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TO: Our lapsed fans
FROM: Your marketing pals at the NBA
SUBJECT: Exciting news!
We understand why you left. Not enough passing, too much showboating. Ron Artest's pugilism at the Palace, Kobe Bryant's infamous night in Colorado and Latrell Sprewell's approach to conflict resolution. And, sure, it has been hard to replace Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley, to say nothing of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. We were happy when some of you got excited about Larry Johnson for a while, but a guy dressed up like his grandmother in ads only gets you so far. � Still, it hasn't been all bad, has it? There's Shaquille O'Neal; Kevin Garnett; a host of scruffy, sweet-shooting foreign players; and, best of all, Tim Duncan--a pleasant, fundamentally sound 7-footer who wins MVPs and rings and has a surname that screams endorsements. Slam Duncan! The Reverse Duncan! O.K., so he's a bit like the Smithsonian magazine of NBA stars--reliable and high quality but gets killed by the tabloids on the newsstands. We get it now. You want excellence and personality, flash and heart.
Which brings us to the exciting news: The good times are back, baby, thanks to LeDwelo! Or Cardwon! O.K. so we haven't figured out a good handle for them yet, but we're referring of course to the three prime members of the draft class of 2003: LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade. Sure, we're always touting the high picks--apologies for that Summer of Starbury mailing back in 1997--but these guys aren't mere products of shoe company hype, they're actual supertalents on and off the court, dynamic, self-aware, personable and sexy. Did we mention sexy?
Check this out. As third-year pros last season all three averaged at least 26.5 points. The last time three guys so green pulled that off in the same season? Try 1963, when second-year forward Walt Bellamy scored 27.9 points per game, joining a couple of third-year guards, Jerry West (27.1) and Oscar Robertson (28.3). That's 43 years ago, or one year for every point Wade scored for the Heat last June in that must-see, wake-up-the-kids performance against the Mavericks in Game 5 of the Finals. Not enough for you? Well, last season Wade accomplished something that Vince Carter and Allen Iverson haven't (won a title), while James pulled off a trifecta last achieved by Jordan (averages of 30 points, six rebounds and six assists). And two seasons ago Anthony become the third-youngest player to score more than 2,000 points in a year.
Team USA coach Mike Krzyzewski named these guys tricaptains at the FIBA World Championship in Japan in August. The squad won only bronze, but the trio represented their country admirably. Wade came off the bench without complaint, Anthony led the team in scoring, and James selflessly took up the role of playmaker. And there was not a single embarrassing international incident to report (unless you count the pick-and-roll defense in the semifinals against Greece).
They're in great demand. Wade's Heat and James's Cavaliers will be on national TV a league-high 24 times each during the regular season (tied with the Lakers and the Suns), and Anthony's Nuggets will appear 14 times. Crossover appeal? Wade's in a Converse commercial (directed by Spike Lee!) and a Lincoln ad, and last May GQ named him the NBA's best-dressed player. James recently guested on Letterman and is scheduled to appear on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart this month. Melo just taped a SportsCenter ad and is on the cover of the latest NBA Street video game. They're getting so much attention that the reigning Rookie of the Year, point guard Chris Paul of the Hornets, says, "I tell these guys, Leave some for me. I wouldn't mind endorsing something. Won't be nothing left." (Don't worry, Chris, someone will have to play LeBron's foil during his Space Jam phase.)
Or look at their Q ratings. The Long Island, N.Y., firm Marketing Evaluations polls people around the country to determine the name recognition and likability of celebrities. A Q rating above 15 is impressive; Brad Pitt is a 20, for example. Our guys? According to the latest survey taken over the summer, Anthony is a 13, James is a 21 and Wade is a 31 (second to Jordan among all sports figures). In fact, that type of love brings to mind our earlier holy trinity: In 1988 Jordan had a 37 rating, Magic a 29 and Bird a 25. "No one's going to be another Jordan," says Marketing Evaluation executive vice president Henry Schafer. "But these guys are likable, present themselves well and cut across a lot of demographics. The NBA's got the right idea with these three."
Sure, some are taking a wait-and-see approach. "We're anointing them early," says Suns coach Mike D'Antoni, an assistant on the U.S. team. But most are on board. "These guys are the real deal as players," says Heat coach Pat Riley. "They understand their place in this game, and they're savvy above and beyond what players used to be like, because of the [off-the-court] success of a Michael Jordan. They know how to take care of business and how to translate their greatness into the marketplace as brand names."