Holy grail: LeBron-branded Ohio State jersey, Version 1.0

NWT

I have what one might consider to be an extensive sports jersey collection, one I continue to cultivate despite the fact that I don’t have nearly as much occasion to wear them as I used to when I was a few years younger.

Though I work at a sports website, I’ve attempted in recent years to clean up my act a bit. Inspired by Jay-Z eschewing jerseys, I made a begrudging stop at the Jackson, N.J., Polo outlet the day after my 30th birthday. And even when not at work, I’ve taken to wearing shirts with buttons, but minus some other guy’s name emblazoned on the back.

Yet still, wearing a fresh, hard-to-find jersey has never lost that high school cool factor to me, especially during the summer.

I brought with me from my younger years the thrill of the chase for the almighty holy grail. I’m speaking of that moment I stumble across a Mark McGwire 1999 Home Run Derby jersey on eBay, something like that, where I never knew it existed but now have to have it. (I did get the McGwire jersey, though I’m unsure if I’ve ever worn it.)

My most recent grail? an Ohio State jersey with the LeBron James logo on the chest in place of the Nike swoosh.

I’d wanted one of those Ohio State jerseys for several years and finally bought one off eBay a couple months ago, so I found it peculiar when it was considered breaking news that Nike was set to stick LeBron’s logo on jerseys for OSU, Kentucky and the University of Miami.

How soon we forget. Ohio State has featured LeBron’s logo off and on for years. And since the status has been “off” for a couple of years, I guess maybe this does qualify as news, after all.

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DunkmanI’ve been an avid collector of LeBron gear since I acquired his high school jersey while he was still in high school, so I guess it was weird I didn’t get a LeBron-branded OSU jersey when they started wearing them during the 2007 Big 10 Tournament. I do recall coveting one. But they weren’t in a whole lot of stores in New Jersey, so it kind of just slipped by me.

LeBron was starting to scratch the surface of how big he was going to be at the time, but I was still intrigued by Nike’s choice to brand a college team with a relatively obscure logo of a guy who had never played on that level. (LeBron has said that he would have played for the Buckeyes had he, by some miracle, attended college.)

I always thought Nike should have picked a better logo for LeBron, such as the Dunkman, a silhouette of a highlight from his first NBA game that appears on at least one model of his sneakers every year. Perhaps they thought going the silhouette route would have seemed too much of a forced Jordan imitation, but so much else of what they’ve done has been transparently in that vein anyway.

In fact, throwing LeBron’s logo on Ohio State’s jerseys in the first place demonstrated to me Nike’s seemingly overambitious desire to elevate his brand identity to the point that it could stand alone like the Jordan Brand. I’d imagine they were hoping to figure out a way to work out the best return on their initial $90 million investment.

Modest collectionOf course, when they started swathing college jerseys with Jordan’s logo in the late 90’s, the Jumpman was easily recognizable in American society, probably close to as well known as the Swoosh. I was of course enthralled; I proudly sported St. John’s, Cincinnati and Cal Berkeley Jordan Brand jerseys at Duke. The UNC versions were obviously off limits.

When Nike started that Jumpman initiative, Jordan was six championships deep; LeBron had been in the league for a championship-free four years when Oden and his creaky knees made the NCAA Finals. King James wasn’t yet a household name.

The first iteration of LeBron-branded Ohio State jerseys didn’t last forever. OSU wore LeBron-branded jersey shorts in the 2007 postseason, carried them over into 2008, but went back to the swoosh by the time Evan Turner and Jared Sullinger surged to stardom. The team still wears LeBron sneakers, but players at lots of schools do that.

An Ohio State spokesman is quick to confirm that their jerseys haven’t featured a LeBron logo since 2008, and that they won’t actually be going back to that well again. Someone should let this guy know so he can calm down a bit.

It seems The Ohio State University doesn’t want denizens of Cleveland to burn replicas of their jerseys as well.

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Intermittently over the past couple years, I’d check eBay to see if anyone had a LeBron OSU jersey up for sale. About two months ago, I found one that happened to be my size. The jersey was No. 14, and a quick Google search told me it belonged to Jamar Butler.

I had little recollection of Butler, since he was overshadowed on those Ohio State teams by future NBA players Oden, Mike Conley and Daequan Cook. Wikipedia tells me he averaged 15 points in 2008 on an OSU team that won the NIT, and apparently then went to play in Greece and Serbia.

Regardless, who knew when I’d see another one of these, much less in my size? A Paypal transaction later, and I owned my second Ohio State jersey — the first being Maurice Clarett.

The jersey is pretty standard Nike Dri-fit fare. They were one year into an initiative to make their basketball jerseys more form-fitting, and even at 5-foot-6 and 135 pounds, I don’t swim in it the way I do in most jerseys, even mediums.

LJ23 But the logo steals the show.

And maybe having his logo receive another go-around on college jerseys presents a new beginning for LeBron’s brand. Unlike his home state, they actually seem to like him in Miami and especially Kentucky, where he has become big man on campus based on his World Wide Wes-brokered friendship/business partnership of sorts with John Calipari.

LeBron may be loathed by the general public, but his sneaker line is more popular than ever. (I tried getting the Sprites, but they sold out on the first day.) His Nike camp is one of the hottest stops on the summer basketball circuit.

All the pieces are still in place.

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That said, I see two major obstacles.

Butler in action

One is that his old LJ23 logo, the one on my jersey, doesn’t exist anymore. It perished when he changed his jersey number to No. 6, replaced alternately by a weird LJ with a crown and a lion. If few recognized his old logo, nobody would know either of his current ones.

The other is his flagging Q Rating. Jordan’s logo is everywhere — colleges, camps, high schools, the streets. He’s considered the first billion dollar athlete. But unlike LeBron, his reputation has remained teflon, even as he’s become far less likable over the years.

To me, that LJ23 logo on the chest of my Jamar Butler jersey just kind of gives it a certain cool factor. Since it doesn’t appear Ohio State is going back to using a LeBron logo any time soon, it stands as a relic of a time when he wasn’t persona non grata in his home state, much less in America’s living rooms. When it looked like those breathless “next Jordan” prophecies held some water, marketing-wise.

Putting his logo on jerseys for UK and The U indicates Nike hasn’t given up on spinning out his brand. But first, they might want to settle on a decent logo and make people aware of it.

And it might help if they figure out how to make LeBron somewhat less reviled.

Esoteric

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