Thursday, November 27, 2008

Loyalty and Low-Key

In grade school, I watched The Flintstones ad naseum. I liked the cartoon, but I was especially fascinated by Fred's feet. How could he get the car to go so fast without scuffing a toe? Didn't Wilma freak out when they rubbed feet in bed? Did he see a pedicurist? These are the hard questions of the pre-pubescent mind.

I haven't watched the Flintstones in 20 years or more, but I've wondered if the product placement gurus have bought the rights to Fred's feet? Has some poor hand been asked to sketch Birkenstocks into the frames? Wouldn't Betty Rubble set the neighborhood on fire in a pair of Jimmy Choos? There is money to be made, you see.

I don't begrudge advertisers. If the good people at Birkenstock bought up the rights to Fred Flintstone's feet I would congratulate them for their ingenuity. A pair of pleistocene peddles is a good a place as any to hawk fashionable footwear.

Still, there is a difference between advertising that is tastefully integrated and a gaudily ubiquitous spam-a-thon. A badly planned blind of billboards can clutter up an otherwise beautiful view; too much light on the street clouds the night sky. Everything in moderation. At a time when "keeping it real" has been co-opted by cliche, produced, packaged, and sold to the kids on the corner, I'm thankful to be a Spurs fan.

Let me come at this from a different angle.

I would never want to meet Michael Jordan. To shake his hand you need to insert a quarter at the wrist. Jordan, more than any other human being, represents the subjugation of person to product. His transformation from UNC baller to global icon put the world of basketball into a lock step in which it has cheerfully marched ever sense.

This is nowhere more obvious than LeBron James' self-described quest to become a global icon, or in the self-serving marketing circus he has foisted on the NBA. Could those Big Apple Nikes have been any less timely or tasteless? His public image and speech constitute an exceedingly banal and insincere form of sloganeering. Henry Abbott summed it up nicely:

The basic rule of PR in these situations is not to be fancy. You don't want to inspire reporters to dig deep into something where there are no real answers. You want to end the story, because the more of a media fire there is, the greater the chance that you could get burned. (Remember, this is the guy who shelved his convictions about genocide so as not to make a distraction for Team USA. He seems to have no such scruples with the Cavaliers.)

Even if you want to leave all your options open, all you have to say is that you love playing in Cleveland, you're from Ohio, and you'll worry about your next contract when this one is done.

That would be enough to get the amplifiers turned up. Teams would still clear cap space for you, just in case. But that's not enough for LeBron James. He's taking it to a whole different level. His amplifier goes to eleven.

These are the sort of distractions whose domination of the headlines make San Antonio "boring" by comparison. But ask any thinking Cavaliers fans if boring would not be a blessing right now. Could the answer be any more obvious?

The Spurs of course want wide profit margins. Their players are not above, nor should they be, accepting endorsement deals. Basketball is a business, marketing is money. The AT&T Center, despite its Green ambitions, will never double for Walden Woods.

This is another way of saying that in San Antonio people out rank product. Community counts, in the city and on the court. It's not lip service. Even the potentially distracting "tabloid marriage" of Tony Parker and Eva Longoria is a bore by celebrity couple standards.

For better or worse, Tim Duncan will never pimp a pair "Big Shoulders" when visiting Chicago, no matter how much he loves the Bears. Some say it's because no one would care if he did, and that's true. But Duncan and the Spurs set that course, not the make-more-money strategist. Were Duncan amenable, he could have been coached, primped and prodded toward greater celebrity. When one doesn't have image, it can be given to them. Duncan could have jumped through those hoops with the grace of a ballerina.

Mike Monroe recounts the contrast this way:
No fans around the NBA can relate to what Cavaliers fans are feeling these days quite like Spurs fans.

The trades the Knicks pulled off Friday have put them in the catbird seat for the summer of 2010, when LeBron James will be a free agent. They in position to have oodles of cash available to sign James, and possibly even another player from the talent-rich 2010 free-agent class that may include, besides James, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, Joe Johnson and Dirk Nowitzki.

Cavs fans may wear the prints off their fingers wringing their hands between now and July 1, 2010.

Spurs fans, though, remember the summer of 2000, when Tim Duncan was a free agent. Then, the presumption was nearly as strong that Duncan would depart San Antonio as it seems to be now that James will bolt Ohio for the Big Apple.

It is instructive to recall that summer of South Texas angst:

•The Orlando Magic, jilted by Shaquille O'Neal in the free-agent summer of 1996, putting on a dog-and-pony show for the player most apt to be turned off by such things.

•The Spurs flying David Robinson back to San Antonio from Hawaii for a one-on-one with Duncan.

•The loyalty and low-key factors ultimately winning the day for San Antonio.
Apples to oranges, you might say. But is it really? Duncan, just like Lebron, is a sure bet to get a team to the Finals. Duncan, just like LeBron, is an All-Time Talent. The situations are remarkably similar. The difference, however, is that for Duncan character is a commodity and for James it's all about the commodification of character. If intangibles are talent, if character counts, if "keeping it real" is virtue, then Duncan has it on James in spades.

It's ironic that the Cleveland Cavaliers strive to be the Spurs-Midwest. From the moment Ferry was hired, he has set out to do things the San Antonio Way. In terms of total championships, LeBron James certainly offers Cleveland the chance to get there. But the decision that will determine the fate of the franchise for the next 12 years could not be playing out more differently.

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