But first, the New LeBrons.
Central Casting: When athletes fall from grace, or flip the script on the public's view of them, it's swift, gruesome and binary. Think of Kobe Bryant, before and after Eagle, or the collapse of Tiger Woods, Incorporated. With his Hall of Fame speech, Michael Jordan went from hallowed competitor to petty monster.
The assumption was that, with LeBron James headed to the Heat, his image would take a beating. Some suggested that James should ride the darker wave, and go from object of awe to arch-destroyer. Except this presumes that LeBron even had such a cohesive personality, or persona, to begin with.
In the first act of his career -- when James still seemed willing to take risks with his image -- Nike's primary campaign stressed just how many sides there were to its latest golden calf.
Some of us will never forget, or forgive, "The LeBrons." Was it all a sham? "The LeBrons" mined contradiction, and James himself had a deep investment in the campaign. It was the most self-assured showcase for uncertainty a big-money athlete has ever been afforded -- that is, until "The Decision." In between, there were attempts to pretend things had never been so complicated.
The morning after the announcement, I wondered what these fictional characters would have made of Bron's choice. It seemed like a gimmicky writing exercise, if a clever one.
Yet perhaps that's the key lesson of J.R. Moehringer's "GQ" piece, and maybe the whole summer: LeBron James has never resolved into a whole person, whether in public or private. His most honest moments had been those that spotlighted this ambiguity -- in that eternally truthful medium of advertising, no less. Thus, it's time we revisit -- and update -- the LeBrons.
One thing we know: LeBron James craves camaraderie. One-time collaborator Buzz Bissinger, who has gone out of his way to bash the former Cav, will at least acknowledge that James's high school adventures remain the happiest time of his life. There, as with now, he and his friends took their talents to the "wrong" venue, caught hell for it, but in the end found wild success and endless good times.
In an interview with Kevin Arnovitz, Moehringer elaborates, suggesting that James was lonely and lost until he found this core group. The Miami experience is as much about hanging out with his dudes as it is racking up ring after ring. The man is only human. Childhood leaves marks. Undoubtedly, a revised LeBrons would have to include "Buddy LeBron."
(Please, spare me the argument that he would feel better about himself if he had done four years at Duke. Or that he just needed some time abroad.)
From an early age, James has wanted a peer group, to the point where he's willing to look past the consequences it may have for his overall ability to hold crowds in the palm of his hand. Really, how else do we explain loyalty to the fairly incompetent Horsemen?
I have also been struck by his wildly divergent statements on the subject of Cleveland vs. Akron. Silly me, based on some web searches and well-placed phone calls -- as well as growing up where two close-by cities absolutely hated each other -- I figured that this rivalry might be more real than Cavs fans would like to believe. James had been remarkably consistent in giving back to Akron, not Cleveland, and at least initially, seemed most interested in apologizing to his hometown, not his commute. Yet he eventually made sure to big up at least some of the Cavs faithful, and to "GQ," acknowledged that he would be open to returning.
LeBron James seems genuinely incapable of discussing anywhere in Ohio without contradicting himself -- expressing deep feeling while hedging his bets against the angry mobs. And no, Miami's home to no one. Thus, I present "LeBron in Exile" -- sad, often blank, and increasingly hardened like a drifter passing through. It's about as far from "favorite son" as you can get. If he seems especially confused, and confusing, these days, I trace it back to this side of him.
But wait, let's not make James out to be all pathos and weakness. On Twitter, LeBron -- or whoever is typing for him -- has been selectively brash, meddlesome (Chris Paul), and downright aggressive ("taking names"). If the other constructs sounded a bit too much like LeBron-as-victim, this one's the don't-give-an-eff force that exerts more power over the league than all the other All-Stars combined.
"The Decision" may have been a resounding failure. Silly as it was, though, it was something only a Unicron-like figure could have pulled off in the first place. James no longer needs to pull punches, or hide the fact that his influence far outstrips his ability to win championships.
Hence an outlet where, on occasion, the King will let loose with something off-color, untoward, or just generally untouchably profane. The account is labeled "King James," after all. This isn't about a carefully-managed, agent-coordinated strategy. James will talk because he can. The rest of the world can sort out the crumbs, and condescending as it is, could LeBron really dig himself him in any deeper?
Ladies and gentlemen, there's your "Monster LeBron." If only in isolation, and selectively so, Twitter allows James to flex a little and remind us that at the end of the day, he talks, we listen, and likely, we tremble.
Laugh at him taking names. Does any player want to be on that list? You can call it wounded pride, but I see an athlete who is finally tapping into that most filthy, and instructive side of his sports-mind.
James wants to dominate, on and off the court. You got a problem with that? He's just been too careful, or wishy-washy, to let us know. If "Monster" strikes you as ugly or untoward, how about -- to return to his short-lived "Akron, not Cleveland" stand -- "LeBron Who Watcheth Not the Polls."
All of which brings us back to the last New LeBron, and in a way, the most obvious one. The original cast was meant to convince us that there were many sides to a precocious superstar. You could read them either as a multi-faceted gem, or a youngster in transition, one grown up too fast. Thus far, it seems like those LeBrons succeeded in tearing him apart.
