Sports Nut

Double Stuffed

For LeBron James, getting dunked on was bad. Trying to suppress the tape was worse.

There’s a video on YouTube of the world’s greatest basketball player getting humiliated at his own basketball camp. He takes the defeat with dignity, explaining that “in your life, in the game, you get dunked on, you get crossed over.” The other campers proceed to laugh at him, having been egged on by Damon Wayans.

That basketball legend was Michael Jordan, and the video shows him losing a game of one-on-one to a weekend warrior named John Rogers. (Rogers, the founder of Ariel Mutual Funds, is a frequent hoops partner of Barack Obama.)

LeBron James didn’t take his summer camp shaming with such grace. In early July, the Cavaliers star got dunked on by Xavier University’s Jordan Crawford at the Nike-sponsored LeBron James Skills Academy. Soon after, Nike officials—allegedly at LeBron’s behest—demanded that a couple of cameramen who’d been taping the pickup game hand over the footage. (The Nike folks claimed the videography was unauthorized; that position is contradicted by the camp’s published media policy.) The Swoosh apparatchiks, however, failed to notice a Zapruder wannabe at the opposite end of the court. TMZ got the amateur footage, and—after a two-week blackout—LeBron’s posterization is now on the Web for eternity in all its grainy, faraway glory. A second, cleaner video has also emerged on the site eBaum Nation, this one shot from just above the dunked-upon basket.

James’ suppression tactics worked in a micro sense. Tuesday’s instant Web reaction: The dunk was totally lame. But after two weeks of build-up, how could it not be? The only way the jam could have lived up to the hype is if Crawford had leaped over LeBron entirely, shattered the backboard, and the glass had come down and impaled The King in the chest like he was the bad guy in Ghost. In real life, the college guy slams the ball with two hands as LeBron halfheartedly tries to block it—whoop dee doo.

Well, at least that’s what it looks like. The dunk looks underwhelming, in part, because both videos are shot from poor angles by amateur videographers. By shutting down the professional cameramen, Nike succeeded in making the dunk look less appetizing. The one thing that does come through perfectly in the amateur footage is the audio. When Crawford rattles the rim, the crowd explodes in shock and glee. It was that booming sound, perhaps, that tipped LeBron off that he’d been embarrassed.

Despite the consensus on the dunk’s lameness, it’s impossible to argue that LeBron the Brand is in better shape today than it was two weeks ago. Coming so soon after James’ refusal to shake Dwight Howard’s hand at the end of the Eastern Conference finals, the dunk erasure fits into a neat narrative: great athlete, lousy sportsman. As Michael Jordan explained at his camp, this sort of thing happens to everyone. M.J. himself got dunked on by John Starks. More recently, All-Star point guard Devin Harris got embarrassed by a British street-baller and Philip Rivers lost a passing contest to a high-school kid at his football camp. The man who wants to be known as “The Global Icon” should be smart enough to realize that a single dunk in a pickup game does a lot more to build the name of the unknown dunker than it does to harm the world-famous dunkee. LeBron lost face the only way he possibly could have: by failing to be magnanimous.

How could one of the most-marketed men in sports be so tone-deaf? It’s possible that he got sick of being the butt of the joke. There is a video on YouTube that shows LeBron getting humiliated on the basketball court. Last year, the Chosen One got slaughtered in a game of HORSE by a trick-shot artist named David Kalb.

James’ own hagiographer, Nike, has also been having some fun at his expense lately. After the Cavs got eliminated from this year’s playoffs, the shoe company’s puppet ads—which began by slobbering over LeBron and Kobe Bryant with equal fervor—started making light of LeBron’s absence from the NBA Finals.

LeBron’s Operation Dunkout reveals that Kobe Bryant didn’t just one-up James on the court. He’s also savvier about viral marketing. (OK, more like Kobe’s Nike handlers are savvier than LeBron’s Nike handlers.) LeBron made every news show and sportscast earlier this year when, during an interview for 60 Minutes, he casually swished an underhanded half-court shot.

That clip’s success might have convinced LeBron that videos make it big because they show someone performing at their best. In reality, they go viral because they defy belief. Kobe Bryant realized this when—to get some buzz for his new sneakers—he jumped over an Aston Martin. Nobody watched because they were amazed by his leaping ability. They watched because they couldn’t believe Kobe really did it. (He didn’t.)

Before we judge LeBron too harshly, it’s worth remembering that he’s under more scrutiny than Michael Jordan ever was. Yes, His Airness was humble in defeat—but that defeat came in 2003, well before the age of YouTube. (The video didn’t reach the Web until 2008, when it was posted by the Wall Street Journal.) If Jordan thought his sorry pickup performance would be seen by millions, maybe he wouldn’t have been so noble. As LeBron knows, in the age of the Flip and the iPhone, we are all potential witnesses.