Last year, I was watching a late-season Ohio State game with my buddy Paul. Paul, like myself and many in our demographic, is a college basketball shorts enthusiast. Paul was impressed by the subtle changes in OSU's uniforms from one year to the next, and he told me that he was considering getting a pair of those shorts despite his lack of Ohio State fandom. (That's just how the college hoops shorts game works, kids.)
"Wait a second," he said. "Do you know what that little logo is on the leg?"
"Yeah," I said. "It's the LeBron James lion."
"Oh, right," Paul said. "Never mind."
Love him or hate him, Ohio State has been sponsored by LeBron James for years now -- you have to wonder if, given the past year, this sponsorship has started to rankle Buckeyes fans -- and the much-maligned superstar's sponsorship outfit appears to be picking up steam. On Friday, the Miami Sun Sentinel reported that the Hurricanes have signed a deal with James's arm of the Nike empire, which will be providing the school with uniforms and warm-ups, you know, all of the other things college hoops teams need to play college hoops.
The extension isn't limited to James' new hometown (ahem) Hurricanes. According to the Sun Sentinel, the Kentucky Wildcats are also reportedly getting in on the action. This likewise makes some immediate, gut-level business sense. John Calipari has touted his ties to LeBron James in the past (James showed up for a Wildcats game at Rupp Arena last season) and has built a program tailored to elite one-and-done hyper-talents, the kind of players who are seeking NBA-level success as quickly as possible. No player is more symbolic of that ability than James, who excelled in the league as a preps-to-pros rookie unlike any player before him.
But isn't LeBron James unlikable and unpopular? Isn't he some cautionary tale about teamwork, determination and accomplishment? Hasn't his brand taken a hit? Among the average sports fan and even the general public, yes, even as James's No. 6 Heat jersey led the league in sales this season. (America is weird. That's my only explanation here.) But among 17-year-old aspiring NBA hoopsters, James is probably about as popular as he ever was. I have a feeling most of them won't share Paul's feelings about that lion logo.
Of course, in case you thought you were going to be able to make the first late game "shrinkage" joke about the new uniforms, I'm here to tell you that the Louisville Courier-Journal's Eric Crawford has beaten you to it. Better luck next time, everyone.