TO: Our lapsedfans
FROM: Yourmarketing pals at the NBA
We understand whyyou left. Not enough passing, too much showboating. Ron Artest's pugilism atthe Palace, Kobe Bryant's infamous night in Colorado and Latrell Sprewell'sapproach to conflict resolution. And, sure, it has been hard to replace MichaelJordan and Charles Barkley, to say nothing of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. Wewere happy when some of you got excited about Larry Johnson for a while, but aguy dressed up like his grandmother in ads only gets you so far. ¬∂ Still, ithasn't been all bad, has it? There's Shaquille O'Neal; Kevin Garnett; a host ofscruffy, sweet-shooting foreign players; and, best of all, Tim Duncan--apleasant, fundamentally sound 7-footer who wins MVPs and rings and has asurname that screams endorsements. Slam Duncan! The Reverse Duncan! O.K., sohe's a bit like the Smithsonian magazine of NBA stars--reliable and highquality but gets killed by the tabloids on the newsstands. We get it now. Youwant excellence and personality, flash and heart.
Which brings us tothe exciting news: The good times are back, baby, thanks to LeDwelo! OrCardwon! O.K. so we haven't figured out a good handle for them yet, but we'rereferring of course to the three prime members of the draft class of 2003:LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade. Sure, we're always touting thehigh picks--apologies for that Summer of Starbury mailing back in 1997--butthese guys aren't mere products of shoe company hype, they're actualsupertalents on and off the court, dynamic, self-aware, personable and sexy.Did we mention sexy?
Check this out. Asthird-year pros last season all three averaged at least 26.5 points. The lasttime three guys so green pulled that off in the same season? Try 1963, whensecond-year forward Walt Bellamy scored 27.9 points per game, joining a coupleof third-year guards, Jerry West (27.1) and Oscar Robertson (28.3). That's 43years ago, or one year for every point Wade scored for the Heat last June inthat must-see, wake-up-the-kids performance against the Mavericks in Game 5 ofthe Finals. Not enough for you? Well, last season Wade accomplished somethingthat Vince Carter and Allen Iverson haven't (won a title), while James pulledoff a trifecta last achieved by Jordan (averages of 30 points, six rebounds andsix assists). And two seasons ago Anthony become the third-youngest player toscore more than 2,000 points in a year.
Team USA coach MikeKrzyzewski named these guys tricaptains at the FIBA World Championship in Japanin August. The squad won only bronze, but the trio represented their countryadmirably. Wade came off the bench without complaint, Anthony led the team inscoring, and James selflessly took up the role of playmaker. And there was nota single embarrassing international incident to report (unless you count thepick-and-roll defense in the semifinals against Greece).
They're in greatdemand. Wade's Heat and James's Cavaliers will be on national TV a league-high24 times each during the regular season (tied with the Lakers and the Suns),and Anthony's Nuggets will appear 14 times. Crossover appeal? Wade's in aConverse commercial (directed by Spike Lee!) and a Lincoln ad, and last May GQnamed him the NBA's best-dressed player. James recently guested on Lettermanand is scheduled to appear on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart this month. Melojust taped a SportsCenter ad and is on the cover of the latest NBA Street videogame. They're getting so much attention that the reigning Rookie of the Year,point guard Chris Paul of the Hornets, says, "I tell these guys, Leave somefor me. I wouldn't mind endorsing something. Won't be nothing left." (Don'tworry, Chris, someone will have to play LeBron's foil during his Space Jamphase.)
Or look at their Qratings. The Long Island, N.Y., firm Marketing Evaluations polls people aroundthe country to determine the name recognition and likability of celebrities. AQ rating above 15 is impressive; Brad Pitt is a 20, for example. Our guys?According to the latest survey taken over the summer, Anthony is a 13, James isa 21 and Wade is a 31 (second to Jordan among all sports figures). In fact,that type of love brings to mind our earlier holy trinity: In 1988 Jordan had a37 rating, Magic a 29 and Bird a 25. "No one's going to be anotherJordan," says Marketing Evaluation executive vice president Henry Schafer."But these guys are likable, present themselves well and cut across a lotof demographics. The NBA's got the right idea with these three."
