The janitor at the Akron, Ohio, office complex that houses the LeBron James Family Foundation and LRMR, the sports management company headed by the NBA superstar, eyes me warily. We’re in the elevator, though I don’t know what floor I’m supposed to go to. There are signs for medical offices, investment firms, a real estate company. But nothing for the foundation or LRMR. “We took it down,” explains the janitor. “Too many people peeking in the windows.” Having established that I am not an overzealous fan, he presses the button for the third floor. “Down here on your right,” he says, gesturing at the deserted hallway. “Last door.”
I see two impressionistic silk-screen portraits of James hanging in the lobby of a dark, seemingly empty office. More camouflage. When I ring the doorbell (a sign instructs: “press hard”), a cheerful woman emerges from the shadows. “Sorry,” she says, after she unlocks the door. “We like to keep it dark.”
James isn’t even here (I am taking a tour of his office in advance of a meeting with him the next day). But several pairs of his signature Nike sneakers ? his deal with the shoe giant nets him $20 million a year ? sit in display cases. The nameplate on his desk reads King James. I have been talking to his adviser Adam Mendelsohn about this interview for several months. There have been multiple postponements, not least of which was the delay caused by his return last summer to the Cleveland Cavaliers in a $42.2 million, two-year deal that made global headlines.
In Akron ? where the sign marking the town line announces “Home of LeBron James” ? residents are likely to spot James taking in a movie at the multiplex or eating a steak at Ken Stewart’s Grille with his childhood friend and business partner Maverick Carter (the M in LRMR; the Rs are for James’ sports agent Rich Paul and right hand Randy Mims, also friends from the early days). Though he lives on an estate with a steel fence and multiple guard shacks, James doesn’t always like to be sequestered. In better weather, he’ll ride his bike to the office. Everyone here knows where James lives; when the rumors started flying last summer that he would leave the Miami Heat and return to the Cavaliers, hundreds of fans (and reporters) showed up to stake out his house. But even here in Akron ? where he grew up in subsidized housing, where his mother, Gloria, and his closest friends still live, where he and his wife, Savannah, who have been together since high school, are raising their family (sons LeBron Jr., 10, and Bryce, 7, and a daughter, Zhuri, born Oct. 22) and where he is a familiar sight at his alma mater, St. Vincent-St. Mary High School ? even here, his stardom is all consuming.
“I can’t live anywhere normally,” he tells me the next day at his office. He has just padded in wearing gray sweatpants, a white T-shirt with a gray Nike swoosh and black Nike shower shoes with socks. He folds his 6-foot-8 frame into an office chair and rests his massive tattooed arms on the table. “I do normal people stuff,” he continues. “I go out to eat. It’s just I’m not normal, and I know that. It’s not like I’m trying to say I’m bigger than …”
Asked if he misses anonymity, he smiles: “It’s been so long, I don’t remember.”
At 30, James already is assured his place in basketball’s pantheon of all-time greats. But even with likely many years left in his playing career, he is laying the groundwork for a business empire. Having already earned close to half a billion dollars through endorsements, investments and NBA contracts, he envisions an entertainment conglomerate that befits his one-of-a-kind stature and philanthropic, family-values, all-for-the-fans persona.
His stardom already has opened doors in Hollywood. Spring Hill Productions, named for the housing complex James moved into with his mother when he was in sixth grade, is growing a portfolio of TV and digital projects where ownership and creative control are elemental: the Disney series Becoming; the Starz scripted dramedy Survivor’s Remorse; the reality show Uninterrupted for Turner’s digital platform Bleacher Report; a trivia game-show pilot for NBC. Sources say the company is close to finalizing a deal for a series show on CNBC ? which has had success in primetime with reruns of Shark Tank ? that will have James and Carter leading the transformation of distressed businesses. And they also are talking to executives at NBCUniversal’s male-targeted Esquire Network about a “bucket list” show featuring James.
James’ agents at WME are notching a series of modest TV deals to gain a foothold in an industry that ? at least in the unscripted space ? is creatively challenged and economically lean. And though he expresses no interest in sportscasting, James’ turn this summer in Judd Apatow and Amy Schumer’s feature Trainwreck ? playing himself as co-star Bill Hader’s best friend ? could be seen as a trial balloon for an onscreen career.
“We tested the movie, and he gets laughter as big as anyone,” says Apatow. “The only fear you ever have with people of his stature is whether or not they’re game to have fun and take chances. They’ll say: ‘I don’t want to say that. That will sound weird. That’s not good for my reputation.’ LeBron is a very strong actor, and he has a fantastic sense of humor. We do a lot of improvisation, and he was really good at it. As a result, it’s a really fun, wild, slightly strange performance that really scores.”
