For basketball fans in the United States, and particularly in the state of Ohio, LeBron James represented everything you could hope for in a hometown hero. Growing up in Akron, Ohio, James was drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers. He dazzled the hometown crowd with his unsurpassed range—he could shoot the three, or post up for the slam-dunk. He was their “King James”, and he brought glory to a desolate basketball town. Despite being a two-time league Most Valuable Player, something was missing for LeBron in Cleveland—he still could not reach the coveted prize, an NBA championship.
After a disappointing end to the season in 2010, LeBron James shocked the world when, in a televised one-hour special, infamously known as “The Decision,” he announced that he would be packing his bags to “take his talents to South Beach.” Nevermind that proceeds from the primetime ESPN special generated more that $2.5 million for the Boys and Girls Club charity. The announcement—and the arrogance with which it was made—unleashed the wrath of an entire city. Fans burned jerseys in the street in protest, and the president of the Cavaliers, Dan Gilbert, authored an open letter to fans, in which he called LeBron a “former hero” who had “deserted” his hometown in a “shocking act of disloyalty” with a “narcissistic, self-promotional build-up.” LeBron's appeal in Cleveland—and in the NBA more broadly—stemmed primarily from his devotion to the Cavs, and to the state of Ohio. By packing it up for South Beach, his likeability advantage all but disappeared.
The public display of arrogance a catastrophic effect on LeBron's overall likeability. According to Henry Schafer, executive vice president in charge of the Q Scores (the evaluator in our food chain), LeBron was once viewed in a significantly more positive light then his peers. However, after “The Decision,” his Q Score rating showed that only 14 percent of people viewed James positively, and 39 percent of people had a negative opinion of him—the same appeal as the scorned Tiger Woods and Michael Vick. As Schafer noted, "That was the first time we saw such a precipitous drop in appeal without something criminal happening.” The average sports personality, by comparison, has only a 24 percent negative rating. As LeBron's first season with the Miami Heat began, his popularity slowly began to increase as the wins piled on. As Matt XXXX of The Marketing Arm told me, unlike celebrities, “athletes have a greater opportunity to rebound because they can go out and win, and America likes winners.” And Lebron was doing just that: he was winning. Two championships, in fact.
Though basketball fans could respect a winner, a natural advantage for a talented player like James, his likeability still had yet to fully rebound. The image conscious James, likely with a team of savvy public relations experts behind him, doubled down on existing qualities—namely, his talent—and also drew out new, previously subdued traits. In 2013, during a break in a regular season game, a fan made a one-handed, half-court shot to win $75,000. Conveniently, James' foundation had sponsored this specific promotion, and in an act of raw, relatable exuberance, James stormed the court and tackled the fan. Thanks to the pervasive nature of social media, the incident was posted to YouTube and has been viewed nearly 35 million times. For James, the seemingly minor act checked off a number of the boxes: captivating (check); relatable (check); compassionate (check); authentic (check). Once called the “Whore of Akron,” instantly, James became more likeable.
King James' likeability received another boost when, in 2014, he announced in a less contrived fashion that his stint in South Beach had run its course, and he would be returning to Cleveland. In a Sports Illustrated essay, James reflected on his choice to move to Miami, noting with clear remorse, “My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball. I didn't realize that four years ago. I do now.” And in an act of perceptiveness and compassion, he added, “What if I were a kid who looked up to an athlete, and that athlete made me want to do better in my own life, and then he left? How would I react?” The “second coming” of King James was now in full swing, and Cleveland fans quickly opened their arms. Where once they burned his jersey in the streets, now according to a poll, six out of ten Ohioans were ready for James' triumphant return.
Since his return to Cleveland, James has continued to strengthen both the authenticity and relatability that drove the rebirth of his likeability. He has taken the drama and self-seriousness that people once criticized him for, and like many others before him, turned it into fodder for comedy. Through a hilarious turn in the romantic comedy Trainwreck, alongside Amy Schumer, Bill Hader, and director Judd Apatow, LeBron continued to demonstrate the more jocular side of his personality. In a Funny or Die sketch, LeBron brings the three to stars Akron, Ohio for a tour ahead of the Trainwreck premiere. While drinking milk shakes at a local drive-in, LeBron pitches his idea for a sequel. When Hader rejects it, LeBron self-deprecatingly scoffs, “aren't we a team? Now you're going to be selfish?” Comeback complete.
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