending chalk into the air before he leaves for the opening tipoff. And the Lil Desmond thing worked, when the puppets were babysitters for the obnoxious kid from across the way. And it also worked after the real Kobe won his fourth NBA title this summer, with the puppet Kobe dancing around the apartment, but only when the puppet LeBron wasn't in a room.
This was in the midst of the Gilbert Arenas situation, when he and teammate Javaris Crittenton brought guns into the locker room of the Washington Wizards for reasons that weren't good. Even though the word "chamber" is the place that holds bullets in a gun, the Nike folks said they weren't referring to that kind of chamber, but said later in a statement, "The Nike print ad featuring Kobe Bryant was intended to illustrate his all out play and commitment on the basketball court. [Chamber] is a commonly used reference for shooting the basketball and no offense was intended."
Kobe added that the ad was designed months before the Arenas thing -- as if that really made a difference -- and LeBron said Kobe's "chamber" reference in the ad was taken out of context.
Yeah, well, NBA commissioner David Stern was not amused. Neither were Cleveland city officials who rejected a Nike proposal to place a 10-story tall mural of James on the side of the building with those "Prepare For Combat" words.
That was encouraging. This would be even more so: the muzzling of those puppets, or at least enrolling them in a couple of English classes.