With the release of a new series with Powerade entitled “Streetball Court,” LeBron James is part of a cast of elite basketball players that have appeared in commercials under a different alias. In the series, James stars as Judge James, enforcing the rules of basketball to ballers that simply do not get the ethics of streetball; “Thou shall drink their own drink” or call “the ticky-tacky foul”.
Growing up in the Michael Jordan era, I remember watching all of the dope Nike commercials featuring a new star at the time by the name of Penny Hardaway and his alter-ego puppet Lil’ Penny. For a little kid like me, the commercials were brilliant because it brought fun outside of basketball. Penny was LeBron James before LeBron James in the ’90s and was next in line for basketball reign as the legends of the ’80s were retiring. Every marketable basketball player has had the opportunity to be in commercials but there are only a select few that have had the chance to have their own alter-ego or sidekick in commercials.
Rather than players simply putting on a smile and appearing in a commercial for a brand, companies such as Nike went over the top by creating fictional characters in entertaining marketing attempts. Some of the best basketball commercials in history featured some of the best characters, and I counted down the most memorable of them here.
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10. Judge James â€“ Powerade
Starring: LeBron James
The commercial was released a couple days ago but that does not mean that “Judge James” cannot make this list. Prior to LeBron winning two NBA championships, he was getting slaughtered and criticized for everything he did. But after his coronation in 2012, LeBron’s popularity sky-rocketed, making him one of the most beloved sports figures in our generation. After being under the microscope for so long, Powerade has given LeBron the opportunity to get his payback in his own courtroom, donning the grey wig to match the judge criteria.
The judge character fits perfect with LBJ’s career as we have all been “Witnesses” to watching him play. Playing streetball, we have all encountered the different types of ballers that nag about everything (fouls, calling timeouts that were never real, and not calling backboard off bank shots). It is kind of ironic for LeBron to have a courtroom after the perception of him being pro-flopping. I also found it funny that LeBron obviously saw no problems with stacking teams in basketball with the best players. LeBron’s Bailiff is very comedic as well.
With LeBron, you could’ve also included the LeBrons from his Cleveland days. This campaign was easily one of the best I’ve ever seen and included this ad, which we ranked as a top five basketball commercial of all time.
9. Nike Hyperizers â€“ Nike
Starring: Kevin Durant, Mo Williams, Rashard Lewis and Andre Iguodala
The Nike Hyperizers commercial was an all-around cool concept to pay respect to old West Coast rap. With Kevin Durant as Velvet Hoop, Andre Iguodala as Chief Blocka, Rashard Lewis as Ice-O and Mo Williams as Fog Raw, the players became basketball MCs. It was also cool to see legendary DJ Quik make an appearance in the video. In my opinion, Fog Raw had the best verse.
You could call this the sequel, in a way, to Dr. Funk and the Roswell Rayguns, a three-part campaign that debuted in the spring of 2002 and starred Vince Carter, among others.
8. Dr. Drain â€“ Air Jordan
Starring: Blake Griffin and Frederick Williams
Blake Griffin must have one heck of an agent as he is in almost every recent basketball commercial. At least it feels that way. The Blake and Drain commercial was a brilliant ad for the Jordan Brand and Griffin to promote his sneakers, the Super.Fly 2. When Blake is looking for a partner for a pickup game, “Old-School” declines Blake’s invite, which leads to goggle-wearing D’arryl Drain’s offer to play. Dr. Drain then becomes a better lobber than CP3 with his errant air-balls that leads to the perfect ally-oops for Blake.
7. Cliff Paul â€“ State Farm
Starring: Chris Paul
The Cliff Paul State Farm commercials have been a fan favorite the past two years. Starring Chris Paul, the ad follows the journey of Chris finding his long-lost twin brother, Cliff. Both brothers are born with the same traits of helping people (“Born to Assist”) while their jobs are completely different. Chris is well-known and hands out assists on the basketball court; Cliff is also making a difference in the lives of people as a State Farm agent.
