The opening of the 61-second ad is fly: LeBron James is playing airplane with his son as he lifts him up and tosses him around the pillows of a messy bed in Samsung's "At Home" commercial.
There is a purposeful camera-phone vibe to the whole shoot -- featuring Samsung gadgets, of course -- as the buffed daddy does pushups and shoots hoops with sons LeBron Jr. and Bryce. James swipes through family photos with his wife, Savannah. He laughs at his own funny face in a selfie. He is rockin' his Norman Rockwell.
The ad is choreographed, staged and soft lit to humanize LeBron -- and melt the last cold hater in Cleveland -- by providing a peek through a keyhole at his off-court life. It's a candy heart that says, "Hug Me," to a soulful R&B soundtrack.
But beneath the sweet branding, there is an unscripted message that is a soulful sirens' song to the abandoned: LeBron makes fatherhood cool. The image travels. In the urban reaches, a fatherless boy can watch a young, black male -- a 28-year-old superstar of superstars -- embracing the Daddy life. In the rural stretches, a kid being reared by a single mother can see a strong male taking part in parenting. Does modeling make that big of a difference? Does imagery carry that much weight?
The opposite image certainly did. In 1998, Sports Illustrated ran a controversial cover with this headline: Where's Daddy? In a lengthy piece titled "Paternity Ward," NBA players were portrayed as nothing but bejeweled Pez dispensers, popping out kids on sexed-up road trips through America, leaving an ant line of Baby Mamas to raise their progeny solo.
The piece ignited a public debate about whether the NBA had turned into a pimped up wasteland of hedonism and entitlement. In response to the SI story, columnist Mitch Albom wrote, "And ego makes them think that, if a child comes along, it will be taken care of in the way their luggage and bills are taken care of -- by somebody else."
Exhibit A in the SI story was the Knicks' Larry Johnson, who had this stat line: five children by four women and two paternity suits. In an interview I did with Johnson a year after the story, he admitted how hurt and embarrassed he was by the revelations. "But you know what? The majority of it, I did to myself," he said. "I can't deny responsibility. I had sex with a woman, got her pregnant, and the story came out."
One reader of the sordid tale was Larry's mother, Dortha, who worked as a cook 12 hours a day, bringing him up alone in the Dixon Circle projects of Dallas. "She was getting on me pretty good," said Johnson. "But I'm like, wait, you've raised children, and I've never seen a man around the house."
Where could he look? The only African-American image of a father he'd seen on TV was Cliff Huxtable in "The Cosby Show," which was super awesome for any urban kid with the ambition to be an obstetrician in a Brooklyn brownstone. Otherwise, there was a short bench of role models.
For years, through a decade of brawls and arrests, NBA commissioner David Stern tried to tailor a more wholesome player image by doing away with do-rags and enforcing a dress code: look good, be good. But maybe we've reached a tipping point where the Nanny State isn't necessary anymore. Just this past week, two NBA players -- Chris Bosh and Zach Randolph -- left their teams to attend the birth of their children. Yes, the same Randolph who once punched a teammate and identified with the gangster culture when he landed in the NBA after growing up fatherless in a poor pocket of Indiana.
People do grow, evolve and surprise you. Maybe the sea change was coming in its own time. In a 2008 Father's Day speech, President Obama laid out the issue, saying, "If we are honest with ourselves, we'll admit that way too many fathers also are missing -- missing from too many lives and too many homes. They have abandoned their responsibilities, acting like boys instead of men. And the foundations of our families are weaker because of it. You and I know how true this is in the African-American community. We know that more than half of all black children live in single-parent households, a number that has doubled -- doubled -- since we were children. We know the statistics - that children who grow up without a father are five times more likely to live in poverty and commit crime; nine times more likely to drop out of schools and twenty times more likely to end up in prison."
Obama is the Daddy-in-Chief and, yes, kids see him as a role model. But LeBron has a better jumper. And he has a longer wingspan to reach places a president can't go: in your living room seven nights a week, whether on the court or in a commercial. LeBron is also in your Instagram feed, whether he's posting a birthday shoutout to his son or a Halloween video shot inside his home.
LeBron uses social media the way we all do -- as a projection of what we want others to see. All anyone wants from him is for the images to be at least a reflection of what's real. Don't screw with us, fans would say. Don't pull a Tiger. He played the world for suckers as he posted family portraits in public while going Vegas in private. Don't head fake us, fans would say. Don't pull a Favre. He had audiences in tears, playing for a wife diagnosed with breast cancer only to have that dutiful husband image wrecked by a racy sexting scandal.
So far, the authenticity of LeBron as a dad has been unchallenged. Even before he married Savannah this summer after a decade together, he was wrapped up in his kids' lives by all accounts. LeBron did not grow up with a father but had strong men in his childhood and a confident sense of self. Yes, he once made a poor Decision, but LeBron has remade himself from The King into an everyman.
The commercial stage gives him a platform to evolve. "At Home" is the window. Through it, the Samsung video answers the question SI posed to the NBA in 1998: "Where's Daddy?" He's playing airplane with his sons. Does art represent life? A lot of kids are depending on it.