Leaving Lebron James

Branding Lessons from One of the World’s Greatest Athletes

We were watching Game 6 of the first round of the NBA playoffs between the Indiana Pacers and the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Pacers had been playing unusually tough for what was supposed to have been a first round sweep and they had just pulled off a shocking Game 6 win to force the series to seven games. The Indiana crowd was ecstatic. Cleveland hadn’t been playing with chemistry throughout the series and it was forcing Lebron to score 40+ points every night along with a few buzz beaters just to stay in it.

“He’s tired. He’s done.”

I had seen that look four years earlier during the 2014 NBA Finals. I remember Lebron walking off the court during a Game 5 loss that handed the San Antonio Spurs their fifth title. This time he was playing for Miami, but the situation was remarkably similar. James was putting up a heroic effort every night leading the Cavs in scoring, rebounds and assists, but he wasn’t getting the support from the rest of his team. He had a look of exhaustion that proved he did everything he possibly could, but it still wasn’t enough.

“He can’t score 40 points and still lose the game,” I said watching the Pacers celebrate their pivotal win. “They won’t get very far with that.

Lebron knew it too. How can one man put an entire team on his back, play at the highest level of his entire career, break scoring records nearly every game and still lose? It was a look that said, “I can play the greatest basketball of my life, and we still can’t win.” He was frustrated and exhausted.

After I saw that look in 2014, Lebron announced he would be leaving Miami to return home and bring a championship to Northeast Ohio. When I saw that same look during Game 6 against Indiana, I knew right then that Lebron was leaving. The decision had already been made. He had to build a team that would help him accomplish his goals… and it wasn’t going to happen in Cleveland.

While nearly everyone in Ohio is sad to see the King go, it makes sense for multiple reasons and perhaps we can learn a few lessons about branding along the way.

LeBron James the Brand

Leaving Cleveland is not a personal decision. It’s a decision about Lebron James the brand. The Lebron James brand is larger than Lebron James the person and those must be viewed separately. Regardless of how he feels personally about his hometown, Lebron James the brand is bigger than the city of Cleveland. This is the key filter he runs all his decisions through regarding his future: “What’s the best decision for Lebron James the brand?”

This question has always been at the forefront of Lebron’s strategy on and off the court. His investment of millions into The Lebron James Family Foundation to help children all over the world allows him to give back to thousands of kids growing up in similar situations as his. His media company, UNINTERUPTED is one of the key factors in choosing Los Angles as his next team and is laying the foundation for the next phase of his career outside of basketball. Plus, it’s allowing him to create content with a far wider influence than basketball. In my opinion, the question of “Who’s the greatest basketball player of all time?” will most likely be influenced by James’ personal brand and will give him an edge in that argument.

Lebron is also keenly aware of “lids” throughout his career. “Lids” are invisible barriers in an organization or place that limit your growth. It becomes a ceiling that you can’t outgrow. No matter how much better you get, you won’t be able to rise above the “lid.” This is probably the single biggest reason why he never signed more than a one-year deal when returning to Cleveland. He understood the potential of a “lid” and wanted to make sure that he had the flexibility to move on when he needed. I think it’s safe to say that Lebron James out grew Cleveland.

Lebron James the Story

Leaving? Or staying? Either way, it’s all about the larger “story.” There are two versions to how this plays out:

The Stay-In-Cleveland Story: Lebron stays in Cleveland where he continues to perform at an elite level. He will break nearly every scoring record ever set, but will fall short of Michael Jordan for overall championships. He’ll be viewed as a martyr; a forever underdog who struggled to do the impossible, all the while remaining loyal to his hometown.

The Leave-Cleveland Story: Lebron leaves Cleveland for a team that is committed to winning. He sacrifices some individual records but has a real shot of surpassing Michael Jordan for career championships. He becomes one of the very few players to win Finals with multiple teams and in both conferences (something Jordan never did) and solidifies his name as the “greatest basketball player of all time.”

Lebron leaving Cleveland is Lebron taking responsibility for the story. He has a vision of how it plays out and even if he never surpasses Jordan, he wants control over how the story gets told.

Lebron James the Athlete

We can never forget that at the core of all this is a fierce competitor. Lebron James is an athlete that wants to go to battle and compete. An intimidating competitor has risen up and James must defeat them. It is his “calling” to make sure Golden State doesn’t go down in history as a championship dynasty during his career. Switching over to the West could ensure that the Warriors never see another Finals appearance while he’s in the league.

It’s a classic David and Goliath story. Even though Lebron is no David by any means, he has always viewed himself as the underdog. He is still “just a kid from Akron” that must face the mighty Warriors of the West. I personally don’t believe staying in Cleveland would be consistent with his drive to compete at the highest level possible.

I was on vacation with my family in Mexico on Friday, June 29, but it was a date I had specifically marked in my calendar. It was the deadline for free agency. I woke up, started brewing coffee and went straight to the ESPN app on my phone. There it was: “Breaking News.” Lebron James announces that he would not be renewing the option on his contract with Cleveland. He would become a free agent. While I wasn’t surprised, it confirmed much of what I had been watching this season. Two days later the news dropped from his agent that he had signed with the Los Angeles Lakers. Lebron was leaving Cleveland.

Agree or disagree; love him or hate him, Lebron James is charting his own course. Only he’s not just doing it with athletic talent. He’s doing it with marketing savvy as well. Here are some key branding lessons we can take away from his recent moves:

  • Learn to separate the brand from you personally. Ask, “What’s the best decision for the brand?”
  • Learn to identify “lids” that are holding you back. “What needs to change to accomplish your goals?”
  • Everything tells a story. “How do you want the story told?”
  • Brands are best when built around mission. “What are you ‘called’ to do?”

Personally, I really enjoy following the story that is Lebron James. Regardless of what team he plays for or what he decides to do next in his life, it’s been fascinating to watch an athlete turn their gift into a global brand. It’s required basketball skill and marketing skill and there’s going to be a lot more to learn along the way.

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