James admits that he was as anxious on the New York City set of Trainwreck as he was for his very first NBA game. Last summer on a Nike promotional trip to China, he had his entourage ? Carter, Mims ? read the other characters. “I was just trying to stay ready,” he recalls. “I was very nervous ? all the way to the point where they said, ‘Action.’ “
Ultimately, of course, there only is so much mileage a star athlete can get out of playing himself onscreen. Behind the camera is another story. Ari Emanuel, co-CEO of WME, which represents James in the entertainment space (Paul remains his sports agent), compares Spring Hill’s approach to WME’s handling of Mark Wahlberg, whose Closest to the Hole shingle has become a force in Hollywood. “One of the great things about LeBron and Maverick is they’re still very curious,” observes Emanuel, who signed James as a client last year but first worked with him and Carter on the 2010 ESPN special The Decision. “You can bring anything up; nothing’s a bad idea.”
Spring Hill is preparing to open an L.A. office, and Carter, who also lives in Akron but has been a frequent houseguest of Beats Electronics co-founder Jimmy Iovine, is looking for his own place there.?
“They’re smart as all hell, and they have a feel for popular culture,” says Iovine, also the co-founder of Interscope Records. “LeBron’s got a business head about him. He doesn’t breathe his own exhaust, which is very important.”
Iovine has worked with James since 2008, when James became an investor in Beats and Iovine produced More Than a Game, a documentary about James’ high school basketball career. “Sometimes you’ll have an athlete or a star who is so talented and the manager is out of control,” says Iovine. “In this case, the whole team is in lockstep. They’re like a little army.”
Survivor’s Remorse, a scripted comedy that follows a basketball superstar navigating newfound wealth and fame, begins production this spring in Atlanta on its second season. Uninterrupted is a series of video shorts that has athletes from James to Richard Sherman to Johnny Manziel sounding off on everything from their competition to their postgame rituals (James takes an ice bath in one). It’s another way for James, who has 18.7 million Twitter followers (and yes, his tweets are his own), to talk directly to fans. “Magic Johnson and Larry Bird couldn’t do the type of things LeBron is doing with social media,” notes Turner Broadcasting president David Levy. “He’s an influencer, and he understands that he is.”
Meanwhile, Disney has ordered additional episodes of Becoming, a half-hour documentary series about how top athletes got where they are that premiered in the fall on the boys-targeted network Disney XD. James was the first subject; he’d like to see Serena Williams, Tom Brady and Sherman on future installments.
“They’re doing things they care about, and I think that comes through in the choices they make,” says Connor Schell, vp and executive producer of ESPN Films, which produces Becoming. “There’s real thought and strategy; it’s not just throwing his name around.”
Carter, who played basketball with James at St. Vincent and has known him since he was 8 and James was 5 (they met at a birthday party), is James’ trusted point man in all of these deals. But James also is surprisingly hands-on.
Continues Schell: “We were trying to tell a pretty complicated story in 22 minutes: how hard it was growing up, how the community participated in raising him and helping him and his mother, and then how difficult it was for the community when he left. We got feedback from LeBron: ‘We want this to be more relatable to kids. Can we use more animation? Can we figure out how to make the transitions more clear?’ He approached it with real enthusiasm. He’s doing it because he wants to, not because he’s LeBron James and he can.”
James and Carter also are circumspect about the projects they take on. “LeBron is one of those rare people who has a very strong sense of what’s appropriate for him and what’s not,” says Paul Wachter, James’ financial adviser. “He grew up with no money. He certainly likes to make money. But he’s not driven by the check. I’ve seen LeBron turn down some very big checks because he didn’t feel it was right.”
It’s why there are LeBron shoes ? he’s Nike’s top seller; the company moved $300 million in signature LeBron shoes in 2013, according to SportsOneSource ? but no LeBron cologne, LeBron restaurants or LeBron hotel chains. James has a head for numbers and an instinctual approach to business that belies the stereotypical portrait of the acquisitive superstar athlete who blows through millions. He’s made a series of savvy investment moves ? he purchased a 10 percent stake in bike manufacturer Cannondale in 2007, unloading it two years later for an undisclosed profit; he sold his equity stake in Sheets energy strips during his final season with the Heat, netting a low-seven-figure profit; and he pocketed a reported $30 million thanks to his stake in Beats, which was acquired by Apple for $3 billion. “He’s a professional force, not just an athletic force,” says Starz CEO Chris Albrecht.
If James can build a successful content company, he’ll be among the exceptions. Aside from Magic Johnson, who has a sports franchise and a TV network, there are few examples of pro athletes who have gone on to achieve media mogul status. There often is a lot of hype and not much revenue. Brady, 37, has aspirations to turn his nontraditional training methods into a lifestyle business. Carmelo Anthony, 30, recently set up a tech startup investment company.
It’ll be tough for them to top James, who is the NBA’s top endorsement earner, pulling in $42 million a year through deals with Nike, McDonald’s, Coca-Cola and others; Kobe Bryant is the runner-up at $34 million. James has absorbed the lessons of his NBA predecessors, notably Michael Jordan, who famously retired from basketball twice ? once when he was 30 and for good when he was 40. But when it came to leveraging his image, Jordan had “perfect timing,” notes James. “Winning is the first thing that matters. And that allowed everything else to just fall into place, from commercials to movies to appearing on TV shows to obviously his shoes. He had a gift, he knew he had a gift and he took advantage of it,” says James. “We all look up to that.”
Read more at the Hollywood Reporter.