No sport markets its stars like basketball, and growing up in the mid-90’s, I developed a taste for studying ad campaigns. How could I not? There was Barkley fighting Godzilla, Mr. Robinson‘s Neighborhood, Lil’ Penny‘s pool party â€“ and of course, more incredible Michael Jordan ads than I could count.
As such, almost as much as wanting to see LeBron James play in the NBA, I couldn’t wait to see how Nike and Wieden+Kennedy would market him. With so much to work with, they’ve delivered some real gems, most notably the Witness-era coolness of “The Chalk” and the powerful post-Decision recovery effort “Rise.” (There’s also the bizarre Nicole Scherzinger ad, which defies description.)
But my favorite LeBron ad campaign was “Chamber of Fear,” to usher in his second season in the NBA. Evoking 1970’s-style kung-fu movies, the commercial was an amalgam of vignettes in which LeBron dealt with various metaphorical obstacles on his path to greatness and riches by scoring on them.
One by one, he vanquished foes such as “Temptation” (geishas throwing money at him), “Complacency” (a bunch of dragons) and Haters (the great Jim Kelly from Enter The Dragon). The final scene featured LeBron vanquishing his own “Self-doubt” â€“ a cartoon version of himself, clad in a cartoon pair of Zoom LeBron IIs. LeBron had no dialogue, there was very little payoff. It was just campy, terrific fun.
I moved into my first apartment right around the time Nike dropped the ad campaign, and as you might expect for a 25-year-old who couldn’t get enough of LeBron, I set out to get some Chamber of Fear stuff for my new place. I ended up with a couple of framed posters I got off eBay from some guy in China, one of which still hangs in the bedroom; honestly, it’s a miracle I’m engaged.
My favorite Chamber of Fear memento is a Nike-produced coffee table book that served to explain the campaign. Penned by Scoop Jackson, the book describes the thinking process, which was to play up the connections between basketball, 1970’s kung-fu movies and early hip-hop culture. The book detailed exactly how LeBron overcame each obstacle, and then moved on to a collection of LeBron-inspired expressionist artwork.
The book also came with a CD that I had somehow never noticed over the past eight years, which contained a video of the commercial, several MP3s of the music from the ad remixed by the RZA (!), and a behind-the-scenes video that lasted all of one minute. (Here that is, courtesy of YouTube.)
“That’s why I’m here doing the commercial,” LeBron said in the behind the scenes video, “because I thought it was a great concept. Everything that (W+K ad man) John Jay has created, I’ve gone through. And I’m still going through. And that’s part of me being the person I am.”
The key there is “still going through.” The ad presents LeBron as having defeated all of those obstacles, but he obviously didn’t conquer many of them until much later. We’ve heard whispers that LeBron had succumbed to his own hype in Cleveland, enabled by an organization that caved to his whims. We saw him struggle to come to grips with his numerous haters, so to speak, over the past year and a half. We saw what appeared to be an ongoing battle with self-doubt during the past two NBA Playoffs.
And now, eight years after Nike claimed he was impervious to such things â€“ at the age of 19, no less â€“ it finally appears that he is.
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I’m moving out of this apartment in about a month, and though they’re now going to hang in the den and not the bedroom, the posters are coming with me. Then and now, I love the Chamber of Fear ad campaign for how it took a burgeoning mega-millionaire basketball superstar and randomly threw him in the middle of a kung-fu movie with a RZA soundtrack.
From time to time, I still like watching the commercial to look back on what was assuredly a simpler, more carefree time for LeBron James, when anything and everything was possible. And I like the idea that Nike’s kung-fu cartoon perfectly laid out LeBron’s road map to success â€“ though it would end up taking eight more years than advertised to get there.