Ohio State and LeBron James Sort of Like One AnotherPosted by Chris Johnson on September 4th, 2013
Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
Back when he was Cleveland’s homegrown basketball superstar, leading the Cavaliers to 60-win seasons and stoking hopes of a cathartic end to the city’s tortuously long championship drought, arguably no professional basketball player identified with his home state more conspicuously than LeBron James. LeBron wasn’t just the Cavaliers best player – he was a prodigiously gifted Ohio-born talent, a player no Cleveland fan could possibly dislike, whose selection as the No. 1 pick to Cleveland in the 2003 draft felt equal parts suspicious and fortuitous. Then, the relationship between state and player was severed on contentious and disdainful terms; James, an unrestricted free agent following the 2009-10 NBA season, went on national television and spurned his hometown team in favor of joining the Miami Heat, where he would go on to win two (and counting) NBA Championships. The antipathy seems to have receded with the perspective of time – people aren’t burning LeBron jerseys in parking lots anymore, for starters — and reasoned fans (there are outlandish exceptions, to be sure) have seemed to come to grips with the basketball-related motivations for James’ decision. There is even speculation LeBron would return to Cleveland if he decides to leave the Heat in free agency next summer. His ties with Cleveland, and the greater Ohio basketball scene, were never completely broken, in other words. James always had a soft spot for Buckeye State hoops. Which leads us to Tuesday, when Ohio State – the state’s premier Division I college hoops program – treated a score of media to a tour of the Buckeyes’ freshly renovated practice facility, where a soon-to-go-viral LeBron-related surprise was lurking amid the locker room nameplates:
Just one more little recruiting flourish for a program already pulling in top Midwest talent on an annual basis? That’s the most obvious explanation. But the nameplate represents something larger than mere prep prospect eye candy. LeBron and Ohio State basketball have forged an interesting relationship over the years, a link that runs deeper than sheer geographical commonality. In 2007, when Nike created a James-Branded apparel line, Ohio State became the first program to swap Nike logos for the King’s unique emblem. James has openly discussed his Buckeyes fandom, and repeatedly said he would have chosen to play basketball at OSU, were the NBA’s 19-year-old age limit – which forces otherwise pro-ready high school players to play somewhere other than the NBA (re: college, but for a few exceptions) for one year after high school – imposed three years earlier. The bitter taste James left in plenty of Cavaliers fans’ (and, given the location and lack of local professional alternatives, probably a few Buckeyes fans’) mouths when he “took his talents to South Beach” did not ruin his relationship with Cleveland, much less OSU, and so he continues to share a special relationship with the program. From attending Buckeyes home games, to receiving an honorary No. 23 Buckeyes jersey, to earning the praise of football coach Urban Meyer – LeBron has made no secret of his affinity for all things OSU, and the program has reciprocated his attention and support not only with public praise and courtside seats, but also by serving as a court-stomping billboard for his trademark footwear, including this season, when the Buckeyes plan to sport this collection of flashy kicks for games. When the best basketball player in the world has cast his lot with your basketball program, a relationship encompassing everything from public endorsements to live appearances to custom gear, slapping his name above a locker and discussing his ability to help your team on the court this season faux-hypothetically is a small price to pay for his continued support.
The recruiting aspect doesn’t hurt, and OSU coach Thad Matta acknowledged the locker might catch the attention of prospective 17-year old high school basketball players thinking about joining the Buckeyes. “There’s no question about it,” Matta told reporters Tuesday. That might be the most tangible upside here – more visible evidence of LeBron’s tangential influence on the college basketball program he would have, but never did, attend. Not only do recruits get to sport LeBron’s footwear (the Buckeyes’ jerseys now feature a standard Nike logo), not to mention the off-chance of seeing him planted courtside for a game – or, who knows, maybe stroll into a practice for an impromptu open run scrimmage – they will now be reminded of the King’s presence every time they step inside OSU’s basketball facilities. There is no high school basketball player in the country who could possibly take offense. If you’re still undecided on your college future, and Ohio State is even remotely on your radar, there has to be at least some measure of intrigue here, if it doesn’t already exist in the first place. LeBron James is the best basketball player in the world. High school hoopsters spend hours watching LeBron Youtube videos and adopting the idiosyncrasies of his playing style and otherwise doing everything humanly possible to try and become more like him. They admire him greatly, as all players should admire the best player of their generation. The LeBron-customized locker is another manifestation of Ohio State’s relationship to that player, and recruits will be sure to take notice.