Tracking The Careers of LeBron James & Michael Jordan With Their Greatest Sneaker Commercials

  • Banned

    Without a doubt the most effective sneaker commercial of all time, “Banned” launched the original Air Jordan — and the rookie phenom wearing it — into the stratosphere.

    The Black/Red Jordan 1 was censored by the NBA for reasons that weren’t exactly shocking; it didn’t have enough white in it. (The only person who really considered them illicit was Jordan himself, who initially balked at wearing them, citing black and red as “the devil’s colors.”) Smelling opportunity, Nike readily paid the $5,000 per game fine that allowed MJ to continue wearing the sneakers, and put together a simple ad that got across the connotation that they were taboo.

    The ad panned down from Michael’s head to his feet, where two black boxes appeared to censor the black/reds as a voiceover matter-of-factly described that the NBA had banned them. “Fortunately,” the narrator said, “the NBA can’t stop you from wearing them.” The rest is history: At $65 a pop, Nike brought in an unheard of $100 million in revenues that first year on Air Jordans.

    Fast forward to last year, and the Jordan Brand pulled in about $2.25 billion. That total was no doubt boosted by the Black/Red Jordan 1, which remains eternally coveted every time it releases. And to think, it all started because the NBA found them too colorful, and Nike was savvy enough to take full advantage.

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  • Pressure

    I saw LeBron James play in person twice when he was in high school: He scored 52 points in one game, and won MVP of the Jordan Capital Classic in the other. He clearly had the physical tools to be a transcendent player, but could any 18-year-old possibly live up to the mountainous levels of hype that accompanied him to the NBA, along with his $90 million sneaker contract?

    “Pressure” was Nike’s answer on behalf of its new prince. The ad stages in advance of LeBron’s first game ever, at Arco Arena against the Kings. James takes a pass, turns toward the hoop and promptly freezes, as does everything around him. Even having seen the ad dozens of times, I still feel compelled to hold my breath as everyone — his teammates, Kings defender Mike Bibby, the fans (including George Gervin and Damon Wayans) —wonders if the withering spotlight has gotten to the teenage would-be scion.

    After about 45 eternally long seconds — even the shot clock has seemingly frozen — a half-smile appears on James’ face as he begins his move. The camera cuts away for a second, returning to show LeBron jogging back down the court after his first of many baskets to come.

    For the record, in his real first game, LeBron put up a 25-9-6 line. But even before that, this delicious bit of historical fiction was his unique way of saying, ”Chill. I got this.”

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  • Hang Time

    Michael Jordan was a magnificent basketball player from the start, but to capture the general public’s imagination, people had to feel like they could relate to him. Enter fledgling advertising agency Wieden+Kennedy and writer Jim Riswold, who watched “She’s Gotta Have It,” an early movie by fledgling director Spike Lee, and had an idea.

    Spike acted in his own film as motormouth lothario Mars Blackmon, who — like Spike — was a Knicks fan who worshipped Jordan as the essence of basketball. Starting with the Air Jordan III, Lee took the same role with MJ’s commercials: He directed them and acted as Blackmon, whose manic enthusiasm played perfectly next to Jordan’s casual coolness, catapulting him toward being a household name.

    If I had to pick one Mars Blackmon ad, “Hang Time” perfectly demonstrated Jordan’s playful side — without requiring him to say a single word. After giving Blackmon a boost on his shoulders so he could hang from the rim, Jordan simply walked away, leaving his Jordan III’s dangling in mid-air. He then swooped in and dunked right in Mars’ grill. “Mike, man,” Mars/Spike said with a laugh. “That’s cold, man.”

    Besides the ball going through the hoop, the other sound you heard was America opening its hearts and wallets. “What Phil (Knight) and Nike have done,” Jordan would later say, “is to turn me into a dream.”

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  • Chamber of Fear

    I’ve made no secret of my fondness for this advertising campaign for the Zoom LeBron 2, which dropped our hero into a live-action ’70s-style kung-fu cartoon.

    LeBron was tasked with overcoming several metaphorical opponents representing obstacles preventing him from reaching his full potential, including “temptation,” “complacency” and “haters,” portrayed by “Enter the Dragon” star Jim Kelly. His final foe was “self doubt,” represented by a cartoon version of himself. LeBron emphatically dunks on his avatar, kicks him in the chest and yelps victoriously.

    The ads weren’t particularly memorable — unless you still have posters of the campaign on your wall (ahem) — but they were a lot of fun. And I always liked that as silly as they were, there was some actual substance behind what LeBron was trying to accomplish.

    “Everything that (Wieden-Kennedy’s) John Jay has created, I’ve gone through,” LeBron said in a behind-the-scenes video. “And I’m still going through. And that’s part of me being the person I am.”

