The Business of LeBron
LeBron James #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers. (Photo by Yong Teck Lim/Getty Images)

In the remix version of Kanye West’s 2005 track, “Diamonds From Sierra Leone,” Jay-Z raps the line “I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man.” The song dropped during LeBron James’s second NBA season, and he’s apparently kept it in mind while working on his game and shaping his brand.

James, who had a net worth of $450 million in November 2018 according to a Forbes estimate, will have earned $391 million in salary by the time his current contract with the Lakers is up in 2022, surpassing Kevin Garnett ($343 million) for tops in earnings by an NBA player.

But, unlike Garnett, James’ days of making top dollar will not end when his playing career does. He has put himself in position to keep making boatloads of cash thanks to his equity in Liverpool FC, Blaze Pizza, SpringHill Entertainment and other holdings as well as a very lucrative deal with Nike which won’t end once he’s stopped lacing up his sneakers.

Brian Windhorst, the author of the new book, LeBron, Inc.: The Making of a Billion-Dollar Athlete, says James’ awareness has been key in helping him learn how to be savvier. As Winhorst asserts in the book, that awareness has led James to seek help when he needs it, to know who he can take advantage of to further his interests and determine how to best use his celebrity to gain leverage in business dealings. It’s also what led him, as a high school senior, to turn down a $10 million check from Reebok so he could get a better deal down the road from another company (which turned out to be Nike).

LeBron, Inc.” by Brian Windhorst. (Grand Central Publishing)

“I think he’s got incredible talent to multi-task,” Windhorst tells InsideHook. “He’s got a great ability to process multiple things at once so he uses it to heighten what’s going on. As he’s gotten older, he’s used it to determine what he needs to pay attention to. For example, he has the awareness to know that a guard is cheating three steps in so if he creates spaces there’s room for a diagonal bounce pass. He also has the awareness now, as he’s gotten older, to realize in media settings that reporters can be packs of sharks and he needs to watch out.”

But James’ awareness extends far beyond the court or the post-game press conference and is one of the biggest reasons he has a shot at becoming a billion-dollar athlete and businessman.

The Michael Jordan vs. LeBron James debate might never get settled, but LeBron could join the Chicago Bulls legend on the annual Forbes list of people in the ten digit club in the near future.

“The awareness thing goes to everything,” Windhorst says. “It makes him aware he has the power to exert his will in situations. That’s awareness on a mass scale. From making a pass on the basketball court to making a multi-national business deal, I think it shows up everywhere. LeBron will be in the locker room before the game with his headphones on, bopping his head, reading his phone and you’ll think he’s in his own world. He’s not. He is well aware of what’s going on. He’s extraordinarily conscious of everything.”

James also knows he can use his awareness to create awareness, which he put to good use while playing for the Miami Heat by drawing attention to the killing of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman by posting a photo of himself and his teammates wearing hooded sweatshirts (as Martin was when he was killed). Windhorst believes that was a pivotal moment in James eschewing the apolitical path Michael Jordan had blazed before him and becoming outspoken about social justice issues.

LeBron James posted this image along with #WeAreTrayvonMartin #Hoodies #Stereotyped #WeWantJustice on Instagram in 2012. (LeBron James)

“The seminal moment was the Trayvon Martin death,” Windhorst says. “I did not know about that story. But I became aware of the story because of what he and the Heat did. He understood he had the power to do that and create awareness of something. Recognizing that you have that power and being responsible for it … that’s next-level. He’s been very careful with that. He saw what happened in the Trayvon Martin case and how he was able to affect millions of basketball fans who didn’t know what had happened. He then began looking to select things he wanted to make statements on such as wearing an “I Can’t Breathe” shirt [in response to the NYPD-related death of Eric Garner]. But there are also times he has held back. He vets and researches things before he talks about them. There have been missteps along the way, but he’s generally used it responsibly.”

