LeBron James is an MVP candidate this season for the Cleveland Cavaliers. Next year, he may be elsewhere. Perhaps with the Los Angeles Lakers or the Houston Rockets. But what if he played behind Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum for the Portland Trail Blazers instead?
That’s what one set of Portland Trail Blazers fans have jokingly said they want when free agency begins this summer, going so far as to put up a billboard asking James to join the star guards when he inevitably opts out at the end of the season.
We wrote about the Go Fund Me for the billboard last month, the details of which are pretty straightforward. Ira LaFontaine, Keith Kunis, Nick Nanpei, and Spencer Groshong are the foursome that make up a local Portland culture brand Trillblazin. Their idea was to turn the recent spate of LeBron billboards on its head by putting up their own tongue-in-cheek ad. While folks from Los Angeles and Philadelphia took shots at each other, the Trillblazin crew wanted to do something uniquely Portland.
And here we are.
With an original goal of $2,000, the Go Fund Me campaign finished with $6,820. The campaign started off slowly, but LaFontaine told NBC Sports that they were confident it was going to gain traction. As they approached their $2,000 goal, Kunis began asking a local billboard company for prime spots around the Blazers’ home arena, Moda Center.
For $2,750 they were offered locations directly around the NE Portland neighborhood where the Blazers play. LaFontaine and Kunis leaned into that, opening up donations to major sponsors who would also get mention on the billboard. Eventually, Portland brands like Poler, Sizzle Pie, and Stumptown bought in.
“We had a ton of small donations, but once we brought on the larger sponsors we just kind of crushed that goal,” says LaFontaine. “We thought let’s just keep it going. We told everybody, ‘If you’re putting into this, all this money is going back into the billboard or things surrounding the billboard.’”
Now the billboard is up at the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd and NE Broadway, some six blocks from Moda Center. In what LaFontaine called a happy accident, the billboard is conveniently positioned above a Kia dealer (Kia is one of James’ sponsors). Broadway is one of the main thoroughfares for people driving from east Portland neighborhoods get to the arena, so it’s in a choice location for Blazers fans.
But with a single billboard only costing so much and their pockets deepened, LaFontaine and Kunis needed to figure out what else to do with the money. On social media, the Trillblazin crew joked about putting up a second billboard in Cleveland. The big issue with advertising halfway across the country was how far out billboards are typically booked.
“Dollar-wise, it’s kind of tough because of the funds and the lead time,” says LaFontaine. “The other option we looked at was having a mobile billboard to drive around Quicken Loans Arena, but it was really, really expensive.”
With the fundraising period over, the Trillblazin guys settled on a larger campaign back in Oregon that will expand beyond the billboard at MLK and Broadway. LaFontaine says the leftover money will go toward bus shelter ads and wheatpaste posters, the kind you’d typically see glued en masse to plywood outside of a construction site.
And while folks on social media might still not get that the entire billboard — including the copy — is one big joke, LaFontaine says the campaign says something special about the online Blazers community.
[The billboard] is not necessarily a Trillblazin thing, we were just the catalyst to get it going,” says LaFontaine. “All those sponsor donations, those are all people from Blazers Twitter too. When you see Poler or Stumptown or Portugal the Man, everybody is doing it because they’re a Blazers fan.”
LaFontaine thinks the idea of fans banding together for a gag billboard could only happen through NBA Twitter given its propensity to be jocular and focused on having a good time.
“NBA Twitter in general looks at things differently. They’re more apt to humor and things that have a little bit of a different approach,” says LaFontaine. “I think this concept set up perfectly for the fanbase that we live in, our niche.”
As far as the billboard’s impact, the Trillblazin crew isn’t anticipating an earth-shaking announcement from James after he sees the effort they and the donators have made. Like most Portland fans, LaFontaine and Kunis are aware of the Blazers’ cap situation and the complete roster overhaul it would take to actually get LeBron to the Willamette Valley.
Mostly, they just want LeBron to be in on the joke.
“I don’t think anyone has any unrealistic expectations about the billboard bringing LeBron here,” laughs LaFontaine. “It’s pretty absurd that anyone would realistically think he would be a third option anywhere. I think he would see it right away and kind of just chuckle.”
Meanwhile, the billboard is slated to be up until at least April 29, long enough to get through Game 7 of the first round of the 2018 NBA playoffs if need be. The wheatpaste posters and bus shelter ads should be up shortly, and as Blazers fans get geared up for the postseason no doubt it will be a fun reminder that the town is and will always be Rip City.
And if those who don’t “get” the billboard campaign still aren’t happy after everything? That won’t bother LaFontaine at all.
For the Trillblazin guys, the best kind of acknowledgement from LeBron would be about the city of Portland itself.
“I hope [LeBron] will be left with the idea of Portland as being something a little bit different than the other cities,” says LaFontaine. “All the other billboards are all very straightforward — ‘Come here! Please come here!’ — and ours is at least something different.”