Sure, some aretaking a wait-and-see approach. "We're anointing them early," says Sunscoach Mike D'Antoni, an assistant on the U.S. team. But most are on board."These guys are the real deal as players," says Heat coach Pat Riley."They understand their place in this game, and they're savvy above andbeyond what players used to be like, because of the [off-the-court] success ofa Michael Jordan. They know how to take care of business and how to translatetheir greatness into the marketplace as brand names."
Clippers forwardElton Brand, also a fan of the new troika, brings up another point: "Iheard people saying they're being promoted like Larry, Magic and Michael, but Isee it as a totally different dynamic. Larry and Magic were battling each otherevery year for rings, and then Michael came along and took the ring. Thesethree guys came in together."
Came in togetherand are hanging together. Back in the day, NBA stars were rivals, if notenemies. Johnson and Jordan were barely on speaking terms for years. Birdalmost came to blows with Magic in 1979 and tried to coldcock Julius Erving in'84. Bird met Jordan, then a North Carolina hotshot, during warmups before a1984 exhibition game between the U.S. Olympic team and NBA stars. Jordan's ballrolled down the court to where Bird was shooting. Bird picked it up, looked atJordan, then punted the ball over his head.
Not these three,who rarely go more than a few days, if not a few hours, without contact.Anthony e-mails Wade. Wade text-messages James. James leaves cell messages forAnthony. They dubbed themselves Our Family, which was extended to include Pauland Hawks guard Joe Johnson in Japan. "Wherever you saw one of us, you sawall of us," says Wade. Days were spent on the court. Nights were spent atthe card table, playing bourré, a cross between spades and poker. "We hungout and talked about the future of the league and our place in it," saysWade. "We call it Our Family of the Young Guys because we're the next guysto take the torch. Hopefully [Paul and Johnson] can come along with us andchange the game."
Change the game?Look, we admit it needs some changing. Fundamentals are in decline, the effortisn't always A-plus, and players have been known to spontaneously reenact anepisode of Cops. But we at the NBA prefer to focus on the positives, like ourthree young stars. We suggest that you make Our Family part of your family.
D-WADE: Guaranteedlovable, or your money back
PEOPLE WANT to compare the 6'4" Wade with Jordan, but they've got it wrong.Yes, he has a lot of MJ in him, but with ample parts Jason Kidd and Steve Nash."His passing skill is what really surprised me," says Brand, anothermember of the U.S. team at the worlds. "He's an amazing playmaker. All Ihad to do was drop [the ball] in the basket."
Speaking to Wade'slaconic demeanor, James calls him "the quiet assassin leader."Krzyzewski says, "Even though Dwyane's not that old, he has a maturityabout him."
The 24-year-oldWade is also humble (he says his sister Tragil is his role model); beautiful(according to the list makers at People) and at ease in front of the camera.Here he is filming a T-Mobile commercial in Santa Monica, by the pool of theViceroy hotel, with boom mikes, catered food and a cast of busty extras inbikinis portraying busty women in bikinis. Wade and Barkley are seated at agazebo, as if eating breakfast. The setup: Barkley boasts that he is "alegend, an icon" compared with the young turk Wade. Waitresses scamper tothe table, fawn over Wade and then turn to Barkley and say, "You must bevery proud of your son." Zing.
What's apparentduring the filming is that Wade can act, not just for-an-athlete act. Heimprovises gestures, ad-libs lines and throws himself into the scene. Hiscousin Antoine Wade, standing nearby, laughs when told that Dwyane looks like anatural. "Yeah, he loves to hear that," says Antoine. "But he tookacting classes at Marquette, and he's practicing all the time." Think ofthat: Wade's working to make your commercial breaks more entertaining.
Five more reasonsto embrace him.
1) He's not aproduct of shoe camps and talent brokers. Wade didn't make the Richards Highvarsity in Oak Lawn, Ill., until he was a junior and was seriously recruited byonly three Division I colleges.
2) When he appearedat Disney World after being named Finals MVP, he bused in hundreds ofinner-city and underprivileged children to join the celebration.
3) He's a uniter,not a divider. "He was never an overly cocky kid," says his high schoolcoach, Jack Fitzgerald. "He got all the acclaim, but the other guys on theteam loved him, loved how he made them feel. There was no jealousy, and that'spretty amazing because this is high school."