6. MVPuppets â€“ Nike
Starring: Kenan Thompson as LeBron James and David Allen Grier as Kobe Bryant
With tremendous success with the Lil’ Penny series, Nike decided to try to make another run with puppets, making LeBron and Kobe the stars in the MVPuppets commercials. While the two didn’t actually voice the puppets, in 2009, Nike was hoping for a clash between the two in an NBA Finals rivalry matchup. We never did get to see the matchup but it was fun to see the two portrayed as roommates, showing off their competitive nature towards one another by boasting about their accomplishments.
This was one of the coolest ads when I was in high school because I got to see the puppets up close when my school (Rice) played Christ the King in a well-known rivalry game. Kobe sponsored us and LeBron sponsored Christ the King, so it was cool to see an ad featuring both puppets argue which high school would win the game.
5. Johnny Kilroy â€“ Jordan Brand
Starring: Michael Jordan and Steve Martin
What Michael Jackson was to music videos for musicians is what Michael Jordan was to commercials for athletes. MJ commercials were legendary and for the advertisement of the Jordan IXs, Nike and Jordan created one of the best characters in commercial history with Johnny Kilroy.
The campaign for the sneakers was during MJ’s first retirement in 1993 and you can tell Jordan was itching to return back to the NBA. Kilroy, who was Michael Jordan in disguise, was an unknown, and everyone–from the media’s biggest names and players–was speculating on who he was. It was funny to see an incognito Jordan wearing an afro and a beard throughout different scenes.
4. Grandmama â€“ Converse
Starring: Larry Johnson
Larry Johnson and Converse created an on-court basketball “Madea” in the “Grandmama” commercials back in the ’90s. In a campaign for the Converse Aero Jam sneakers, an overly-built grandmother is seen dunking on dudes. It was crazy and became one of the most popular basketball commercials of its time.
3. Uncle Drew â€“ Pepsi MAX
Starring: Kyrie Irving
The Uncle Drew ad campaign for Pepsi MAX has become one of the most popular basketball advertisements in recent memory. There has not been a character in a long time–since the Lil’ Penny days–that has made such a strong impact on fans. Kyrie Irving is one of the most promising guards in the NBA and perhaps has the best handles in the league already. Taking on the character of an old man that can straight up hoop, Uncle Drew terrorizes defenders with his slick handling and wise speeches about getting buckets. Pros Kevin Love, Nate Robinson and Maya Moore have all appeared in the commercials as part of Drew’s team and as the series continues it will be fun to see who Uncle Drew picks up next.
2. Lil’ Penny â€“ Nike
Starring: Penny Hardaway and Chris Rock
Who did not want to be Penny in the ’90s? He had the game, and looked like the second coming of Magic. He was bound to be the next star of the NBA until injuries slowed everything down, but as his popularity was at its highest, Nike and Penny collaborated to make one of the best basketball campaigns in history, featuring Lil’ Penny.
Voiced by an arrogant Chris Rock, Lil’ Penny was the perfect alter-ego for Penny and his laid-back demeanor. As Lil’ Penny mouthed off on the sideline and hung out with supermodels such as Tyra Banks, Big Penny dominated on the court. Throughout the years, many–such as Blake Griffin–have tried to duplicate it but the Lil’ Penny series cannot be replicated. Lil’ Penny made his return for Nike over this past All-Star Weekend.
1. Mars Blackmon â€“ Nike
Starring:Michael Jordan and Spike Lee
Mars Blackmon is the most iconic basketball character in commercial history. After the character appeared in Spike Lee’s movie She’s Gotta Have It in 1986, Nike and MJ decided to collaborate with Lee and make Blackmon the endorser for the Air Jordan sneakers. Mars Blackmon’s character created one of the most memorable MJ commercial campaigns of all time with “It’s Gotta be the Shoes.”
What are your favorite characters from basketball commercials?
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