If Oscars and Emmys ever supersede NBA titles and MVP trophies when it comes to defining the legacies of Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, mark that as the moment when the sports world began to spin backward on its axis.
Still, you can’t overlook what SpringHill Entertainment has sprung on Hollywood over the last few weeks.
The influential media company primarily owned by James and partner Maverick Carter, with millions of infused help by Warner Brothers, put the newest Laker into an elite orbit of Tinseltown titillation that some Black Mamba worshipers may see as another threat to Bryant’s status.
In deals reached with Showtime, HBO and CBS adding to what he’s already done with Netflix, YouTube and other media platforms — all while opening a new school in Akron, Ohio — James clearly has taken the position of superhero using his powers for the greater good.
At the Television Critics Assn. gathering in Pasadena last week, where new shows are trumpeted for all the social media they can generate, one that captured considerable buzz was the James-infused, three-part documentary series called “Shut Up and Dribble” for Showtime — the premium cable channel, not what might sound like a Lakers-based network that reruns games from the 1980s.
The series, whose title flips a mean-spirited phrase by conservative pundit Laura Ingraham targeting James and other NBA players, will focus on “the changing role of athletes in our fraught cultural and political environment,” according to the press release.
This comes in concert with a talk show James launched a couple of years ago at Turner’s Bleacher Report and has sold to HBO called “The Shop.” James takes us to a barber shop in West Hollywood and brings together a smart, eclectic collection of celebrities and athletes to cut up the day’s headlines. As James described it to the Hollywood Reporter, this will focus on “the essence of conversation … which these days seems like a lost art.” Both shows come out later this year.
Think of how actors, producers and directors angle for the best courtside seats at a Lakers game so they can be seen. James has just raised the bar on that. With his recently signed four-year, $153.3-million free-agent deal, he can wink across the court to his new business partners and set up pitch meetings during timeouts.
Bryant might be around courtside working his own deals. He got the media bug when he became the focus of two major documentaries. In 2009, he gave Spike Lee and some 30 cameramen “unprecedented access” to a day in his life so they could see what makes him a superior competitor in “Kobe Doin’ Work.”
In 2015 came “Kobe Byant’s Muse” for Showtime, a year before he retired after 20 seasons with the Lakers. Bryant has since aligned himself with entrepreneur Jeff Stibel, created his own Granity Studios, and become partners in Derek Jeter’s Players’ Tribune project. From that, a first-person ode to the game called “Dear Basketball” won an Academy Award for animated short film — and an Emmy for outstanding post-produced graphic design.
During last season’s NBA playoffs, Bryant also was visible on ABC/ESPN with his “Detail” project, for which he analyzed game film and explained why things did or didn’t work on the court. He said it came from his experience of watching the game “at the smallest level — the entire chess board.”
On the chess board of a giant media empire game, Bryant and James surely are not pawns. But on each side there is only one king.
For “King James,” his media narrative is the noble pursuit of bringing the world together. Meanwhile, Bryant mines internal material for his projects.
What comes off better?
Dan Durbin, director of the USC Annenberg Institute of Sports, Media & Society, thinks both stars’ work carries importance.
“LeBron faces a much more politically charged public environment than Kobe and has responded in kind,” Durbin said.
“LeBron’s brand is meant to transcend the game; Kobe’s was meant to embody the game. LeBron’s brand benefits from his position as an ambassador for the game; Kobe’s brand benefited most by keeping focused on his intense commitment to the game and away from other subjects.”
Those “other” things would include Bryant’s time in Colorado contesting a 2003 sexual assault case. There’s also a $100,000 fine the NBA pinned on him in 2011 for using a homophobic slur against a referee. James has steered clear of such potholes, and avoids confrontations on social media even when baited by President Trump.
“Kobe was indeed criticized for his lack of political and social media engagement — the ‘Black Mamba’ brand was supposed to help alleviate some of that pressure — just as LeBron has been criticized, generally by a completely different crowd, for being too politically involved,” Durbin said. “In many ways, an athlete can’t win.”
By one scoreboard, Bryant has more NBA titles (5-3), All-Star selections (18-14) and scoring championships (2-1). James has more regular season MVPs (4-1), Finals MVPs (3-2) and All-NBA first-team selections (12-11).
Durbin hopes Lakers loyalists eventually realize that neither James nor Bryant, no matter what their media motives might be, is trying to undercut the other’s fame or foundation.
“The Los Angeles fans who fear LeBron will displace Kobe aren’t really thinking clearly,” Durbin said. “Kobe could not replace the best team leader of all time in Magic Johnson, or the best pure scorer of all time in Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, or the most outrageously dominant individual player of all time in Wilt Chamberlain.
“LeBron will not replace Kobe, nor does he need to. LeBron brings an even bigger global brand to the Lakers than Kobe ever developed.”
One last bit of Hollywood gossip: James is intent on remaking the 1996 animated classic “Space Jam” and supposedly taking over the role Michael Jordan had opposite Bugs Bunny.