Look, cards on the table: I’m not a huge LeBron fan. But this (I hope) is not a bash on LeBron article. In fact, during his dismantling of my team in this year’s playoffs, I found a revitalized respect for him as a player and as a human being. There’s absolutely no disputing his incredible talent and, like it or not, the dude seems to be a good guy. So why does everyone hate him? And why—as we’re getting one of the juiciest, narrative-laden Finals in some time—do we like LeBron’s antithesis in Kevin Durant so much?
Would it come as a surprise to you (if you’re familiar with my other writing here) that I’m going to claim that it comes down to story? Let’s hope not.
LeBron came into this league at the transition from our post-Jordan depression into the NBA that we enjoy today. An NBA that is lead by promising, well-spoken, smart, talented, freakishly athletic young men. And LeBron was in a sense the poster boy for this era.
But LeBron had a different take on what he wanted to accomplish with his career. Taking the model of MJ’s success, and Jay-Z’s famous line—“I’m a business, man”—LeBron set off to become the world’s first billionaire athlete. He created and sold a product and every step of his career seemed to be tightly scripted to the narrative that we would expect from someone like LeBron. And at first we didn’t mind this. His stumbles and successes early on were endearing—it was part of the process.
But, he seemed to get stuck there. And worse, he didn’t seem to care with the same violent and tortured pain of someone like an MJ, a Kobe, and, yes, even a Kevin Durant. And that pain is what we want from our suffering and faling athletes. Instead, ’Bron continued to flash that million dollar smile, party with his entourage as he toured the country, market expensive shoes and apparel, and enjoy life like almost any other millionaire twenty-something.
We started writing stories that he didn’t care enough. And our glimpses into his personal life through blogs, twitter and so on all confirmed this in our eyes. All that stuff up above—the business of LeBron—seemed more important to him than winning on the court. And then came The Decision…
and the blogosphere crucified him.
This is not how our athlete heros are supposed to act. This was not the storyline that Bird, Magic, and Jordan taught us to expect. But LeBron was a business, man, and the better, smarter, easier option was taking those incredible talents to South Beach to team up with a couple other charismatic stars. They held their championship parade before they played a game and that was that for most fans… They became the enemy, the villains, the most hated, scrutinized team in the NBA. It may not be fair, but to a large degree, this is where they remain today.
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And then, halfway across the country in a small market town, a young team is developing piece by piece through smart drafting, key bargain free-agent signings, and a commitment to a culture of winning (even before the winning began) and personal integrity.*
This team also boasted another young star in Kevin Durant. He seemed humble and gracious. Stories surfaced of his interaction with his hometown—video game hangouts with the local kids at his Momma’s house after school. He had a good, but quiet, sense of humor. And, best of all, he was determined to win—even when he lost. There was never a moment where he seemed to check out of a game or seem less-than-fully-immersed. You could see this burn in his eyes. His go-to line about just trying to get better everyday wasn’t a farce. We know this because we saw him get better every day. And the leaps between years was even greater. This was a superstar in the making. This is our torchbearer as Kobe’s career winds down. This is the man to lead our NBA…
In spite of the seemingly organic nature of his pathway to fame and success, there were also some calculated decisions in there by his largest sponsor in Nike, as well as some key moves that he made in regards to social media that helped him feel like the kid next door that we all want to see win.
Whereas LeBron tried to present a entourage-backed conglomerate and the peaks into his personal life were accidental, unbecoming, and quickly covered up, Kevin Durant appears to be an open book. He tweets about farting during games, playing video games, making hip-hop home-movies with the iSight cam with his “Broingtons” (Harden, Green, and KD), going to the mall to hangout, and not having a girlfriend. We eat this up because it’s real. And “real” in this world where everybody seems to be calculating every “spontaneous” audience-facing moment is very refreshing.
Nike caught onto this and ran a viral campaign on YouTube about a kid who lived next door to KD and would record him from his phone playing hoops in the front yard or leaving in his 10-passenger van (which is really what he drives). For a while everyone thought these were real. Everything was mundane and believable. Still, soon enough we caught on—it was Nike—but that only tarnished the campaign a little because we still believed in the reality of the moment.
From there Nike brought along the van and took Kevin into backyard barbecues, nursing homes, churches, and blacktops around the country where he would play pickup with old and young, having fun and laughing, teaching people how to do his pre-free throw shimmy shake. Scripted and high budget now, but we still believed the story. #BasketballNeverStops. We believe this because the reality was that he played pick-up summer league games nearly every day during the NBA Lockout last summer… you couldn’t pry him away from the court.
And as his successes on the court added up—Rookie of the Year, Scoring Champ, US Gold Medalist, All-Star MVP, and leading a team from the bottom of the barrel to the top of the Western Conference—we ate it up and applauded him. He and the city deserve this. They’ve worked so hard, committed to doing things the “right” way. And, most importantly, built from within—unlike their foes in tonight’s opening game of the Finals, the group from South Beach: LeBron, D-Wade, Bosh and the rest of the Heatles…
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Marketing in today’s culture involves a heavy and steady dose of real-time reality. Only that reality often feels insincere and crafted when it’s coming from the corporations at the top—we’re skeptical, wary, and slightly resentful even of the way it spams our FaceBook and Twitter feeds. We’re desperate for real reality. And Kevin Durant seems to give us that.
And while he’s real and seemingly down-to-earth, while we believe the boyish charm as he embraces and kisses his Mom’s cheek after every game is not just for the lights and the cameras, Kevin Durant has also not failed to capture our imaginations with fantastic narrative. Every step of his career has incredible story lines. Real, human athlete story lines that we yarn into fables over the years as we did with Michael Jordan.
This traditional embrace of narrative fused with today’s increasing need of public exposure and real-time communication—along with the stunning play on the court—is why Kevin Durant is our hero. It’s why he’s cast as Luke Skywalker to LeBron’s Darth Vader tonight. It’s why the world is on his side and cheering him on as he sets to take the court tonight in his first ever final’s appearance in just under three hours.
LeBron, you’re an incredible basketball player—most likely the best—and you’re a decent human being beneath the LBJ corporation. There’s really no reason to hate on you, to criticize and second guess your every step. You don’t deserve that. But… this is America. And we want our Davids to beat out the Goliath’s. We want our Main Street to gain some traction on the corrupt Wall Street. We want our girls next door to be the face of beauty and feminism and not photoshopped super models in unsustainable bodies… We want humans to win. We want reality to win. And tonight, we want Kevin Durant to win.
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* we won’t get into the integrity of the man who foots the bill for this great franchise… that, unfortunately, is a completely different story……………………… still bitter after all these years…