NEW YORK -- LeBron James is having a moment. You just have to look closely to see it.
It's rehearsal day at NBC's famed Studio 8H at 30 Rock, and the host of the Sept. 29 season premiere of "Saturday Night Live" is wedged between Maya Rudolph and an incessantly chirping Kanye West, going largely ignored as crewmembers scamper to meet the needs of the country's top-selling recording artist.
They'd like to shoot a 10-second network promo for the show but they can't, not until the show's musical guest feels just right. The tension ratchets up a notch when West offers script revisions that are neither solicited nor heeded, and up two notches more when he suggests that, in the interest of time, they cut down James' lines.
Through it all, James is unmoved, eyeing the chaos with detached eyes, his hands behind his back and a grin pasted across his face. Only when the diminutive West efforts to appear taller -- he asks that Rudolph remove her high-heels, then calls for an apple box, then another -- does James finally cave. "Do you want me to get on my knees?" he gamely cracks, to the crew's delight.
It's not a bad idea, having King James kneel before the music world's Zod, but more than that, it's funny, and it's why James is here. Always a cut-up amongst his Cavaliers teammates, the outgoing kid with the ready smile who flashed his comedic potential as co-host of "The ESPYS" and in his Nike "The LeBrons" spots is being asked to flex those muscles on the biggest, most demanding stage in comedy, as host of the premiere of the 33rd season of the storied late-night series.
"What you're most hoping for in a season premiere is that it's right for this moment, And I can't think of anything that says late-September 2007 than these two guys," "SNL" creator and longtime executive producer Lorne Michaels would say of James and West during an NBC conference call. "Watching the ESPY awards and the Nike ads, you can tell when someone has a sense of humor, or at least enough perspective on themselves to laugh at stuff."
LeBron wasn't alive when Steve Martin was a wild and crazy guy, wasn't quite an embryo when Eddie Murphy, his personal favorite, re-imagined pop-culture icons like Buckwheat and James Brown. But he gets the significance. "It's one of, if not the greatest TV show of my generation," James would tell me later. "It took one question ... and it took one second to say, 'Yeah.' It was easy."
James is more than aware of the jocks who came before him. Bill Russell, Lance Armstrong, Michael Jordan and Peyton Manning are among the 28 sports figures who checked their egos outside 30 Rock and set a high standard with humorous, self-deprecating performances that have stuck in the minds of fans of all generations.
THE REVIEWThe show is over, but we're guessing you didn't watch. It's cool, we've got you ...
THE STARTING FIVE
Monologue: Short and sweet, with a strong self-deprecating quip about the Finals sweep and a cameo by "The LeBrons," still the most creative athlete-centric marketing campaign going.
High School Musical 3: The Daniel Gibson of this lineup. A hilarious send-up of the cheesy TV movies. (Yes, I've seen them. Yes, my lil' cousins made me. And no, I no longer enjoy spending time with them.) James telling Zac Effron's character that he'll "have sex with your girlfriend," a reference to the nude photo scandal was an envelope pusher, though not quite Joe Montana's "I'm going upstairs."
Solid Gold: Michael Cage in spandex? Admitting to eating "whole chickens"? Solid. Gold.
Read to Achieve: Solid concept, and the Dwyane Wade quip was a great jab at the ring-less host, but James was upstaged by Jason Sudeikis' production assistant and the one-on-one climax shot a blank. And where were the kids at? Think Manning's United Way classic: Sit 'em down and read something awesomely nasty. Unlike, say, the script.
Date Auction: Decent, but more of a "garbage-time" sketch.
Lyle Kane Show: The BJ line was risqué, and James' Todd required a comedic stretch, but we've come a long way since "Wayne's World."
High School Counselor: Conceptually strong -- James is the first prep-to-pro NBAer to host -- but three guys seated in an office? Funny, like Tim Duncan.
Forget what you've heard: The castmembers are funny, on and off camera. And James' comedic timing and deadpan are money. The problem? It's not so much that James played himself in three of seven sketches, but that James was reined in. Like Damon Jones, James was asked merely to hit his open jumpers. Was it the writers, or the host's good-guy nature? SNL's writers ask their hosts for input in determining no-go topics. Where's the crooked ref? A quip about James' under-performing Cavaliers teammates? Or a reference to James' nail-biting habit? "No," James told me of the latter "That would've been funny though."
THE FINAL SCORE: LeBron James 9, SNL 6 (and long live Andy Samberg!)
Like Derek Jeter, who dressed in drag for a sketch in December 2001, James will squeeze into a leotard and, as he'd later put it, perform "some early '80s, nasty-looking dances" as an effeminate "Solid Gold" dancer. And like Manning, who in March poked fun at his squeaky clean image in a mock public service ad that saw him swear at youth footballers, James will suffer indignities at the hands of a production assistant who'd much rather be working with Dwyane Wade ("At least he has a championship ring," he'll quip) in a sketch about the "NBA's Read to Achieve" program.
At the moment, James is on stage tackling a sketch titled "The Lyle Kane Show," an extremely white interview show inexplicably airing on the "Black ET Channel." One of Kane's guests is James' dim-witted, slack-postured, funny-talking Todd. According to Will Forte, the fifth-year castmember who plays Lyle, the character was James' creation.
"One of the challenges of having athletes host is you don't know what their strengths are, so you don't know how to write for them," Forte says. "It's great when you get somebody like LeBron who can do characters. He's got natural comedic timing and he's going for it with no fear. Just like he is on the court."
