As the Swoosh celebrates LeBron’s major milestone, Boardroom reflects on the first ad to evangelize The Chosen One.
On Tuesday night in Los Angeles, LeBron James ascended to the top of the NBA’s all-time scoring list.
Surpassing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a living legend who took the No. 1 spot nine months before basketball’s Patron Saint was born, the prophecy was fulfilled under the bright lights of Hollywood.
After an emotional celebration, passing of the torch from Cap, and on-air speech, TNT cut to commercial.
Pre-ordained by LeBron’s apostles at Nike, an homage ran congratulating The Chosen One on his almighty accomplishment, glorifying his highlights with an emotional hymn.
The spectacle and the sermon all went exactly to script. Or did it?
Twenty years ago, the brand in Beaverton took a $90 million leap of faith on an 18-year-old from Akron. Tempted by a bigger bag from Reebok and early offers at Adidas, the crowned king gave himself to Nike.
Two decades later, the dual devotion proves a blessing for both.
Raised by his mother, Gloria, the blossoming basketball star soared for the whole world to enjoy, defying all odds by exceeding outlandish expectations both on the court and off the court.
Winning four championships while putting on The Four Horsemen, LeBron’s become both a better baller and a faster billionaire than even early evangelicals could believe.
Chronicled on dial-up computers and box TV sets, Nike anointed James before screens were flat or the internet was mobile. Upon arrival, they let us know we were all “witnesses” through both advertising and apparel.
In the spirit of both the scoring title and commercial clairvoyance, Boardroom brings it back to the conception of LeBron and Nike’s prophetic Witness campaign.
The First Communion
In the Bible, the anticipated savior is foretold to be a suffering servant, blessed in spiritual favor.
Though the second coming is destined for great glory, the great redeemer is said to be more mindful of giving and forgiving than pride and power.
In 2003’s second yet seminal Nike LeBron commercial, “Book of Dimes,” basketball’s messiah answers a higher calling. Unlike previous pastors, King James is more motivated by spreading blessings by way of passing.
He’s here to share the gifts, glory, and joy.
By bringing in ad agency Wieden+Kennedy, Nike faithful leaned into creative Magis such as Anthony Hughes and Jimmy Smith to uplift theology displayed in the basketball brand’s Old Testament to holier heights.
In the past, Spike Lee stared as Mars Blackmon in ’80s Air Jordan advertisements while Chris Rock voiced Lil’ Penny in nostalgic ’90s spots for Anfernee Hardaway. Comedy has always been the way to shepherd in an audience of all ages and backgrounds.
As they say, if you get someone to laugh, you’ve got them for life.
Casting comedian Bernie Mac as the star, America already knew the man at the pulpit well. Earning equity on Def Comedy Jam in the ’90s only to explode in the mainstream in the early aughts by way of Ocean’s Eleven, Charlie’s Angels, and his own family sitcom, Bernie was as beloved and identifiable as it got.
Commercial or not, if Bernie was on TV there was no need to leave the room or wrestle with your remote.
Next in textbook Nike fashion, the Swoosh called in all the heavy hitters from brand present and past to propel their ascending star.
The clergy consisted of George Gervin and Moses Malone while the congregation saw Pee Wee Kirkland, Mike Bibby, and Chamique Holdsclaw sitting in the first row.
Echoing the sentiments of Mac’s velour sweatsuited sermon are Sue Bird and Dawn Staley singing in the choir, backed by Bootsy Collins who had just scored the brand’s retro-themed Rayguns campaign.
Investing more in special people than special effects, Nike’s testimony was that LeBron was who they said he was: the future of the game and the future of the Swoosh.
The brand’s brightest luminaries — both past and present — were witnesses.
Better yet? So were we.
Baptism by Retail
As surmised by Slate when the ad first ran, LeBron was to be seated to the right hand of the father of it all — Michael Jordan — as basketball’s second superstar shoe spokesman for the next generation to come.
Now, Nike and the young king had to deliver on their promise.
Priced at $110 and stocked in Foot Locker, Nike Town, and Athletes Foot locations worldwide, the Nike Air Zoom Generation released at retail in November 2003.
The timing coincided with his NBA debut as well as the mounting holiday season.
