Recently, basketball player Lebron James made headlines when he said he would “for sure” be on the NBA’s Mount Rushmore by the end of his playing career. Ten years ago Lebron’s comments would have flown under the radar but in the era of 24/7 sports coverage, where outlets like ESPN will repeatedly air a news story for 48 straight hours regardless of its significance, Lebron James’ comments set the world of talking heads ablaze, which is exactly what Lebron wanted. Analysts cited Lebron’s comments as arrogant, others including past NBA superstars accused him of being disrespectful, and still more praised Lebron for his competitiveness and drive to be the best. I, myself, fall in the latter category but regardless of how I or anyone else feels about Lebron it’s impossible to deny the effectiveness of his messaging.
For non-basketball junkies, a few facts must be laid out to properly put Lebron’s message in context and explain why his comments were brilliant from a PR perspective. Most of this NBA season has been driven by headlines pitting Lebron James against Kevin Durant for the league’s most valuable player award. Lebron James has won the MVP four out of the last five times with the lone exception coming in 2011 when Chicago Bulls point guard Derrick Rose won the award. On the other hand, Kevin Durant has won three out of the last four scoring titles and has finished runner-up in MVP voting to Lebron three out of the last four years. It appeared this year would follow the usual narrative until Kevin Durant went on a 12-game string of 30-point games—the NBA’s longest streak in more than a decade—and propelled his team to the top of the Western Conference without All-Star teammate Russell Westbrook.
For the past few weeks Kevin Durant’s name has been more buzz-worthy than Lebron’s. Durant was the media darling and stories about Durant’s greatness and Oklahoma City’s dominance were juxtaposed against Lebron’s slumping numbers and the Miami Heat’s minor losing streak. To the casual basketball fan one would assume Durant was running away with the MVP race, however, Lebron never actually faded away. The media just bombarded us with constant coverage of Durant. A fellow player stealing the spotlight from Lebron for multiple weeks is an unprecedented event since Lebron emerged as the heir to “the greatest player of all time” status (although I will forever be in the Michael Jordan camp). In order to stop Durant’s momentum and recapture the media’s attention Lebron strategically let several of his quotes from a recent interview leak, the most noteworthy being the Mt. Rushmore quote.
From a PR perspective, Lebron’s messaging strategy was very effective. With a harmless quote that seemingly came from nowhere he reasserted himself in the media spotlight, and soon people were talking about Lebron’s legacy instead of his performance this season. Kevin Durant stories continued to run, but they were overshadowed by Lebron’s statements. Shortly after Lebron’s comments went viral he went on to have one of his best games of the season which was capped off by a game-winning three pointer to beat the Golden State Warriors. Instead of re-establishing himself as the MVP favorite through his play, which would take weeks, Lebron did so through the media in less than 72 hours.