LeBron: A Lesson in Reshaping Perception

What a PR superstar (oh, and basketball, too). Credit: Keith Allison
What a PR superstar (oh, and basketball, too). Credit: Keith Allison
What a PR superstar (oh, and basketball, too). Credit: Keith Allison

Let us take you back to early 2003.

LeBron James, the most hyped high school basketball player of all time and the supposed next Michael Jordan – which is one of the most misused pieces of acclaim for any basketball player who shows any flash of brilliance – was in his senior year and the undisputed #1 pick in that year’s talent-rich NBA draft. True to the ideal narrative, LeBron, raised in Akron, Ohio, was taken with the #1 pick by his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers. In his seven years with the Cavaliers, LeBron made all the right moves (short of winning a championship). To the NBA, its fans and the media, LeBron was an uber-talented player who had deftly and maturely handled an enormous amount of pressure since entering the league. Public perception: overwhelmingly positive.

And then, in 2010, came “The Decision.”

The main storyline of the 2009-2010 NBA season wasn’t the actual games, but LeBron’s impending free agency. The bottom line was that there were only a few teams that had the financial flexibility to sign LeBron to a full-term, high-paying contract, including the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Miami Heat. On the evening of July 8, 2010, LeBron was the star of a bloated, self-indulgent television special on ESPN that was held solely for LeBron to announce which team he had chosen. The now-iconic line uttered by LeBron at the climax of the show: “I’m going to take my talents to South Beach.” Miami it was.

The backlash was immediate.

Back in Cleveland, LeBron’s former fans burned his jerseys in the street, and the owner of the Cavaliers wrote a scathing screed against LeBron (that might’ve held some weight if it hadn’t been written in Comic Sans font). Everyone who wasn’t a Heat fan was sour on the fact that he was teaming up with fellow superstars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to form a “super team.” The result was that LeBron was public enemy number one to everyone but Miami fans, and the crassness of “The Decision” had a lot to do with it. Public perception: overwhelmingly negative.

As LeBron won two championships in Miami, the majority of the public began to somewhat warm back up to him: chalk it up to the adage that time heals all, or most, wounds. Cleveland also positioned itself perfectly to potentially sign LeBron to a maximum contract and bring him home in the 2014 offseason, when LeBron was once again (and maybe for the last time) a free agent, and this became more of a reality when LeBron’s Heat team got thoroughly outplayed in the 2014 NBA Finals by the San Antonio Spurs. The best player on the planet surveyed his surroundings, perhaps realizing that his current super team wasn’t so super, and disappeared for a few weeks to make one of the most crucial decisions of his life.

Then came the bombshell.

On July 11, 2014, LeBron revealed in a first-person essay in Sports Illustrated that he had decided to return to the Cavaliers. His announcement was in stark contrast to The Decision: his essay was genuine, heartfelt, and devoid of fanfare. Here was a player who wanted to return to his roots and deliver his hometown team something they’d never had: a championship. THIS decision – probably owing largely to how it was communicated – was roundly applauded by fans and the media. Public perception: overwhelmingly positive.

In life, and especially in the sports world, people tend to get second chances. You need to look no further than the NFL’s Michael Vick for a prime example. But LeBron’s case was unique in that he never really did anything wrong – at least, nothing that brought real harm to anyone or justified any legal action against him – but he toyed with a few of the emotions that are most sacred to sports fans: loyalty (leaving Cleveland in such a cold manner) and humility (doing so during a national TV show). In returning to Cleveland, however, LeBron orchestrated one of the most profound and immediate reputation makeovers in the recent public consciousness. He let us know that he had unfinished business in Cleveland and that delivering a title would be one of his greatest accomplishments, and we knew he had the wisdom afforded by experience to mean what he said. But undoubtedly most importantly for LeBron, he was making a decision that was completely true to himself – and at that point, public perception be damned.