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Who will be the face of the NBA after LeBron? You may not like the answer.

LeBron James, theGrio.com

OPINION: While there’s no clear choice as to who will be the face of the league once LeBron James retires, I think I have the answer. And I don’t love it.

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

For almost two decades, it’s been clear who the face of the NBA is: LeBron James. But the LeBron era is ending, and capitalism abhors a vacuum. There will have to be a new face of the NBA. Most people have an idea who that will be, but I think they’re wrong. In the past few decades, we’ve had a clear line of succession. In the ’90s, it was Jordan and at the end of his career, it was clear that Kobe Bryant was next. At the end of Kobe’s career, it was clear that Bron was next. Right now, there’s no clear next, but I think I have the answer. And I don’t love it.

When I say the face of the league I mean the most famous person in the sport — someone who is revered by real NBA fans and also known and respected by people who are casual fans. You know you’re talking about the face of the league when you’re talking about a player who has crossover fame. When someone is so deeply embedded in popular culture that people who know little about the NBA know his name and like him enough to watch commercials he’s in and maybe even buy things just because he suggests they should. That’s the face of the league (FOL).

The FOL is the guy most Americans think of when they think of the NBA. Not most NBA fans, most people. I’m talking about the player your mom could name even if your mom isn’t much of a basketball fan. If I asked my mom right now to name three current NBA players, she would say LeBron and Steph Curry and after that, there would be lots of ums and finger-snapping. She’d say “Oh what’s his name?” several times. That’s fine. She’s a casual fan. And LeBron and Curry are the faces of the league. If you’re the FOL, it’s because people like her know you and like you. The fastest way to get there is by dominating on the court and in the commercial breaks.

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The FOL is always the one with the most commercials. If you have the largest number of major brands rocking with you, you’re the FOL. In between timeouts, we get a little Chris Paul and maybe one Shai Gilgeous-Alexander spot but we see a lot of LeBron and Steph hawking all kinds of things.

To get to that elite level several things must happen. You have to play in the finals. You gotta be seen on the biggest stage in order to be recognized by a gigantic amount of people. You also have to be the star of your team. You also have to play in a way that’s exciting to watch so people are tuning in to see how you do your thing. I’m talking about the aesthetics of how you play. You also have to have some personality, some charisma and no major off-court craziness. It helps a lot if you play on a team in a large market but that’s not necessary if you’re big enough. So you have to be alpha yet humble, a killer on the court yet squeaky clean off, a silky athlete who seems fun to be around. A winner. And telegenic.

Earlier this season, I thought Anthony Edwards was about to become the next face of the league. That may still happen. He ticks a lot of boxes. The way he plays is awesome — he gives you eye-popping plays several times a game. He’s a good-looking young guy with personality and swag. He could grow into the best player in the league, and he could win a few rings. But as of right now, he’s never been to the finals. At the end of this season, my mom still won’t know who he is, which means he’s valuable to Nike, which caters to sports fans but not to State Farm or BMW, who need an endorser who’s also known to non-sports fans. Three years from now Edwards could be that guy. But I think someone else will beat him to it.

A year ago, I thought Ja Morant was going to get there but his off-court craziness has killed that chance. I love Jayson Tatum but his game isn’t quite captivating enough, and he lacks a little something in off-court charisma. Same with Gilgeous-Alexander, who also has the hurdle of being in small-market Oklahoma City. Victor Wembanyama and Giannis Antetokounmpo are extraordinary players, but it’s really hard for huge guys to become the face of the league. People find it a little harder to feel a deep kinship with huge guys. This is part of what’s hindered Nikola Jokic from becoming the face of the league. Plus, I think watching big men play is less exciting than watching the more stylish, shorter guys. Jokic has been the best player in the league for a few years, but you kind of have to be a basketball lover to understand his genius as opposed to someone like say Curry whose game is thrilling even for a casual fan.

That leaves us with Luka Doncic. He’s about to reach the finals and get to the biggest stage, which will catapult him to another level of stardom. If his Mavericks win, they’ll do Colbert and Fallon and maybe SNL. In my mom’s mind, he’ll move from “that guy on that team” to “Luka.” It’ll take a second trip to the finals for his last name to get ingrained in her mind. But everyone on Madison Avenue will know his name.

Doncic is ready: He’s the star of his team, and he’s extremely captivating to watch. He’s got charisma and seems like a nice guy off the court. Dallas is a big market, and he’s got no bad off-court stories. On top of all that, he’s white. I’m sure Madison Avenue would love to get behind a white ballplayer — I can see them salivating over his potential to connect with white consumers. He’s already top 5 in most views on social media and has one of the top-selling jerseys in the league. I can totally see him dropping a funny line as he tells us to go buy some car.

I hate the idea of a white man becoming the face of the NBA. But I can’t lie to myself — this is what I see developing.


Touré, theGrio.com
Touré, theGrio.com

Toure is a host and writer at TheGrio. He hosts the TheGrio TV show “Masters of the Game,” and he created the award-winning podcast “Being Black: The ’80s” and its upcoming sequel “Being Black: The ’70s.” He is also the creator of “Star Stories” and the author of eight books, including “Nothing Compares 2 U an oral history of Prince.” He also hosts a podcast called “Toure Show.” He is also a husband and a father of two.

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