LeBron adds another chapter in his offseason PR nightmare

Aug 14th, 2010 | By sportsnews | Category: Sports

Since the ill-fated “Decision,” it has been all downhill for LeBron James. Downhill, and now out of sight.

The latest botched attempt at protecting James’ bruised public image came Thursday night at Radio City Music Hall, when James was shielded from the spotlight during a Nike-sponsored Team USA scrimmage on the stage that belongs to the Rockettes. James was the only NBA star seated courtside who was not shown on the giant video screens or handed a microphone to speak publicly. As if it was possible to hide the sport’s biggest star in the middle of its showcase event on the most famous performance stage in the country.

Nice try, but James hiding from public scorn is worse than the boos that would’ve ensued in his first public appearance in New York since he shunned the Knicks as a free agent. And surely, such boos couldn’t have been as bad as the heckling James recently experienced while shooting baskets at Cedar Point Amusement Park in Sandusky, Ohio.

But I digress. James’ missteps didn’t end there, proving that he doesn’t even have to be around to do something wrong. James did not attend a Jordan Brand breakfast and public appearance at storied Rucker Park in Harlem on Friday morning in conjunction with Nike’s elaborate World Basketball Festival. Teammate Dwyane Wade and pals Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul showed up to pay homage to Michael Jordan, posting pics on Twitter to commemorate their appearance with the man they called “legendary” and “the greatest.” Not LeBron, though, as far as anyone saw.

So, I called LeBron’s New York-based publicist, Keith Estabrook, to confirm that James — who unlike Wade, Melo and Paul isn’t a Jordan Brand athlete — was, in fact, not in attendance.

“No, he’s LeBron James,” Estabrook said. “He’s his own brand.”

As the great Steve Martin used to say, well, ex-cuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuse me.

No, James isn’t a Jordan Brand athlete. But he is Nike’s highest-profile pitchman now that Tiger Woods’ life and golf career are in freefall. The World Basketball Festival, a four-day, Nike-sponsored and Nike-produced event surrounding Team USA training camp in New York, has been staged without so much as a peep from King James.

Well, no peeps, but a memorable tweet. While presumably en route to New York for the week’s festivities, James tweeted Tuesday: “Don’t think for one min that I haven’t been taking mental notes of everyone taking shots at me this summer. And I mean everyone!”

I’m most assuredly already on that list, so joining it is not my motivation for writing this. The motivation comes from disappointment with the sad spectacle of the Summer of LeBron, and also from curiosity.

Is James simply laying low, unsure of how to ease himself back into the public eye after a summer of PR gaffes that sent his “Chosen One” image tumbling? Or is this attempt to separate himself from his peers — and from Jordan on Friday — a calculated move?

Perhaps Jordan, LeBron’s alleged basketball muse, is on LeBron’s mental-notes hit list after he criticized the King’s decision to join forces with Wade in Miami. Perhaps Charles Barkley, who eviscerated James in a radio interview this week, wasn’t having an event that James could blow off.

Maybe Estabrook — who revealed that he was on vacation when reached on his cell phone Friday — had simply grown irritated with all the LeBron criticism when he gave that uppity answer about LeBron being his “own brand.”

But what if this is the new LeBron? What if this summer has revealed that LeBron not only thinks he’s above the NBA, but also — gasp — above Nike?

In the days before he announced his decision to sign with the Heat in that widely ridiculed national TV show on July 8, James took the first steps toward rebranding himself. He joined Twitter. His website, LeBronJames.com, got a new look — the final version of which we are still breathlessly waiting to be unveiled.

What if joining Wade, who signed on with the Jordan Brand last July, is part of James’ grand plan to break ranks? From Nike’s standpoint, it does seem like overkill to have the company’s two most marketable basketball stars playing in the same city. James has always spoken of his lofty goals on and off the basketball court. By joining Wade, he’s accepting a sidekick role because the Heat will always be Wade’s team. If it results in championships, then James obviously believes it’s worth the sacrifice.

But it’s more difficult to envision LeBron taking a back seat to Wade in the marketing world. It is Wade, after all, who’s in Jordan’s stable of athletes. It was Wade who was chosen by Jordan to wear his 25th anniversary shoe. And it was Wade soaking up some of Jordan’s spotlight Friday at Rucker Park, while James — his own man, his own brand — was nowhere to be found.

When Jordan announced that Wade would wear that 25th anniversary shoe, he joked about how Wade thinks he can beat Jordan in 1-on-1.

“The only way to find out is to put these shoes on and go out and play,” Jordan said. “He’s wearing my shoe. I’m not wearing Dwyane Wade’s shoe.”

And maybe that’s it. Maybe the off-handed remark from James’ publicist falls under the many-a-truth-is-said-in-jest category. Having conceded supremacy on the court, maybe LeBron has a big surprise in store for all of us off the court someday. Maybe, in the end, he just doesn’t want to wear somebody else’s shoes.

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