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Layups: LeBron’s Autobiography

Posted by Neil Paine on September 3, 2009

Over at TrueHoop, Henry Abbott raises some interesting points about LeBron James' new autobiography -- co-written with Buzz Bissinger -- and talks about how James essentially blew an opportunity to tell his own story in a way we hadn't heard before (no small feat, considering a good deal of LeBron's formative years were played out before a national media audience). Instead, Henry argues, James' tale is stale, an "unnecessary" book that offers nothing we didn't already know already from the scores of LeBron bios already on the shelves. No chances are taken; everything is strictly by the numbers. Worse yet, it's apparently not all that difficult to know whose voice is telling the story -- James sometimes, but in other cases obviously Bissinger.

This isn't a phenomenon specific to LeBron James, of course; athletes have churned out ghost-written "autobiographies" ever since the media first started covering sporting events. But in light of Dunkgate earlier this summer, I don't think it's ever been more obvious how carefully crafted a megastar's public image is than it is for LeBron right now. Michael Jordan started the phenomenon, of course, but he still managed to feel like a real person despite hawking Gatorade, Hanes, and Ballpark Franks... At the time, you never seriously questioned what was genuine and what wasn't -- perhaps out of naivete, but perhaps because MJ did actually possess a lot of the charisma and personal magnetism he displayed in his "public persona".

Today's stars have appropriated the Jordan script, though, and it's painfully obvious that they're forcing what fit MJ like a glove on themselves, simply for marketing purposes. This is not to say that current players like James or Kobe Bryant have no charisma (clearly they do), or that they're presenting personae completely out of step with their true selves. But what was only vaguely suspected with Jordan (is he really like what we see in those Nike ads?) has become overtly telegraphed in the way athletes are portrayed in the modern media, to the point that the "managed image" is the default expectation, and we're actually surprised when a player steps outside the boundaries established by his PR team.

So the fact that LeBron James co-wrote a bland, uncontroversial autobiography devoid of new insight isn't really the issue here. Rather, it's that we neither expected nor demanded anything more that's so damning about the way megastar athletes are presented to us in the post-Jordan era.

3 Responses to “Layups: LeBron’s Autobiography”

  1. Jason J Says:

    Neil - I think what you're seeing is that the carefully constructed Jordan image was built out of the pleasant Wilmington, NC meets Madison Avenue bits and pieces the real Michael Jordan, and the carefully constructed LeBron et al images are also built out of the Wilmington, NC meets Madison Avenue bits and pieces the real Michael Jordan.

    I wouldn't necessarily say MJ was any more genuine (at least not by the time he was bald), just that his false mask more closely resembled him than these others' do, since the others' are made to resemble his. But that doesn't mean you were any more likely to get a truly candid response from Michael than you are from this generation.

  2. Neil Paine Says:

    Oh, I completely agree. It's not really even about getting completely candid responses, but more about getting some piece of the actual person behind the facade -- like you say, at least with MJ we were getting some part of him, however filtered down. With Kobe and even LBJ, we're not getting them at all, we're just getting Jordan re-hashed, MJ 2.0. And it's transparent. We know that's what we're getting. In the past, at least they weren't telegraphing to the fans that the public persona you saw wasn't real. Nowadays, it's openly accepted as a fact of NBA life. And the rare players who buck that trend -- Artest, etc. -- are labeled "crazy" when they give us a glimpse of what's really going on in their lives.

  3. Ricardo Says:

    LeBron displayed an unfortunate (though very real) part of himself when he left the court without offering congratulations to the Magic. Small wonder that he would prefer to offer a more manufactured image.

    I don't say this to vilify LeBron, because I try not to judge people by one or two bad incidents. He's human and as entitled to slip up as much as any of us. But many people in LeBron's target demographic didn't like it at all, and LBJ is a businessman. He knows not to piss off potential customers too often.