Is LeBron James the Apple Inc. of Sports?

I really like sports. I also really like technology, and more specifically Apple products. My Macbook, though held together by duct tape due to my own stupidity, is my baby. My iPhone is indispensable. I’m looking forward to the day when I can change my setup to desktop + iPad for my computing. So this is an article that will likely interest me and no one else. It’s either one of the most lucid comparisons I’ve ever drawn, or it’s completely contrived. OK, the disclaimers have happened. Read away.

Two (non-political) things that impossible to avoid over the past few weeks in the media have been LeBron’s impending free agency and Apple’s newest devices – the iPad and the likely-to-be-announced-Monday new iPhone. In thinking about the two parties involved (LeBron and Apple) I’ve come to the conclusion that the two are extraordinarily similar in many aspects. I’ve listed a number of areas they’re similar and drawn examples of each so that it’s clear.

Hype: The two entities being compared here live and breathe on hype. LeBron is the most-hyped NBA player in the history of the NBA, without question. Apple is a marketing machine whose commercials are ubiquitous. Their product announcements bog down Twitter and are CNN front-page news. Most recently, the iPad had every tech pundit on the planet weighing in on whether it was a success or failure before anyone had held one in their hands outside of Cupertino.

Abilities: LeBron does things that nobody else in the NBA can do – well-rounded offense, court vision, explosive athletic ability, strength, etc. Apple does things that no one else can do – intuitive touch-screen devices, changing user interface designs, building stable operating systems, and designing both hardware and software in order to get the most out of their devices.

Momentum: LeBron’s has reached the pinnacle of the NBA market – he’s going into free agency and is the league’s defending two-time MVP. Apple just surpassed Microsoft to become the second-largest American company based on market cap.

Overshadowed: Even though LeBron has had absurdly sublime regular seasons the past two years (hugely contributing to his MVP awards), he’s currently overshadowed by Kobe Bryant in terms of winning*. Apple is still far, far behind Microsoft in the OS market – and this is where the two companies will likely always be compared. Microsoft’s three major OSes combine to share 86.96% of web client operating system data, compared to Apple’s combined 6.66% between OS X and iPhone OS [Link].

Doing Things Their Own Way: Apple has no issue with shunning currently used technology (historically – floppy drives, phone line jacks, Adobe Flash) in order to make room for new tech (Firewire, USB, HTML5) – all moves that benefit technology going forward, but limit capability when trying to use things currently in place. LeBron’s been milking the free agency hype for years. While he surely deserves to make his decision on his own terms, he certainly could do a better job of waiting until the Finals are finished. He’s taking this summer off to work on a feature film, rather than working out with Team USA – risking a spot on the team in London.

Egos: On a similar wavelength as the previous point, both LeBron and Apple have very obvious egos. Just one example each here. LeBron: Check my $tats. Apple: Open letters denouncing Adobe’s Flash technologies as poor and a thing of the past.

The World Waits On Them: While many companies were working on reported or previewed tablet devices, nobody was willing to come out with one until they’d seen the iPad so that they could learn from it. Some have folded their plans (HP’s Windows 7 Slate project), while others will make a device that is based off of the iPad, as we have seen with the flood of iPhone knockoffs. The NBA free agency market will follow LeBron’s lead. LeBron is the domino that starts the chain reaction.

Secrecy: LeBron (or one of his handlers, or Nike, or whoever the hell it was) had the video tape of him getting dunked on by Jordan Crawford removed. He’s yet to really say anything of note about his free agency, aside from praising everybody. One of his major advisors (Worldwide Wes) is one of the more enigmatic figures in the NBA world. Apple is notoriously secretive when it comes to new technologies. The original iPhone was a complete surprise. The iPad, though seen in a few spy shots on the internet, was not a known entity at all when first announced (OK – we knew what it would be in form factor only. But the pricing and features were completely unknown before the announcement). When rumors do pop up (Delonte West/Gloria James, or Gizmodo and the new iPhone prototype), both parties aren’t afraid to move with legal action.

Polarizing: With both LeBron and Apple you’re either a hater or a fanboy. It’s seemingly impossible to fit somewhere in the middle. They’re both ubiquitous in their realms, and everyone is trying to inject their own say. Larry King forced a question to the president about LeBron’s FA, in the middle of three major crises (let’s not delve into the politics of this situation in specific – just pointing out that the question was brought up and was completely unnecessary). Everyone from David Duchovny to Mark Cuban is weighing in on where LeBron should end up. Skip Bayless and pretty much every DC blogger are out there pumping the venom. All of these things lead the haters to keep on hatin’, and the fans to keep on apologizing.

With Apple, The London Telegraph and CNN are publishing articles on why you don’t need the new iPhone when it hasn’t even been announced, about features that have not been announced in full. While we certainly can guess what the phone will look like and its feature set, there’s never been a working next-gen iPhone found in the wild, so to pan it or praise it prematurely is a moot point, and pointless.

Where do they differ?

All this being said, there are a few differences (LeBron’s a basketball player! Apple is a corporation!) that are worth noting. Firstly, the people involved. While Apple has a board of directors and the whole corporate structure, it certainly is run by Steve Jobs. It’s not only Steve Jobs, as we saw when he was away from the company getting a pancreas transplant. It’s a viable entity without Jobs – the company is full of hugely apt, smart people. The same cannot be said about LeBron. While he’s surrounded himself with people of similar interests, and seems to “get” marketing to a certain degree, he’s surrounded by “a collection of sycophants and incompetents, sneaker reps and childhood buddies and middlemen whom he calls his team”, as Adrian Wojnarowski wrote. I think that’s a little too harsh, but aside from chatting every now and again with Warren Buffett, LeBron doesn’t seem to get a lot of advice from the smartest people he could seek out.

The outwardly stated goals of the two are different. LeBron’s said his goal is to win a championship (reach the pinnacle of his sport) and be the first athlete to become a billionaire. Apple’s is “simply trying to make the best products it can” [Steve Jobs at D8 last week]. Apple is great at making profits and driving up their bottom line, but do things their own way in order to make what they think are great products.

While there are noted differences, I think looking at the abilities, personalities, and media coverage of both Apple and LeBron, they’re incredibly similar. It may be a stretch, but I don’t think it’s much of one. Both seemingly have their best days ahead of them. Lord knows we’ll hear about them.

It’s amazing to me that two things that I love to read about and watch/utilize are so very similar. I’ve invested more from an emotional standpoint in LeBron, but invested in Apple far more out of my wallet. I don’t think that there’s any question that I’m loyal to both, but neither are without their faults.

* If LeBron is Apple and Kobe is Microsoft, then Kevin Durant is Android (exciting new kid on the block that has a long way to go), and Tim Duncan is Linux (nerdy, boring, and incredibly effective).