Well, I guess it has been over a decade since Lil’ Penny was dominating the airwaves. Whether or not the lack of loud-mouthed, hyper-enthusiastic hype-spewing puppet representations of superstar NBA players really left a gap in the leaves of TV viewers since then is a matter for debate, but I guess Nike figures that a classic formula never really goes out of style. Hence this pair of ads, sure to become timeout staples for the rest of the NBA post-season. The premise, in case you’re too lazy to click above, is of puppet forms of the two most dominant players remaining in the playoffs and probably the two most famous ballers on the planet at the moment, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant, jawing at one another as they prepare for their respective championship runs. LeBron, having been there only once and yet to emerge victorious, plays the role of the excited young’n, while Kobe, having won three times already, sits back and lets his rings do the talking (and then talks about them a whole lot more just in case).
First off, these commercials are great. It’s been a relative dry spell for quality ads during these playoffs thusfar (minus the already classic Most Interesting Man in the World and the obligatory captivating failure of a Taco Bell ad campaign–I swear, EVERY year, without fail), but the actually NBA-related ads have been phenomenal–first those great slow-mo, B&W “Where Will Amazing Happen This Year?” playoff moments of years past, and now these Nike spots. They’re funny, they’re catchy, they’re technically impressive, and they’re going to be imminently quotable by the 75th time that I see ’em. Most importantly, they follow my #1 rule for commercial campaigns–they take an inherently ridiculous concept much, much too far (although not without a sense of humor about it, as when after Kobe goes through his big to-do about his championship rings, LeBron semi-rhetorically asks “Why do we live together?“)
The most brilliant part of ’em is probably that they make no effort whatsoever to capture the personalities–or even the voices–of the original athletes. I guess the Nike people figured that as long as they weren’t going to get LeBron and Kobe themselves (or that they wouldn’t be able to handle the acting assignment) for the ads, they might as well not even attempt the difficult (and potentially insulting) task of trying to replicate their mannerisms in puppet form. So instead we get these caricatures of Kobe as some sort of 60s-style jazz hipster (I venture to guess that real-life Kobe has never worn a hat like that before in his life) and of LeBron as a nine-year-old getting to go to Sea World for the first time. Hey, maybe this is what Kobe and LeBron are really like when they step off the court (although none of the reviews I’ve seen of Kobe Doin’ Work lead me to be leave as much), but I can’t help but picture the two of them watching these commercials from their mansions and nervously hailing their PR guys–“Hey…that’s not really what people think I’m like, is it?”
My one reservation about these commercials, however, is the assumed implication that LeBron vs. Kobe will end up being the story of the playoffs, as the two will invariably lead their respective teams to a showdown in the finals to once-and-for-all determine which of the two is the dominant player in the NBA at the moment. Personally, I’m rooting for it, especially on the highly outside chance that Kobe ended up winning the thing (I’m still fascinated by the dude, and have something of a great disdain for Mr. James), and obviously, so is the NBA. Bulls vs. Celtics in the first round showed that a classic match-up could still capture the public’s imagination, and now Crosby vs. Ovechkin over in the NHL showed how much a personal rivalry at the forefront of such a closely fought fight could galvanize the series, and the public watching it. Lakers/Celtics last year was great and all, but on a superstar level, it kind of had a three-on-one gang-up feel to it, given the C’s trio of marquee players. Kobe vs. LeBron..fans won’t have seen anything like it in decades.
But you know what? It might not happen. Lest we forget, the Lakers are still struggling through the semis, and for all we know they might not even get out of there, facing potential elimination in Game 7 at the Staples Center on Sunday. And even if they get through that, they’ve got the Nuggets–8-2 so far this post-season, with an equally potent star in Carmelo and an arguably superior supporting cast in Billups, K-Mart, JR, Birdman and company–to worry about. And hey, while we’re at it, the Cavs still gotta get through either the defending champs (Garnett-less yes, but still a team that has proven to be a tough out for anyone-) or the Magic (who don’t seem too intimidating, but for some reason seem to have Cleveland’s number in recent years). Kobe’s on thinner ice at the moment, but both still have a ways to go before they can start concerning themselves with personal vendettas. And this isn’t even the only ad campaign featuring the two’s rivalry to be circulating this post-season. If one of ’em doesn’t make it, it’s gonna be the Dan & Dave debacle all over again, no?
Well, if you see Ron Artest get called for a flagrant two and ejected on Sunday for flashing Kobe “menacing glances”…you know what shoe company to blame, I guess.