From our Image Meltdown Files: Did LeBron James just jump the shark?
I never thought anyone could possibly get worse reviews than Michael Patrick King did for "Sex and the City 2," but if Rotten Tomatoes was giving critic ratings for LeBron James' self-aggrandizing "The Decision" that aired last night on ESPN, they'd surely be in the single digits. It was god awful, not just for ESPN, which now looks like about as serious a news organization as MTV, but most of all for LeBron, who despite having a huge, sprawling team of advisors (including Ari Emanuel, who must be rueing the day he decided to grab credit for helping put the ESPN special together, now that it's turned out to be a bomb), never seemed to realize how much damage a poorly stage-managed production could do to his carefully crafted image.
My colleague, NBA know-it-all Mark Heisler, put it best when he said that the gruesome hourlong show simply served LeBron "up to his critics like a roast pig with an apple in its mouth." Like actors and politicians, athletes spend years building an image that will help promote their interests with the public, selling themselves as engaging, honest, down-to-earth and emotionally involved with their fans and supporters. As George H.W. Bush once put it, a little too succinctly: "Message: I care."
I spent some time with LeBron last fall when he was promoting "More Than a Game," a documentary that chronicled his rise to stardom from a gangly sixth-grader to the polished NBA all-star he is today. In person, LeBron was humble and thoughtful, always looking me in the eye, carefully considering every question I asked, even the dumb ones that hardly merited much brainpower. He seemed totally in control, perhaps -- in retrospect -- too much so, especially considering the posse of pals that hovered in the background wherever he went.
When someone brought a tray of sandwiches for everyone to snack on before LeBron did an interview with Jay Leno, LeBron eyed the sandwiches, deciding he only wanted half of one. "Who wants half of my sandwich?" he asked. Everyone's hand went up. Apparently his entire posse was positively craving half a sandwich. I suspect if LeBron had asked if anyone wanted to dump a bucket of Gatorade over Jay Leno's head, just as many hands would've shot up. It turns out that LeBron lived in just as much of a bubble as any out-of-touch-with-reality movie star or political figure.
When it comes to bad decision making, the perils of modern-day celebritydom are the same, whether you're LeBron, imagining your choice of an NBA team should be treated with the same pomp and circumstance as the inauguration of a president, or Tom Cruise, about to jump on Oprah's couch, Russell Crowe about to toss a phone at a room clerk or Jay Leno, for that matter, about to airily disrespect your late-night successor. Once you jump the shark with the public, going from a regular guy to a nut case or a humorless cad or, in LeBron's case, an emperor on a throne, there's no going back. The damage is done. Just ask James Cameron, who after he exultingly proclaimed himself "King of the World," has been in the doghouse with his Hollywood peers, who shut him down at the Oscars, even when he richly deserved to go home with a couple more statuettes.
What LeBron did Thursday night was set himself up for a fall. He's going to be a great basketball player for years to come, but guess what -- Crowe and Cruise are still fine actors, but once their fans decided they weren't worthy of any more hero worship, their careers haven't been the same. LeBron has done what heroes are supposed to know they shouldn't do: His ESPN travesty was the equivalent of flying too close to the sun. It has melted his wings and, even worse, irreparably marred his image. Right now, LeBron doesn't look like a champ. He looks like a chump.
Photo: LeBron James announcing his decision to join the Miami Heat next season.
Credit: Larry Busacca /Getty Images for Estabrook Group