Like most Americans who don’t reside in South Florida, I’ve long harbored a healthy disdain for LeBron James, the man who crushed the dreams of his fellow Ohioans on national television and, more recently, the championship aspirations of my Boston Celtics. I watched with pleasure as his Heat were dispatched by the Mavericks in 2011 and hoped that the 2012 Finals would see the coronation of the benevolent Kevin Durant, not the tyrant King James. But lately, I’ve found myself warming to the guy. It’s not because of anything he’s done on the court, where I still root against him happily and avidly. Rather, it’s due to his excellence in the field of pitchmanship. LeBron’s starring role in that ubiquitous Samsung ad has not only sold me on the versatility of the Galaxy Note II—it’s rehabilitated the character of a sports figure I once thought unredeemable.
The ad’s premise is simple and unpromising: It depicts a day in the life of the NBA star, specifically the day leading up to the Heat’s 2012 home opener, when the team received its championship rings (before going on to defeat the Celtics). Though I’d rather drink a carton of expired milk than watch LeBron use the Note’s turn-by-turn navigation to tool around A1A in his Ferrari, the ad is much cannier than that. While it doesn’t insult the viewer’s intelligence by suggesting that LeBron’s life is anything less than plush and pampered, it convincingly depicts a star who’s nevertheless affable and grounded, at home in Miami’s less glitzy corners and in his own skin.
The rebranding of Bron Bron begins in the ad’s opening frames, which depict a disarmingly domestic scene. LeBron pals around with his two young sons, one of whom demonstrates the utility of the Note’s “S Pen” stylus by doodling a giant red ’fro on a photo he’s just snapped of his dad. LeBron chuckles gamely as he helps himself to a bite of his other son’s Froot Loops.
After fielding a congratulatory text from Magic Johnson—“Congrats, young fella. Nothing like the first one. Enjoy the big night!”—and a quick video chat with some banner-holding schoolchildren, it’s time for a bit of joy-riding around Miami. Rather than an imported sports car, LeBron takes the wheel of a more modest, American-made Jeep, and the destination isn’t see-and-be-seen South Beach, but a series of more authentic-seeming local haunts. At the Mobile Culinary Kitchen, a Colombian food truck, James poses for photos with fans and even springs for lunch. While he waits for his order, he fields a call from Dru Joyce II, his coach at Akron’s St. Vincent-St. Mary’s high school. It’s a deft stroke, showing that James is still in touch with the people who helped launch his career, and with his Ohio roots.
At his next stop, Escobar’s Barbershop in Little Havana, LeBron sits down for a shave and trim. Again, every detail is expertly engineered to endear us to the star: He bumps fists with the regulars at the humble shop, who are delighted but not surprised to see him, suggesting LeBron is a regular himself. In the barber’s chair, he submits to several close-ups of his hairline, the ongoing retreat of which has been the subject of considerable mockery from his fans and detractors alike. When a fellow patron produces his own Galaxy Note to show LeBron a video of a sick jam (by a 5-foot-5 warehouse-worker-turned-dunk-artist named Porter Maberry), James is duly impressed and tweets out an admiring link. We’re left to imagine the impact such a tweet would have on the life of a relatively anonymous guy like Maberry. (And indeed, Maberry’s cameo in the ad has won him thousands of YouTube hits—and royalty checks from Samsung.) It’s King James as kingmaker.
Finally, it’s game time. Here we briefly glimpse the James we’ve come to know and hate: Pulling up to American Airlines Arena in a drop-top Porsche (obnoxious vanity plate: EARNED1), eyes hidden behind a pair of annoying sunglasses, the cheers of an adoring crowd blocked out by a set of Beats By Dre headphones. Yet as James walks to the locker room, he greets a lowly arena staffer with a high-five and a warm, generous smile—a reminder that the king loves all of his subjects.
The Samsung spot conveys a man who is confident but not cocky, serious about basketball but willing to laugh at himself—a down-to-Earth star. Even the score is perfect: Curtis Mayfield’s soulful “Keep on Pushing” befits a player who’s mellowed now that he’s got a championship under his drawstring but is far from satisfied. And it does all of this while still managing to sell the product at hand. Take that chat with the schoolchildren: It shows off the Note’s video conferencing capability while subtly touting LeBron’s philanthropic endeavors—the kids, it turns out, are participants in his “I Promise” charity. (Later, we glimpse LeBron’s “I Promise” bracelet, one of many Easter eggs that prompt the viewer to investigate the details of the ad and by extension the details of LeBron’s good works and sweet phone.)
Is the LeBron depicted in the ad the real LeBron? I have my doubts. James reportedly approached Samsung about the endorsement deal, which the electronics manufacturer spins as evidence of his legitimate love of the product but which a Cavaliers fan will surely see as crass calculation, especially at a moment when he seems to be making an all-out effort to burnish his image. (In the current issue of Sports Illustrated, which names him Sportsman of the Year, James talks candidly about the reforms he undertook after the ill-fated “The Decision” special: “I had to become a better person, a better player, a better father, a better friend, a better mentor and a better leader. I’ve changed, and I think people have started to understand who I really am.”) Yet I tip my hat to him for at least being savvy enough to author such an appealing counter-narrative. And that narrative has had an undeniable effect on me. I was as pleased as anyone to see the Heat fall last night to the lowly Wizards, but I can no longer muster the same visceral disdain for the man in the mouthguard. I’m still hoping you fail in your quest to bring home a second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh title, LeBron, but I can’t hate a man who appreciates a good empanada.