4) He knows hishistory--of commercials, that is. "My favorite growing up was Larry andMichael playing H-O-R-S-E," Wade says of the 1993 McDonald's ad. "Ijust remember Bird saying, 'Off the middle of the court, off the Jumbotron,nothing but net.' That was just great. LeBron and I talk about that; it wouldbe great to do something like that. It was good for the sport to see two icons,two guys who fought and went through battles, come together and be justpeople."
5) He's lookingforward to having a second child with his wife, Siohvaughn. They have afour-year-old son, Zaire. (Hey, after Shawn Kemp, we've got to publicize thiskind of stuff.)
CARMELO: Now with50% more maturity!
HERE'S A momentyou probably missed. After Greece upsets the U.S., 101--95, in the worldchampionship semifinals, the American players trudge toward the tunnel thatleads to their locker room. Lagging behind is the 6'9" Anthony, head bowed.James sees this and waits, then offers his hand, like a father reaching back toa young child. He pats Anthony on the hip, then puts his arm around him."When we lost that game, I felt like it was the end of the world,"Anthony recalls. "I sat there and tried to breathe, and I felt like Icouldn't. [James] came over to me and said, 'We're going to be all right. Westill got [the Olympics in] 2008.'"
Couldn't breathe?If this depth of feeling strikes you as un-Melo-like, then perhaps you arethinking of the old Anthony. The one who had dopey friends, run-ins with thelaw, battles with his coaches (Larry Brown at the 2004 Olympics, George Karl inDenver) and little interest in defense. Meet Melo 2.0. Testimonials,please!
D'Antoni: "Hewas the best player [on the national team] the first couple of weeks for sure,if not at the end. He really attacked practices."
Brand: "Ididn't know he worked that hard. He got up shot after shot. He was big forus."
Wade: "He wason a mission. Not to show anyone up, but to show that what happened [at theAthens Olympics] in 2004 was because he was young. He's showing the world, Thisis what I'm about now, and that's what I was about then."
Take a guy out ofhis element--and away from his posse--and he can gain perspective. "Atfirst it was weird being over there, by yourself," says Anthony, 22, of hisexperience in Japan this summer. "You don't have friends with you. Then youstart thinking about a lot of stuff and things start to become moreclear."
For instance, thelimits of friendship. In October 2004 Anthony was cited for possession ofmarijuana before boarding the team plane; that charge was dropped when one ofhis friends claimed responsibility for the drugs, which he said he'd left inAnthony's backpack. In July police found marijuana in a car registered toAnthony that another of his friends was driving; again, Anthony was absolved ofany wrongdoing. He says he's since had "heart-to-hearts" with hisbuddies, explaining to them that this is no way to live. "If they don'tknow that by now, they're fools," Anthony says. And if something happensagain? "It's too late, it's over," he says. "You can't breast-feedthe baby too long."
See, Melo nowoffers personal responsibility and the creative use of metaphors. And he'staking initiative. Last month he stopped in to see commissioner David Stern inNew York City on a Friday afternoon. (James came by three days later.) ThoughStern won't give specifics on the discussion--"We talked about currentevents, current basketball events"--Anthony got some valuable face time.And what about his playing a central role in the remaking of the league'simage? "I'm pretty sure [Stern's] not going to just come out and saythat," says Anthony, "but that's the feeling I got [at themeeting]."
And now, threemore aspects of the new and improved Melo.
1) He's making acommitment. In July, Anthony agreed to a five-year, $80 million extension withthe Nuggets, a deal two years longer than the ones James and Wade signed,saying, "This is where I want to be. The whole state has embracedme."
2) He's all aboutD. O.K., so that's an overstatement; he's still prone to reaching and is a poorhelp-side defender, but at least he's working at it. "He gets a knock, andsometimes LeBron gets a knock about not being defenders, but when you see guystrying to get better at it, that's what matters," says Wade. "Carmelo'strying to become a complete player. We saw it in Japan. I was reallyimpressed."
3) He's workingfor the kids. Anthony has taken over an abandoned rec center in his hometown ofBaltimore and is turning it into the Carmelo Anthony Youth Development Center.He's even getting Jordan to do some promo work for it. "I always wanted tobuild a rec center," says Anthony. "I wanted to start from the groundup, but this worked out. I'm renovating the whole center to make it mine."He renovates his center, we renovate his image.