While the 18-year-old phenom’s name did not stamp the side of the shoe, December’s “Book of Dimes” ad campaign let everyone know just who the sneaker belonged to, airing on TV during NBA and NFL games while also echoing on select radio stations.
As SBJ reported at the time, the Air Zoom Generation was among the brand’s biggest launches of the year.
The giant Swoosh on the sidewall advertised the brand that just paid an unproven teenager $90 million for all to see, filling the void left by Michael Jordan in the market.
At that time, LeBron and his Hummer-inspired sneakers occupied a lane more relatable than Kobe Bryant’s avant-garde Adidas and safer than Reebok’s rebellious run with Allen Iverson.
With W+K’s “Book of Dimes” clip, Nike merged faith and fun for the one the world either exalted as chosen or crucified for not being Michael.
By playing off the James Brown revival scene from The Blues Brothers, an elder audience had a softer introduction to the child set to replace their hero while the youth had an entity all their own.
In a matter of months, Nike was playing off King James’ commercial christening by releasing t-shirts stamped with “WITNESS” in all caps across the chest, branded boldly by way of a Swoosh right underneath.
While early entry Nike LeBron models did not duplicate that of MJ’s $55 million worth of Air Jordan 1s upon arrival, the signature shirts sold in droves, appearing instantly iconic and recognizable.
Since signing in 2003, LeBron James has been the dividing line between families, friends, and fans.
Though not all of basketball’s beloved agree as to who ranks first or which hooper is the true way, the brilliant baller has delivered on his promise for all involved.
The Halo Effect
Even those that deny LeBron as the greatest have to bow to the power of his path.
Arriving in the NBA in the image of Magic Johnson, he’s proved eternal in his love for the game, making the most of the gifts he’s been given.
The passing point forward has been exalted to four-time champion and four-time MVP over the course of his two-decade career, entering the game as a devoted distributor and leaving it as the most celebrated scorer.
From a brand standpoint, the spiritual successor to Michael Jordan has kept Nike atop the basketball market both at home and abroad, possessing a 20 model signature series, numerous diffusion lines, and rising retros.
Just what’s that look like when forged together? According to Forbes, various LeBron lines accounted for $300 million worth of sales in 2012 alone.
While that was a banner year for both parties — LeBron won MVP, Finals MVP, an NBA Championship, and Olympic Gold — it still set the standard for King James and Nike sitting atop the mountain.
Although the LeBron line has changed shape, storylines, and teams, the Witness campaign has appeared as both a guiding and reminding light.
For seasons in Cleveland, fans flocked to see the home state hero in their testimonial t-shirts. Soon forsaken by his followers in Ohio, Nike brought back the tagline once crowned a champion in Miami.
Shortly after, the glory would go to all. King James went on to take the Cavaliers to the promised land, later on resurrecting the Los Angeles Lakers to championship status.
At each turn, the Swoosh reminded us not just that we were witnessing greatness, but that they’d been telling us the whole time.
Even 20 years in, LeBron James continues to be the chosen one where Nike Basketball is concerned.
As of last season, Nick DePaula reports that LeBron’s overall business at Nike — ranging from Witness shirts to sneakers — generates roughly $600 million annually.
Despite approaching the tender age of 40, that number is said to be a basketball industry-best for an active player.
Miraculous? Yes. Pre-ordained? Indeed.
Over the course of this divine journey, each entity has reaped what it sewed. Just like LeBron has been faithful to the Swoosh, they’ve blessed him right back.
Not only does LeBron now have his own building at the brand’s Beaverton campus — a place where many young hoopers see their own signature shoe for the first time — he’s extended to a lifetime deal said to pay him $1 billion over time.
His presence has helped the Swoosh exist as hoops heaven for generations to come, since signing the likes of Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Ja Morant to storied signature shoe deals.
Existing as an entrepreneur and philanthropist, he’s become one of the most marketable athletes of all time, appealing to various walks of life while existing in numerous rooms.
While sheer sales of LeBron sneakers may never match that of MJ, he’s used his leverage in Beaverton to bring on friends and fund other ventures.
Just as prophesied in that 2003 commercial, he was granted the gift of vision. A gift that’s blessed brands, ball players, and fans of footwear in miraculous fashion.
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