In breaking sports news this week, LeBron James took time out of his busy schedule to work a shift at a Blaze Pizza in Chicago’s Streeterville, a stunt that he also pulled earlier this year in Pasadena, California.
With all the subtlety of Kylo Ren in SNL’s Star Wars spoof of Undercover Bosses, James created a forced banter with customers and fellow employees as “Ron,” the new trainee. Each time Ron works a shift, a video of the playful interactions is made, including more than one person mistaking him for former teammate Dwyane Wade and a painful interaction where he doesn’t recognize what a basketball is.
Working at Blaze wasn’t just for fun, though, as the prank is a part of a national plug for the pizza joint, in which James invested heavily in 2012.
Whether or not you like LeBron as a player or as a person, he has undoubtedly transcended his role as a basketball player. He’s become a bonafide celebrity and done so in the same manner that today’s regular celebrities rise to fame. He’s the Taylor Swift and Kim Kardashian of his own domain.
Like Swift and Kardashian, James uses social media to humanize himself and connect with fans, other athletes and his celebrity friends. He’s in popular movies and posts videos of him jamming to music (see one of his latest posts on Instagram) or of him and his teammates dancing (see James, Kyrie Irving, J.R. Smith and Ivan Shumpert do “flick of da wrist”).
Today’s celebrity is your friend. According to his Instagram, Twitter and now YouTube videos, LeBron is your friend. He’s even your friendly pizza guy, Ron. He chews the fat, gives you advice on your sauce choice, makes jokes and generally likes to have a good time.
Just as this is new for pop-cultures celebrities in the social media age, athletes will have to adjust if they want to reach that transcendent stage of celebrity.
This is where he separates himself from Michael Jordan, to whom he’s often compared. In Jordan’s heyday in the 1990s, there was no social media and much less fan interaction. This removed Jordan from banal, everyday life, elevating him to a demigod status.
There are many parallels between James and Jordan in the high level of their play, their business acumen, sponsorships, etc. However, even looking at one thing they both did that connected them to fans on another level, you can see a clear difference in how the men are portrayed.
In Space Jam, Jordan defies the laws of basketball physics to save humanity from aliens. In Trainwreck, James gives relationship advice and watches Downton Abbey.
With his cinematic masterpiece, Jordan is just extending what he does on the court. It says he has a sense of humor and he’s kid-friendly, but he’s also really good at basketball. Space Jam in no way makes him more like fans. Rather, it elevates him. He becomes more than a basketball god — he’s also a superhero.
James, on the other hand, made a movie for adults and teens, the demographic he most reaches through social media and coincidentally the demographic that has the money to buy game tickets, shoes, apparel and Blaze Pizza. Trainwreck shows him getting lunch with a friend and arguing over the bill. It portrays him as a sensitive guy with layers to his personality off the court. In fact, the film barely shows him playing basketball at all. It shifts fans’ focus from King James the dominant basketball player to LeBron, your friend.
In the future, it can be expected that other celebrities will follow James’ example. To remain relevant on a wider stage than the field or court, athletes need to make themselves multi-dimensional for fans.
The Bulls’ Jimmy Butler is good friends with Mark Wahlberg, posting courtside pictures of them on Instagram. Stephen Curry brings his daughter to post-game press conferences. These are the instances that get posted on Buzzfeed or Snapchat stories, and in today’s world, these make celebrities relevant.
Gone are the days of the basketball demigod. Today, we want friends, not heroes, and that might mean having to trade the jersey for a pizza apron for an afternoon.