LeBRON: Approvedby nine out of 10 Chinese teens
WADE MAY have thehigher Q rating, but the 6'8" James is more of a household name. MarketingEvaluations measures the public's familiarity with Wade at 27% (that is, aboutone in four Americans knows who he is), while James's is 46%. (By comparison,Tiger Woods's is 85% and Jordan's is 80%.) Over the summer in his native Akron,James and his marketing team held a "summit" for four of his sponsorsso they could talk about how to better build the global brand of LeBron.
Joining Team USAdidn't hurt James's image. While in China for an exhibition game before theworld championships, he signed autographs in a schoolyard in Guangzhou. InSapporo and Tokyo, Nike held LeBron press conferences at his hotels, which weredecorated throughout with framed portraits of James and pillows embroideredwith his likeness. Passengers departing at Saitama-Shintoshin train stationnorth of Tokyo were greeted by not one but two different Nike billboards ofJames. He even learned some Mandarin before his appearances in China. "Ihad my note cards, my cheat sheets," he says. What's important is, he madethe effort.
The point: Hewants the attention and is prepared for the responsibility that comes with it.Remember when Barkley argued that athletes weren't role models? The 21-year-oldJames disagrees. "Kids look up to us," he says. "They love the waywe play the game of basketball, and they like some of the things we do off thecourt, so we are role models. That wasn't Barkley's point of view, but he knowshe's a role model no matter how many times he says [otherwise]."
Five more thingsyou should know about King James.
1) He likessports, maybe even more than you do. James will watch anything from the WorldSeries of Poker to English soccer. He's also pals with Tom Brady, MariaSharapova and Lance Armstrong.
2) He preferspassing to scoring. "What you realize when you play with him is that he'svery selfless," says Brand. "Because of the commercials and the fame,all the fans over there [in Japan] wanted to see him score and dunk, but heseemed like he didn't care if he was sacrificing points. He wanted to be thedistributor."
3) He's all aboutbang for the buck. According to 82games.com, James was the most valuable playerin the league last year based on its Fair Salary rating, which factors inoffensive production, defense, influence on team success and minutes played.The site calculated that James, who was paid $4.6 million, was worth $27.39million, just ahead of Bryant and--you guessed it!--Wade. Who said all NBAplayers are overpaid?
4) He can appearunassuming. Asked if he considers himself an ambassador for the game, he says,"I just consider myself one of the good players in our league, and just tryto spread the game and the right way to play it--and that's being a teamplayer. Being an ambassador, that's such a big word. I'm nowhere near thatyet."
5) He respects hishoops forebears (if not their haircuts). In Japan, as Team USA strolled throughthe Institute of Sports Science, James stopped at a flat-screen TV. Wade andAnthony joined him. On the tube, the Magic were playing the Rockets in the 1995Finals, a skinny Shaq versus a crafty Hakeem Olajuwon. James made a crack aboutO'Neal's near-buzz cut, causing Wade and Anthony to break into giggles, yet theplayers remained there, transfixed. They stared at the screen, one generationpaying silent homage to its predecessor. "That's one thing about the threeof us: We respect greatness," explains Wade. "We respect what the guysbefore us did to get [the league] to this point. Without them, there'd be nous. We love the game of basketball, we love the history of basketball. We wereexcited and giddy talking about Shaq and Olajuwon."
And hopefullyyou'll be excited and giddy talking about Wade and James and Anthony. Really,just check them out. We're not promising that every game is worth watching--orany Hawks game, for that matter. But this league has moved past relying on theShaq-Kobe drama. With this trio of stars, the next 10 years could be anothergolden age. As SuperSonics guard Ray Allen says, "A lot is riding on thoseguys."
Of course, it'sconceivable that James, Wade and Anthony might not be the next Michael, Magicand Bird, or even the next West, Robertson and Bellamy. But isn't thepossibility that they will--the chance to witness transcendent talent blossom,to see historic rivalries forged, to be swept up in the beauty of high-calibercompetition--the reason you watch sports in the first place?
SELLING THE NBA
A Timeline: From Mikan to Michael to Multi-LeBron