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Hey America: Remember When This Happened?
The year: 2007. The location: 30 Rockefeller Center’s Studio 8H. The scene: 22-year-old Cleveland Cavalier LeBron James, fresh off of leading the franchise to their first (and only) NBA Finals appearance, makes his SNL hosting debut alongside musical guest Kanye West. West was just a few days away from releasing his third album, Graduation.
On that September night in 2007 — a time when most of the country still, you know, liked him — James would deliver in a big moment. Although not an Alec Baldwin hosting turn by any means, LeBron did well for a 22-year-old kid who was just starting to get his media feet wet (he’d co-hosted the ESPYs with Jimmy Kimmel just a few months earlier), and his night was highlighted by this memorably spandexed skit.
The Cleveland Plain Dealer would later commend him for being “cool, funny and a good sport,” and Bob Costas also praised James’ ability to deliver under pressure.
“He more than held up his part. Some athletes or sports figures who do this, especially the live show, appear nervous. LeBron looked like he was cool with all of it.”
The Kanye album, Graduation, would go double-platinum and outsell 50 Cent’s Curtis in a much-hoopla’d head-to-head release date matchup. By 2010, however, West would become a social pariah after a string of award show temper tantums, the most notable being his interruption of Taylor Swift (that all-caps “RUINED MOMENT” YouTube title is just delightful, isn’t it?) mid-VMA-speech — the infamous “I’ma let you finish” debacle. He’d continue his high output, however, and after one instant classic album (My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy) and one which was not as classic, but gave us “N*ggas In Paris” (Watch the Throne), his role as a tortured and controversial artistic genius was solidified. He wore the villain hat, and wore it well.
LeBron, meanwhile, would once again have a dominant season, but find himself bounced by Boston in the second round of the playoffs. After two MVP awards (but two more playoff exits), he entered the summer of 2010 as the most important free agent of all time. He, like Kanye, would become a pop cultural punching bag after an ill-advised TV special in which he’d commit the equally infuriating acts of tearing the heart out of an entire city and giving Jim Gray camera time. From that point on, he was also a villain.
But unlike Kanye, LeBron couldn’t wear the villain hat comfortably; although he continued to produce, finishing second in the league in regular season scoring, he became noticeably uncomfortable in big moments. In the 2011 Finals against the Mavericks, he averaged just three points in the fourth quarter for the series, and the Heat would lose, 4-2. The way he looked in the 2011 Finals — tentative and nervous on arguably the biggest stage he’d ever been on — was a far cry from how cool and calm he looked that night in 2007, when he wore a golden spandex suit, and most of the country still liked him.
We’re two years removed from The Decision, and five years removed from the SNL appearance. A lot has changed, but with just two more wins, LeBron will complete his redemption arc. And if he does win his first NBA Finals — and, in the process, wipes away much of the “can’t perform under pressure” stuff that’s plagued him — a return to Studio 8H for a few self-deprecating jokes seems like it would be in order. It won’t undo what’s been done, sure, but it would be one more step in the right direction.
Maybe he’ll rock the golden spandex for old times’ sake.
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