Today is the day LeBron James decided to give the third rail of celebrity a try, and in doing so provided a cautionary tale on how stardom actually works in America -- that is, as opposed to what people who want to be stars think it is.
|LeBron James and ESPN's Jim Gray prepare for the broadcast of 'The Decision' last year. (Getty Images)|
By now it accepted American dogma that James' decision last July 8 to leave Cleveland for Miami was perfectly defensible on every level, and that his indefensible screwup was in producing a really bad TV show to reveal that news. It changed his role in celebro-society, scared the hell out of the owners who don't want their players acting as free-range general managers, and even might be helping to fuel the owners' lockout.
Ultimately, though, James' failure is a TV failure, because while great basketball players are hard to find, a smart TV producer is even rarer, because TV is not something you can get your hands on, let alone hold. You throw stuff at a dry-erase board and hope it sticks. And when it does, you don't know exactly why.
It is basically blindfolded alchemy, and while there is plenty of unwatchable slop on the tube, millions of people watch that slop and come back for every spinoff the producers can churn out.
James' TV show, though, was horrific in a different way, because it took something he had every right to do and turned it into a sort of crime against America's sensibilities.
Someone might have warned him that the show was a bad idea, but he wouldn't have listened because everyone wants his or her own show, right? Someone might have said the light show unveiling was over the top, but who doesn't want to feel the rush of Chris Rock on a tour? And someone might have said he needs to humble this through, but every time he tried, he made it worse because once you're in as a caricatured villain, you're in all the way.
And now, he's got this. A figure of fun at the prime of his career, a superstar whose very name inspires derision. The anniversary of the end of the fun part of his life is going to be a crypto-national holiday.
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Now that's bad TV.
It's interesting that James was in many ways a creature of TV, far more than word of mouth. He was an extraordinary player in high school by any measure, but TV made him a household name by the time he was a junior. If that doesn't bend your skull, nothing will, because nothing seduces and empowers quite like TV.
And nothing delivers a swifter and sharper steel-capped boot to the groin than TV, either. James' show -- the one in which he was the lead actor rather than the star, director and producer -- actually had a pretty long run as these things go.
But when he either decided, allowed or was cajoled into making his own show, that's when it went bad. The audience is amorphous, and what it finds likable/viewable about a TV star is hard to see ahead of time.
Snooki? Game of Thrones? Anything with the word "Wives" in the title? I rest my case.
So it's now a year into the cruddy part of James' life, an example for young athletes everywhere that taking control of your career means taking responsibility for it, and that even if you never heard the word "no," it's still a good idea to tell yourself that every now and then.
But that's the cautionary tale, the one nobody will heed. Carmelo Anthony made his seduction by and of the New York Knicks a months-long saga, and way overestimated people's appetite for it. And that's while James' public image was still smoldering.
But what the hell? Happy anniversary. And make sure you respond to each and every card and letter, young James. You asked for it, and now you know what "it" actually is.
Ray Ratto is a columnist for Comcast SportsNet Bay Area.com.