“In the next 15 or 20 years I hope to be the richest man in the world,” said LeBron James said to Tim Withers of Associated Press in 2005. “That’s one of my goals. I want to be a billionaire. I want to reach a position where generation after generation has nothing to worry about. I don’t want family members from my children to my son’s children to never have to worry. And I can no longer do that by just playing basketball.”
This was shortly before James’ 21st birthday. He had recently fired his agent, Aaron Goodwin, and his career was in the hands of his friends Maverick Carter, Rich Paul and Randy Mims. The now 37-year-old has not reached world status as the richest man in the world 17 years after that statement, but he has done something that Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, no one has done in the NBA – become a billionaire while an active player.
James has crossed that threshold this year, according to… Forbes† He took the Air Jordan business model and applied it to all of his recommendations. James really wanted to own everything that had his name on it. So instead of a big fast food contract, he started Blaze Pizza. Rather than simply acting in movies or investing in their production, SpringHill Entertainment is a branch of its SpringHill Company, which produced Space Jam 2 and the documentary Muhammed Ali, What is my name†
After Jordan and Johnson’s business success, it was only a matter of time before someone showed up and was ready for more from day one. Johnson always had business interests, but that part of his life paid off the most after he finished playing. Jordan was a college student in 1984 who, like many, loved Adidas. Nike had to throw out Jordan’s contract of a lifetime, $500,000 a year for five years and stock options. James got his $90 million from Nike in 2003 and has been eyeing more since then.
With the NBA as a global sport that spawned stars, and a league yearning for a real face since Jordan’s second retirement, James came at the perfect time. Just like websites like Rivals’ ranking of the prep players started to become as important as Sports Illustrated cover stories† His name would appear in a very different way everywhere and he would have as much control over it as possible. For one thing was clear from the first time his Akron St. Mary St. Vincent Fighting Irish played on ESPN, he was the real deal.
That’s why Fortune wrote stories about him in 2007, where Carter and James together had a… meeting after the Cleveland Cavaliers were swept by the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA Finals. Fortune 500 companies took notes from Carter on how best to market James, especially with the Beijing Olympics next year. USA Men’s Mike Krzyzewski, who was also a Duke College coach at the time, made a toast over dinner saying, “For the next two days, the focus should be on LeBron, not your individual companies.”
James and his team learned years ago from the best in money making – Warren Buffet -. and New York boutique investment firm Allen & Co. Now he has business with Fenway Sports Group and Elisabeth Murdoch (daughter of Fox News founder Rupert Murdoch) has invested in SpringHill — his finances will be in order no matter how that succession plan turns out.
Do we need billionaires on this planet, that’s an entirely different discussion. Should such a small handful of people have so much control over the world’s finances? That’s a question that the numerous cable news programs can certainly have as they sell it to advertisers.
What James and his collaborators/friends have achieved is very impressive. Professional athletes who play in the three major U.S. sports leagues generally get it right. The stars pile up millions like plates in a cupboard, but as Chris Rock said years ago, Shaq may be rich, but the man who signs his check is rich.
Today, James is a lot wealthier than the family, especially the woman who signs his Los Angeles Lakers check, Jeanie Buss — an estimated value $500 million† Climbing out of the deindustrialization poverty of the Midwest in the 1980s, he took his gifts of great size and athleticism and molded them into a force the NBA had never seen before. Four NBA championships and MVPs later, a healthy 2022-23 season will result in Kareem Abdul-Jabbar earning his all-time scoring title.
Regardless of how you feel about James, he took his talent and potential and made sure every last drop would be knocked, but those drops would go into his bucket and not the companies’. James saw that he could play the game both on and off the field for him and his loved ones at an age when most people in 2005 the most researched investment was a fake ID, he played the game forever and although it’s not over yet is, he has already won everything.