Last night, at Radio City Music Hall, the USA Basketball team — in preparation for/promotion of its Sunday exhibition game at the Garden against France — played a scrimmage onstage. Some players in the game and not in the game were shown on video screens and took questions, players like Chris Paul and Amar’e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant. You know, popular players. And then, there in the front row, silent all night … was LeBron James.
The man who just more than a month ago was one of the most popular athletes on earth, according to ESPN’s Chris Sheridan, was studiously avoided exposure by Nike (the host and sponsor of the event), lest he be vociferously booed.
James remained seated in the front row and was silent throughout the scrimmage as he made one of his first public appearances in one of the cities he scorned when he made his free agency decision to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat. Adding to the intrigue, James was barely even shown on the two large video screens set up stage left and stage right to give fans a closer view of the action.
It is one thing to make an unpopular decision that leaves fans disappointed in you. It is another thing entirely to have a signature Nike/USA Basketball event, with all the powers that be in the basketball world all together, and pretend that LeBron isn’t there, lest everyone start booing and rioting. This is not public relations at this point; it’s Michael Jackson putting a mask over his kid’s face. This is similar to how Kobe was treated after that business in Colorado. LeBron James is even more toxic than anyone thought.