    Eight years later, having overcome his ultimate obstacle — the self-doubt that proved fatal in the Finals against the Mavs — LeBron finally reached the top of the mountain. And if you’d paid close attention, the relative frivolity of the Chamber of Fear was nonetheless a legitimate harbinger of far better times to come.

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  • Frozen Moment

    If there was ever a commercial that demonstrated that Nike’s marketing of Jordan had transcended into being an art form, it was this one. A Taxi 12-clad Jordan receives a pass, and time and space proceed to bend as he slices in slow motion through the Lakers’ defense. The entire world seemingly slows to a crawl Matrix-style, staring at the screen as if witnessing a basketball-playing messiah.

    The ad clearly resonated. It was famously parodied by Penny Hardaway and his pint-sized cohort, and it was almost certainly an influence for the LeBron pressure ad.

    In terms of Jordan himself, though, it remains memorable for the way it portrayed him at the time as somewhat mythical. Over the years, we have plenty of evidence that Michael is indeed human — most notably this excellent Wright Thompson profile — but back then, he was a magnificent example of the absolute beauty of sheer physical excellence. “Frozen Moment” was a significant brick in the wall.

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  • Chalk

    It’s hard to fathom now how sublime things were during those first few years in Cleveland. In the fall of 2008, LeBron had already been to the NBA Finals, he was on the cusp of his first MVP season and we had the sense he still had a great deal of room to grow.

    “Chalk,” which first aired on television during the Thanksgiving football games in 2008, epitomized the wonders of the Witness era, namely LeBron’s pregame ritual of tossing talcum powder into the air. (Consider it something of an homage to Michael Jordan.)

    With Cornershop’s “Candyman” playing in the background, James’ chalk tosses were spliced with other Cleveland denizens doing the same thing — barbers, bakers and the like. Lil Wayne brushed powder off his Zoom LeBron VIs at courtside and LeBron dunked on the Blazers and clapped puffs of smoke as we faded to black.

    Twenty months later, LeBron sat in a chair at the Boy’s and Girl’s Club in Connecticut, and in a matter of moments, those Cavs years were instantly ancient history. Consider “Chalk” a digital time capsule, bringing you back on command to a simpler time when Cleveland was improbably the center of the basketball universe.

    Of course, with LeBron shocking the world and returning to the Cavs, perhaps we witness a sequel to “Chalk” at some point. After all, who says you can’t go home again?

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  • Failure

    When I moved out of my parents’ house and into my first solo apartment, my first purchase was a Nike Jordan poster off eBay. In retrospect, I should have probably first bought a space heater, or a refrigerator, or a couch. Nevertheless, I eventually got all that other stuff, and I still have the poster hanging, its message still resonating with me.

    The poster quoted a Jordan commercial I’d always liked, where he describes how he’d missed 9,000 shots, including 26 game-winners, and had lost nearly 300 games in his career. While he slowly walks into the arena, MJ muses, “I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life … and that is why I succeed.”

    While “Frozen Moment” served to canonize Jordan, “Failure” brought him back down to our level. On the court, Jordan was as close as it got to perfection, but it was important to understand that even someone that damn good was not infallible, because none of us are.

    Not to mention, his words rang true: So much in life, you can’t truly succeed unless you’ve first failed, usually multiple times. And in that sense, Jordan ironically was at his most inspiring not with his on-court successes, which were many, but rather with his sporadic failures.

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  • Rise

    Pound for pound, “Rise” might have been the greatest basketball sneaker ad of all time, given the stakes. After The Decision, LeBron and his Q Rating had taken a beating throughout the summer of 2010, the hatred spiraling upward to the point that it became unclear whether his sneakers were even still marketable. (Obviously, this was just before the South Beach VIII changed the way we think about his sneakers themselves.)

    I thought long and hard that summer what direction LeBron should go with that first, crucial post-Decision commercial, and I drew a blank. What could he do that wouldn’t simply make things worse?

    As it turned out, Wieden+Kennedy knew exactly what to do. “Rise,” which hit the Internet the night before LeBron’s first game with the Heat, was a masterpiece, perfectly answering LeBron’s critics and challenging them to examine what exactly they were so angry about.

    The ad slaps you in the face with the stark imagery of LeBron wearing the identical outfit from The Decision, sitting in the same chair. He then takes you on a tour de force of powerful scenes: he gives a Hall of Fame speech to an empty room, watches the Witness mural fall to the ground from a car window, and ponders whether he should ditch his friends. (“But they’re my friends,” he muses.) He mimics Charles Barkley’s “I am not a role model” advertisement, in a perfect rebuttal of one of his biggest critics. He bulldozes a court, metaphorically and literally, while pondering if he could somehow start over.

