In some recent shoe commercials straight out of commissioner David Stern’s dream world, the NBA’s two biggest stars and marketing centerpieces are depicted as cute but feuding Muppets, taunting each other about the upcoming playoffs.
In one, the “Kobe” Muppet walks around the house, asks the “LeBron” Muppet, “Have you seen my three championship rings?” and then likens them to delicious chocolate-chip cookies and says, “You’ve gotta be hungry, LeBron.” In another, the excited “LeBron” Muppet follows an irritated Kobe around, constantly clapping his chalk-dusted hands to create mountains of powder.
Funny stuff. But like so many marketing ventures, it may end up being more fluff than substance.
The NBA wants Kobe-LeBron. TV executives, sponsors and fans want Kobe-LeBron. Your mom wants Kobe-LeBron and she doesn’t even like basketball.
One-name stars have a certain cachet, especially when they’re also the two best players in the league. But there’s a decent chance the long-hyped, Stern-dreamt, take-that-mister-Magic-and-Bird-things-ain’t-like-they-used-to-be, LeBron James-Kobe Bryant titanic finals collision just isn’t going to happen.
Leagues love stars. But if you’re Orlando or Denver or any of the NBA teams whose season already is over, you love this. Why? Because it reaffirms that as much as the NBA is a star-driven league, one thing hasn’t changed: Teams win championships.
“We all want to think, even if we don’t have one of those stars, we can have a club that can compete,” Hawks general manager Rick Sund said. “We all want to think, ‘We can do what Detroit did when they won a championship. We can go out there together and be elite.’ Sometimes the media doesn’t believe it and the readers don’t believe it. But people in the NBA believe it, and I guarantee you [coaches] Stan Van Gundy and George Karl and their staffs believe it.”
Atlanta’s Dwight Howard is the Orlando Magic’s biggest star. He’s known mostly for his defense, not Muppet commercials.
He’s also not oblivious to where the national focus has been.
“We have a chance to win, you know?” Howard said after the Magic took a 2-1 lead Sunday in the Eastern Conference finals. “And if we go out there and play, we shouldn’t worry about what we see on TV, the commercials, the write‑ups, whatever.
“Do we find it disrespectful that they’re counting us out? Yeah. But there is nothing we can control. What we can control is how hard we play on the court, and that’s when we get the job done.”
James and the Cavaliers swept their first two playoff series. They were 43-2 at home until the Orlando series. Then the Magic nearly swept two games in Cleveland. The only reason Orlando is not up 3-0 is a buzzer-beating 3-pointer by James in Game 2.
Bryant has fared slightly better than James. But his Lakers struggled with a Yao-less, wow-less but hard-working and physical Houston team in the second round and were stretched to seven games. Denver then split the first two games of the West finals and led Game 3 in the fourth before the Lakers pulled it out.
The Cavaliers (66-16) had the league’s best record this season. But Sund was on record before the year and again before the playoffs as saying Orlando was the East’s best team. It’s just that the people who write commercials for Nike and Vitaminwater (which also may change a Kobe-LeBron campaign in midstream) didn’t listen.
“As a league, we used to be promote teams,” Sund said. “Now we promote stars. Even when Magic was playing, it wasn’t Magic, it was ‘Showtime.’ With Bird and the Celtics, it was tradition.”
Just not as exciting, is it?
HAVEN’T SEEN THE MUPPET COMMERCIALS? HERE YOU GO: