How did LeBron James go from villain to hero? Maybe those are stark definitions, but I don’t sense the same nationwide satisfaction with the NBA championships won by LeBron with Miami as the one he claimed with Cleveland last night.
There’s a single reason why he is being more celebrated for this championship than any other: Because this one, from a brand message standpoint, was not about himself. It was about Cleveland.
It is easy to be cynical about it because, of course, LeBron wanted another championship ring. Any competitor would – and judging by the extreme effort he showed in this series, he was supremely motivated.
We’ve all but forgotten how much many of us roared when Dallas upset Miami in LeBron’s first season there. He was coming off The Decision, a stunningly misguided TV event that left Cleveland fans burning his jerseys in the streets. That was because it was seen as a selfish move by a superstar who left his hometown to play with another superstar, Dwayne Wade. Losing to the Mavs in the Finals felt like karma biting him in the ass.
The next two seasons saw Miami win NBA titles and it was all but assured that James was seen as a selfish superstar. Only those in Miami were truly celebrating those victories.
But his return to Cleveland and winning the championship in spectacular fashion has changed the narrative.
This LeBron championship was more than about the player.
Brands are always most preferred when they are about the customers they serve. Brands are forgotten and treated as afterthoughts when they are about themselves. Nike’s Just Do It is about the customer. CitiBank’s Citi Never Sleeps is about CitiBank.
The Miami version of LeBron James was about James. The Cleveland version of LeBron was about Cleveland, the longtime laughingstock of the major sports leagues.
Certainly, there’s more to it than that. Down three games to one, James (and Kyrie Irving) brought the Cavaliers back from the brink of extinction with grit, confidence and getting into Steph Curry’s head. (I like Curry. But the mouth guard-throwing incident had the tone of a spoiled child to it.)
But once the championship of homegrown LeBron (who grew up in 40 minutes from Cleveland) developed, it overshadowed the mercenary LeBron we saw in Miami.
Now he is beloved.