    LeBron asks repeatedly and rhetorically throughout the ad, “What should I do?” At the end of the commercial, he expands on that: “Should I be who you want me to be?” LeBron has admitted that The Decision was poorly executed, but “Rise” was the first step toward getting everyone to understand that his move to Miami was his way of living life on his own terms, and nobody else’s. If nothing else, that makes him human, which is at the end of the day all we can ask of him.

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  • Let Your Game Speak

    That the XX1 likely isn’t anyone’s favorite Air Jordan doesn’t matter much: This ad was a flawless example of how MJ would continue to resonate long after his playing career ended.

    The ad features young ballplayers of every size, race, and gender putting their own personal touches on easily recognizable moves from Jordan’s playing career, such as the up-and-under against the Lakers and the free-throw line dunk. Michael himself only appears once, offering an approving nod and smile after one youngster evokes the famous shrug from the 1992 NBA Finals against the Blazers.

    The reason the ad works is that it most likely applies to anyone watching. Who didn’t emulate Jordan at some point growing up — or at least attempt to? The spot was a reminder that MJ and his sneakers were an integral part of our childhoods, and that you didn’t have to be a great basketball player to be inspired. And every once in a while, if the sun catches your Js just right, you could feel on top of the world just like MJ, on court or off.

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  • Training Day

    If there’s anything we know, it’s that winning is the best medicine. And after two championships in Miami, LeBron James once again had become a man of the people, as evidenced by the LeBron XI ad “Training Day.”

    In the 90-second commercial, produced by — no surprise here — Wieden+Kennedy, James goes for a bike ride with some neighborhood kids, picking up more people along the way like the Pied Piper. Soon, the entire community is spending the day biking, swimming, running, and playing pickup ball with him, while John Legend croons a song entitled “New Shoes.” With the sun fading, LeBron arrives back at his mansion and heads inside, turning to ask his young entourage, “Tomorrow?”

    Consider this LeBron’s way of coming full-circle, even before he came back to the Cavs. He’s once again a beloved icon, albeit one who seems to get criticized far more frequently than most when he cramps up or something.

    With his return to his basketball roots in Cleveland obliterating the narrative created by The Decision, it’s obvious now that LeBron is far from the villain he was labeled back in 2010. Rather, he’s an amazing basketball player who seems like a pretty cool guy, if not a perfect one. If that turns out to be his legacy, he could have done far worse.

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  • Air Jordan I
  • Michael Jordan
  • Air Jordan
  • LeBron James

At the risk of sounding like Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino, though the changing times bring continual progress, it doesn’t come without a cost. Take smart phones for example: Though they offer a world of convenience, it’s at the expense of productivity, social interaction, and personal introspection. You end up better off in certain ways, arguably far worse in others.

Similarly, there’s no question DVR and YouTube make our lives better; I use both liberally. But for fans of basketball sneaker commercials — and if you’re reading this, I’m guessing that applies to you — a bit of the thrill has gone by the wayside.

Except for maybe during live sporting events, I would venture people fast-forward their way through the majority of commercial breaks. And since most companies disseminate their own marketing campaigns online anyway, the visceral thrill of being on the right channel at the right time to catch a buzzworthy commercial has been reduced to nil.

Perhaps that’s why Nike’s Air Jordan commercials are still so revered. Besides the fact that they were amazing examples of marketing genius and associated with the best player ever, the experience of having to catch them on television in order to see them is relegated to a bygone era, amplifying the nostalgia.

That said, for those of us who bridge the generational gap between the ’90s and the new millennium, LeBron James’ commercials resonate as well, even if we primarily watch them on a phone and not a television. Just like with Michael Jordan, we’ve watched James grow up not just on the court, but in his portrayals by Madison Avenue.

And though nothing compares to hunting for a new Air Jordan ad during commercials for the All-Star Game, the ripple created across social media and the Internet by Nike’s first post-Decision LeBron ad, “Rise,” was in itself a phenomenon to behold. In so many ways, King James is a superstar perfectly suited for the world as it is now; the new way we digest and discuss his commercials is an example. I honestly can’t wait to see what Nike will cook up to illustrate his inspiring return to Cleveland.

The following aren’t necessarily the best Jordan/LeBron ads — lists like that are pretty much played out, and it’s all a matter of conjecture anyway. Instead, to celebrate this weekend’s release of the Black/Metallic Silver Zoom Soldier 8 and Wolf Grey Air Jordan 3, which you’ll be able to get from Champs Sports, here are some personal favorites that to me best represent the two icons’ somewhat parallel paths to greatness.

Follow Bryan on Twitter at @SportsAngle