And how is he on the court? Don't ask Forte who, in the face-slaps of all face-slaps, adds: "I'm a Clippers' fan."
By appearances, SNL's latest host isn't exactly the hit of this party. While West once again wrangles producers, this time because the stage lighting isn't up to his standards -- "I need my guy to do the lights!" he'll bark during music rehearsals. "Seriously, or I'm not doing this" -- James is seated just beyond the set lights on a rolling chair, arms crossed, his monstrous fin draped over the chair beside him, going largely unbothered. Idle crew members -- and there are many -- are killing time reading magazines, not asking the Cavs stud to regale them with stories from the Eastern Conference trenches.
There's much of the same at the observation window bordering the studio. With cameras at the ready, a massive tour group is tipped off by an NBC page: "As you can see, they're rehearsing now with our musical guest Kanye West and "
"Ew! There's Kanye!" a girl squeals through her braces. "Who's the other guy?"
It should come as no surprise that the girl and more than a few of her fellow tourists weren't aware of James' Herculean playoff efforts for the Cavs. After all, 2007 NBA Finals clocked in with record-low ratings. That wasn't a concern for Michaels, who first reached out to James' camp during the playoffs, then booked him shortly after the Cavs were swept in the Finals.
Besides, the television bust was largely attributed to the smaller media markets of San Antonio and Cleveland, as well as the on-court mismatch between the upstart Cavs and the mighty Spurs. That Eva Longoria scored as much Finals camera time as King James isn't a reflection of James' overstated star power. Or is it?
If James' summer is any indication, he's not waiting for the answer. That's why he's on SNL. That's why he's everywhere. Though James would tell me that the SNL gig is "not part of any plan you get requests, and this was one of the ones you want to do," recent history suggests otherwise. Already a marketing superstar -- his sponsorships with Nike, Sprite, Powerade, Upper Deck and others exceed a reported $150 million -- James hasn't so much embarked on a media blitz, as he has an all-out assault on our pop-culture consciousness, with summer duties including playing host to "The ESPYs" and "SNL," serving as commissioner of Bubblicious' new Ultimate Bubble Blowing League in NYC (with Maria Sharapova) and, in what appears to be a page from Michael Jordan's playbook, a venture into feature films.
James' camp has tapped an Akron-based filmmaker to shoot a documentary that, according to Maverick Carter, James' childhood pal, business partner, and CEO of LRMR Marketing, "will show people about LeBron, how he grew up, his life, his four best friends and how they grew up, and the quest to be champion." Carter adds that while James is making an effort to become more active in the media, "you can't take over the media universe, but just get a little piece of it, and have fun doing it. He loves Michael (Jordan), but he's not patterning himself after Michael. He's doing things that are authentic to LeBron."
James might not want to be like Mike, but being like Jay-Z is another matter. Like West, James has aligned himself with the Roc-A-Fella prince, who's become something of a mentor to the young Cavalier. At his "Two Kings" power dinner and afterparty held at TAO in Las Vegas during All-Star weekend, Jay-Z all but held his co-host's hand through introductions to a who's who of the entertainment and sports industries, from Whitney Houston to several CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. "LeBron can transcend the game," Jay-Z told me at the time, adding that he's become both James' "business partner" and "lifestyle coach." "He's very smart, and he's hungry for knowledge, hungry to see what's out there beyond basketball. There's no limits to what he can do in the business world."
If there are limits, they'll most likely come in the form of Ohio's state lines. If nothing else, the Summer of James appears to be a conscious effort to seize a world of greener marketing pastures. For years now, captains of commerce, NBA execs and, well, Knicks fans, have clamored for the day when James would leave the Cavaliers -- a team with little history stranded in a small media pond -- for a major-market team. Though James temporarily allayed the rumors when he signed an extension with the Cavs in the summer of 2006, his deal only runs through 2010 (with a player option for a fourth year).
The Cavaliers had a largely inactive offseason, one that saw several Eastern Conference teams grow stronger. When James joins our ESPN crew in the darkened upper-level bleachers following rehearsals, I notice that he removed a Yankees cap he was wearing earlier. Was the cap a sign of the temperature on Cleveland? "As a competitor, I wish we could have got out into the market and get some guys to better our team," he says in grin-and-bear it response, minus the grin, before adding, "One thing where we have an advantage over a lot of these teams is we're bringing the same group of guys back. The chemistry is going to be there."
Besides, James has his own game to worry about. He's been working on his shooting stroke and, if his 60 percent from 3-point range during the Tournament of Americas is any indication, it's working. "For me, it's about getting better every offseason, and continuing to improve as a leader," he said. "My game automatically improves with being on the court, but being able to lead my team is the most important thing."
But first, he'll need to lead his new comedy team. Just as he's a team player on the court, he fit in seamlessly here, hitting his cues, rarely if ever flubbing lines and -- it's important to note -- not biting his nails, as he tends to do during games. Though it took him three years to master the art of big-game heroics, there are indications he'll do it here, on the most-nerve jangling stage in the TV game. Pressure? What pressure? "You know me," he says. "I'm going to have fun in the situation I'm in."
When the camera lights are off and the interview is over, James extends his hand for a firm shake, then ducks his head and promptly leaves the empty bleachers for more business backstage.
There's no time to waste. Not when you're having a moment.
Sam Alipour is based in Los Angeles. His Media Blitz column appears in ESPN The Magazine and regularly on Page 2. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.