Yes, J.R. Smith is still shirtless from his night in Vegas, but look away from his booze-glazed torso for a second and focus on LeBron James. Here’s the hero of the Finals, at the moment he literally brings home the trophy Cleveland has been awaiting since before he was born. And he’s wearing—well, first, here’s what he’s not wearing: a Nike logo anywhere on his shirt or hat.
Earlier this year, James signed a new Nike deal, supposedly worth a billion dollars. That reupped the sponsorship that’s been in place since he finished high school: the dominant basketball prospect of his generation joining up with the dominant sports-branding company, a mutual brand-reinforcement strategy pioneered and immortalized by Nike and Michael Jordan.
Yet in his greatest moment of triumph, LeBron stepped off the plane decked out not in WITNESS gear or anything else from the LeBron James Collection, but in an Ultimate Warrior t-shirt—a not especially low-key bit of gloating over his vanquished foes—and the same ball cap he’d been wearing in preparation for Game 7:
Whomever the embroidered little tea-sipping Kermit’s message might be meant for, it’s coming directly from LeBron James. The shirt’s by Homage, and the meme hat appears to be from a company called Cigarette, neither of which is paying him a billion dollars for placement. There might be a little swoosh on his sweatpants, but nobody’s noticing that.
In an era when every postgame rehydrating beverage is a hotly negotiated branding opportunity, this is a remarkable act of self assertion. Did Nike fail to stipulate what LeBron should wear, or did he just not care? I sent emails to Maverick Carter and Nike to ask if James made his own choice; we’ll update if they respond.