NBA writer Brian Windhorst (Cleveland.com)

As Windhorst details in his new book, one example of James’ awarness failing him was “The Decision,” the televised ESPN special James did in 2010 when he famously told interviewer Jim Gray he was “taking his talents to South Beach” to join Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami on the Heat. Following the special, James was roundly ripped for leaving Cleveland in the fashion he did.

“It raised seven figures for charity and established a new way for athletes to capture value but all anyone remembers is the delivery and execution was way off,” Windhorst says. “That was one of the lessons they took away from it which is that you can do 15 things right but if you do one thing wrong, you’ll be remembered for it. If you look at the way he handled it in 2018, it was completely different.”

One of the reasons James changed things up in 2018 — this time he announced he was leaving Cleveland in a Twitter message in conjunction with the unveiling of his I Promise School in Akron — was because of a hiring decision he made amidst the fallout of “The Decision.”

“He’s made a few phenomenal partnership decisions in his life and one of them was hiring a media strategist,” Windhorst points out. “He did not hire a publicist — he hired a strategist and that’s not just something different that goes on a business card. The media strategy he has used for the last eight years — there’s a red line of demarcation. Not that he had bad PR before, but the strategy he’s used from a media perspective for the past eight years — since 2011 — you can feel the fingerprints of him thinking strategically.”

As part of that strategy, James is cautious about the business decisions he makes and the products he endorses, but also can be aggressive when the opportunity presents itself.

LeBron James. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

An example of this Windhorst mentions was James’ response when Fox News commentator Laura Ingraham responded to his criticism of President Trump in an interview by saying James should keep his political comments to himself and “shut up and dribble.”

Instead of doing that, James used his platform at the 2018 All-Star game to address Ingraham’s comments head-on. “The best thing she did was help me create more awareness,” James said at the time. “I get to sit up here and talk about social injustice. We will definitely not shut up and dribble. I mean too much to society, too much to the youth, too much to so many kids who feel like they don’t have a way out.”

Though it may have seemed off the cuff, that response was actually quite calculated.

“People say negative stuff about LeBron on television every day.,” Windhorst says. “It was right before All-Star weekend and they knew that is where you have the biggest media platform of the year. That statement was made flippantly by Ingraham and when she made it, there was a big, red target [on her]. They knew they could take that, leverage the media situation that was coming up, and use it to their advantage. And they did. They took that spot and destroyed her and created an entire campaign that not only got LeBron’s message across and hit back, but also created something much bigger. The Shut up and Dribble documentary got Emmy nominations.”

James and his strategy team employed a similar tactic to go after another thorn in his side, former NBA coach and executive Phil Jackson. In that instance, they simply waited until Jackson referred to the members of James’ entourage as a “posse” during an interview with Jackie MacMullan of ESPN in 2016.

(L-R) LeBron James, Maverick Carter, Quavo, Paul Rivera, and Rich Paul. (Photo by Dominique Oliveto/Getty Images for Klutch Sports Group 2019 All Star Weekend)

Following Jackson’s comment, James responded: “”It just sucks that now at this point having one of the biggest businesses you can have both on and off the floor, having a certified agent in Rich Paul, having a certified business partner in Maverick Carter that’s done so many great business [deals], that the title for young African-Americans is the word ‘posse.'”

Jackson was not the first person to say something negative about James and his associates, but, since they were already targeting him, he was the first one they went after for it, according to Windhorst.

“They were very frustrated with Phil Jackson for a number of different things, primarily his treatment of Carmelo Anthony,” Windhorst says. “But they waited until Jackson sort of opened the door and attacked him about that line. That’s why I say you’ve got to be really careful if you go after LeBron. They are really smart and they have enormous influence. When he went after Phil Jackson about calling them a posse, Phil was completely unprepared and undercut and overwhelmed by it. LeBron could have said something about Phil Jackson anytime he was in front of a microphone, but he waited. Not only are they powerful, but they’re also savvy. LeBron, Maverick [Carter}, Rich Paul, all of them. When they first started out they were naive and made some mistakes, but they’ve all got PhDs in this now.”

As James’ ever-inflating bank account indicates, those PhDs are getting put to good use. Somewhere, Jay-Z is smiling.