Oct 30, 2014 · 3 minutes

Who is LeBron James?

Is he a fresh-faced youth who, displaying maturity beyond his years, keeps his head and down and lives up to the hype? Is he a goofball whose nice-guy attitude is a relatable counterpoint to his terrifying on-court prowess? Is he a devil-may-care lord of darkness who simply doesn't care what jilted Cleveland fans think? Or are they all acts, and James is really the Rust Belt Savior who has returned to solve all of Northern Ohio's social ills?

In each of these ads, James, who tonight will play his first regular season game with the Cavaliers since his undignified departure to the Miami Heat, is whoever Nike wants us to think he is. And because of the shoe company's Draper-esque command of the modern advertisement, fans keep eating it up. Including me.

Just look at the commercial Nike released today celebrating James' return to Cleveland. The beautifully-shot black-and-white spot opens on James delivering a pre-game pep talk huddled with his teammates.

"We gotta do it for them, dog," he says. "We gotta do it for Cleveland, they're waiting on us."

It then cuts to fans leaving their arena seats to join the huddle as some synth note that may or not be M83 drowns out the crowd noise. Next, residents situated in various overcast Cleveland locales gather together too, supporting one another in their own huddles as James' voiceover describes the debt he owes this city -- this city that some derisively call "the mistake on the lake." Not only has James returned to bring Cleveland its first professional sports championship in 50 years -- he's here to inspire the city, to bring manufacturing jobs back, even to atone for the Cuyahoga River fire, which caught aflame because it was so polluted. He is at once Moses leading the Israelites to freedom, and Jesus sacrificing his body for the city's sins.


Perhaps no athlete in history has undergone such a wild narrative arc -- from hometown hero to abhorred abomination to metropolitan messiah -- and Nike has milked that drama for all its worth. Certainly, Cleveland didn't need this ad to forgive James. Even Scott Raab, whose anger toward James led him to write a book called "The Whore of Akron," had already accepted him back home with open arms. The only thing Americans like more than championships are second chances.

But there's also something a little insidious here. There's nothing wrong with hoping that your city's team wins lots of things. Family and friends form bonds over sports -- bonds that are far stronger than the contracts that keep this or that star player on this or that team. But the notion that what ails a city can be cured by the return of the best basketball player on the planet is a marketing canard.

Following James' initial departure, ESPN's Wright Thompson walked around Cleveland asking regular folks and local persons-of-note how they felt about the departure. Here's what homegrown writer Charles Michener had to say:

LeBron James is a great symbol for what's right and wrong. Cleveland for too many years has lived in a kind of unreality about the benefit of being a big, major league sports town.


I was caught up in it. I felt LeBron James was very important. We all went too far. Cleveland, in its desperation, went too far.


I think Cleveland learned a lesson. I hope so. I grew up two hours south of Cleveland, and today I live in New York, so it isn't really my place to judge anybody else's fandom. And as a life-long Cavalier fan myself, I couldn't be happier about his return. But the narrative Nike has built around James -- that Cleveland is a struggling but proud city, and that its most important emotional and financial investments should focus on a startlingly talented basketball player -- is as much a distortion of reality as the company's Eddie Murphy-inspired commercials where James plays four different characters.

The truth is, James is an athlete who, with a legacy to preserve and having already secured his championship rings, would rather be remembered as a good guy than a bad guy. Nike is a company that sells shoes and, by framing the narrative of its biggest endorser as some sort of hero's journey, stands to sell a lot more shoes. And Cleveland is a city full of culture and character, but also some serious unemployment and poverty issues. The return of King James will be a lot of fun. But the future of Cleveland isn't riding on it.