Hyping the Hype

Nike cleverly spins the fuss over $90 mil. spokesman LeBron James into a religious fervor

Here’s something different: a spot for a new Nike basketball shoe that doesn’t elicit instant raves. It’s not your regular crowd-pleaser—more of an acquired taste, without the intense, high-flying elegance of a Michael Jordan dunk or the magical dribbles and hypnotic rhythms of “Freestyle.” Instead, it features the now-19-year-old NBA rookie and $90 million Nike endorser LeBron James, wearing his signature shoes, as he enters a raucous service at a Baptist church.

“I hate that commercial,” says my friend, a basketball fanatic in his early 40s who’s white. “I think it’s incredibly racist, with all those black stereotypes of shucking and jiving. What was Nike thinking?”

Interestingly, this spot, “The Book of Dimes,” was written by Jimmy Smith, the very same guy who brought us our last few Nike basketball faves, including “Freestyle” and the inspired three-part faux ’70s documentary series “Rucker Park,” which combined street ball with funk. He’s African American and created this spot with his art director partner, Jayanta Jenkins, who is also black. (Sadly, I don’t think there is another African American team in the whole mainstream agency biz.) And it’s directed by Allen Hughes, also black, who with his twin, Albert, directed Menace II Society and Dead Presidents.

One answer for the guy who thinks it’s racist is that there is absolutely no shuckin’ and jivin’ here, only a very fast, dense joke and a celeb-filled re-creation of a Baptist service—if churchgoers suddenly saw the light through basketball. It’s based on baby LeBron’s response when pressed to explain how he got so good: “Basically, I’m just blessed. God just blessed me.” The spot is dedicated to “King James, the chosen one.”

Although he’s proved himself as an all-around player and no showboater, LeBron has played less than half a season—when Nike signed him, no one thought the Hummer-driving kid could live up to the hype. Therefore, by showing him as some basketball savior, the Second Coming to the whole Nike family, the sneaker maker manages to embrace the hype while making fun of it. And Nike-ness is next to godliness in this case—there’s a great shot of the shoes as James sweeps into the church and causes pandemonium.

Leading the congregation, reading from “the King James playbook,” is Bernie Mac. Having a comedian play a reverend is hardly sacrilegious, it’s a staple in black comedy. Think Richard Pryor in Which Way Is Up? to Mr. “Say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud” James Brown, playing a reverend in The Blues Brothers. (And on television, everyone from Flip Wilson to Cedric the Entertainer has broadened the idea of ministry and humor.)

Here, Mac (Rev. Rock), at the pulpit in reading glasses and a striped Nike warmup suit, gets to go all basketball evangelical (“Ooh, I feel the soul of the team comin’ over me!” he shouts), and the congregation responds ecstatically. Of course, this is no traditional congregation or choir—they are b-ball stars, street legends, including Billy “The Kid” Harris, Pee Wee Kirkland, Jumpin’ Jackie Jackson and Fly Williams. The guy with his arms up, leading the choir, is Bootsy Collins in his trademark star glasses, and the singers are women of the WNBA (Sue Bird, Dawn Staley, Sheryl Swoopes, Nikki Teasley, Tina Thompson, Swin Cash and Tamika Catchings).

“Can I get a layup?” the man of velour asks his followers. “Layup!” they scream and then, “Shake him!” There’s also an elder pew—in this case, the graying wise ones are NBA Hall of Famers Julius Erving, Jerry West, George Gervin and Moses Malone. Admittedly, no one will catch all of this, even after serial viewings.

The Chosen One, we find out, has asked only for “court vision” and “glory for his team.” When the b-ball Messiah arrives, he dribbles down the center aisle, never hogging the ball, passing it off to kids who then make crazy, high-flying dunks through the hoops attached to the church balconies. Meanwhile the choir sings, “He’s got crazy court vision and his flow is nonstop! Pass, pass, pass, pass.”

It’s a lot to synthesize, but once you get the setup, it doesn’t come off as racist. At the same time, this being America, some Christian and religious groups are complaining about sacrilege. Smith says he actually vetted the ad with his own pastor, who is “old school.” (He gave the commercial his blessing and thought it was funny.)

People thought James’ $90 million would create a monster; instead, we get the messiah of Swoosh.