But they did set the stage for a new set, one where some measure of honesty has wiped clean the old template. What we're realizing, maybe, is just how rough and unfinished a person LeBron James has been up until this point. We got to know "The LeBrons" but those proved to be largely about his professional self. And even that was too transparent for Nike.
Now, we're looking at a player who -- in addition to throwing his legacy up for grabs -- is once again giving up on a cohesive message. No longer the boy-becoming-man, or star-contains-multitudes, James has copped to being a work in progress.
That's why the last new LeBron is the most important. Without giving James too much credit for backing himself into a corner, I'm all in favor of him admitting that there's more to him than he, we, or his advertising team ever knew. Not better, or smarter, stuff, but just a conflicted human being only beginning to come into focus.
That difference -- between contradictions and "wait and see" dynamics -- is how this new LeBron differs. He may be more of a mess, and harder to decipher, but at least we can see the real fault lines in his personality. The last one, who lords over all, is the "Real LeBron." We may never know him, but at least now, we've got a sense that he really is out there, somewhere. (BS)
Sell No Evil: Whether the Heat's players enjoy villain status is subjective; there is no question, however, whether the franchise itself has embraced the dark side. Just check out Miami's latest official t-shirt offering, a "Scarface" send-up featuring the three stars desaturated and placed on a black and white color field, with the names at the top invoking the infamous movie poster and clever use of Tony Montana's most abused line -- "Say hello to my little friend," though in this case pluralized -- below.
Of course, Montana was talking about an M16 with a grenade launcher, not the two-time defending MVP and an All-Star power forward. The context is slightly different. Of course, there's also the inconvenient fact that after Montana uses his little friend to kill a dozen thugs, he gets shot to death, famously falling into a hotel pool. Let's hope that part isn't indicative of the length of Miami's reign. (Hey, maybe the Heat know this is a short-lived period of power and that the next collective bargaining agreement will break up the team. In this scenario, however, David Stern plays the role of The Skull, and that frightens me a great deal.)
Works reader Ian R., who brought the t-shirt to our attention, thinks "Say hello to my little friends" is the wrong quote for the "Scarface" t-shirt, though, instead suggesting "So say good night to the bad guys." That's certainly a line the Miami faithful can get behind.
There's one serious problem with the "Scarface" t-shirt: it presents Dwyane Wade as Tony Montana, which is convenient but clearly wrong. LeBron has to be Montana. I mean, tell me the full "Say good night to the bad guy" quote couldn't be pulled right out of the "GQ" profile:
You need people like me. You need people like me so you can point your (expletive) fingers and say, "That's the bad guy." So ... what that make you? Good? You're not good. You just know how to hide, how to lie. Me, I don't have that problem. Me, I always tell the truth. Even when I lie. So say good night to the bad guy! Come on. The last time you gonna see a bad guy like this again, let me tell you. Come on. Make way for the bad guy. There's a bad guy comin' through! Better get outta his way!This whole analogy wilts in comparison to Rob Peterson's presentation of Pat Riley as "The Godfather," but so long as the Heat sell officially sanctioned t-shirts likening their stars to the most famous Cuban blow dealer of all-time, we'll be trying to figure this out. (TZ)
Contact High: What's that, Batman? Is it my thug radar going off? Forget about official Heat tees based on "Scarface." At least Tony Montana is a fictional character, like Satan. Over the last day or so, we have seen some truly troubling developments in the moral health of the league.
First, Lance Stephenson's assault on his girlfriend, which hopefully spells the end of his NBA career. I'm sure some scout somewhere predicted this months ago, and you would think the Pacers would know better. Then -- at an official event, no less -- we had all sorts of high-profile rookies using foul language and then distributing the evidence all across the web. For shame, young men!
But the real nut-cracker was the appearance of Brandon Roy, perennial All-Star, savior of the City of Roses, and all-around swell guy, in a rap video that can only be described as 4:20 positive. Translation: YOU CAN SEE THE POT. This has caused quite a stir over at BlazersEdge, a bunch of liberal Pacific Northwesterners who stake much of their fandom on running the so-called Jailblazers out of town. What's the name of that Family Research Council guy with the funny vacation help?
All kidding and stereotypes aside, if this turns into a big deal, I will officially kick myself. The Jailblazers were about much more wrong and evil than smoking pot, but somehow, that's been their most lasting contribution to the canon of basketball misbehavior. Given what I know of the city of Portland, they're probably not incensed about Roy being in the same YouTube clip as some weed, so much as they are having flashbacks and worried about returning to the Stoned Age.
Fear not, proud people. You need to be closing ranks around Roy right about now, not soul-searching over whether this is the same as Damon Stoudemire. There are people out there who need far less to come to a scathing conclusion on this one. (BS)
Weirdest Mixtape Ever: Dime decided not only to record Kings rookie Hassan Whiteside juggling three basketballs at the rookie camp, but also thought it wise to edit the footage and set it to hip hop. Weirdest mixtape ever? You be the judge. (TZ)
The Works is a daily column written by Bethlehem Shoals (@freedarko) and Tom Ziller (@teamziller).