Ten years ago, I was a writer at Wieden+Kennedy and got an assignment to highlight Nike athletes through a lost art in advertising that was prevalent in the ’80s: the poster. If you're a sports fan over 30, you know what I'm talking about. The "high concept" posters like George "Iceman" Gervin sitting on a throne of ice with the word ICEMAN below him. Dr. Dunkenstein, Madison Square Guardian, Chocolate Thunder, The Supreme Court; Google those names and you'll get the drift. With the arrival of an 18-year-old phenom named LeBron James, it was time to bring the poster back to life.
The first poster was called "Revolution," which had multiple rookies, including LeBron, all positioned together as a living statue. Each posed perfectly on a giant cement base where the word "REVOLUTION" was etched. Underneath was a sentence that my little sister was kind enough to translate into Latin for me. "To create we must first destroy." Little did I know then that, with last week's events, that line would ring more true than ever. LeBron destroyed Cleveland when he left. He didn't mean to. His article in Sports Illustrated on Friday said everything that needed to be said. He always knew in his heart he'd be back. He just had to go to Miami for "college" to grow, learn and win some rings. Sadly, he also had to watch a city he loves burn his jerseys, curse his name and take down the "WE ARE ALL WITNESSES" wall across from the arena. That hurt me, too, as I was the writer of that line and the Witness campaign along with my partner, Jayanta Jenkins.
What we saw last week is nothing short of the best redemption story I've ever witnessed. We see a humble legend in the making, coming home to fulfill his legacy. Like every great warrior that goes to fight, all they really want is to come home. The difference with LeBron is that now he will come home to fight on his turf. His court. For his fans, friends and family. I truly believe that mostly this is a selfless move, a move that a young man would never make. When I worked on "The LeBrons" campaign while still at Wieden+Kennedy, we created four personalities for LeBron, because he had four distinct sides to him. Athlete LeBron, Kid LeBron, Business (Badass) LeBron, and Wise LeBron. He's a baller, a jokester, a business magnate and a wise man. It was easy for him to play those roles because they were all him. That was then.
Now, Wise LeBron is calling the shots. Oh, he's still at the top of the athlete chain, and I'm sure his sense of humor is intact. Badass LeBron (as we called him) is handling his business just fine. I have no doubt he’ll hit a billion, and he'll probably donate a ton to his foundations and philanthropic interests. But it’s all Wise LeBron, and last week he proved that by making the smartest decision he could ever make.
I'm grateful to have worked with LeBron over the past 10 years. I left W+K in 2006 to start an agency with Chris Raih in Venice, Calif., where we have worked with LeBron on several brands and NBA2K. The last spot I directed him in was to reveal he was the new cover star of NBA2K14. LeBron speaks in the dark, with his voice modulated like he’s in the witness protection program and divulging secrets, which he did. At the end, he leans into the light to reveal himself. "That's why I'm joining them," he says with a smile. The irony is thick with his announcement to return home.
We didn't talk much over 10 years, but that never bothered me. Going over the script with him for that NBA2K teaser, I found myself alone with him for the first time ever. I looked at the tattoo on his leg, which reads "WITNESS," and said, "Nice tattoo." He said, "Thanks, man, I need to get it redone." I replied with, "I'm thankful I got to write that line." Without a word, he quietly reached out his fist for a bump. I hit it just as quietly, and for that single moment we connected like never before. And I was the only witness.