“In the next 15 or 20 years, I hope I’ll be the richest man in the world,” LeBron James said to Tim Withers of the Associated Press in 2005. “That’s one of my goals. I want to be a billionaire. I want to get to a position where generation on generation don’t have to worry about nothing. I don’t want family members from my kids to my son’s kids to never have to worry. And I can’t do that now 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 achieved richest man in the world in the world status 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 crossed over that threshold this year, according to Forbes. He took the Air Jordan business model and applied it to all of his endorsements. James wanted real ownership in everything that had his name on it. So instead of a large fast food contract, he started Blaze Pizza. Instead of simply acting in movies or investing in their production, one branch of his SpringHill Company is SpringHill Entertainment, which produced Space Jam 2 and the Muhammed Ali documentary, What’s my Name.
After the business success of Jordan and Johnson, it was a matter of time before someone came along and was ready for more from day one. Johnson always had business interests, but that part of his life bore most of its fruit after he finished playing. Jordan was a college kid in 1984 who, like many, enjoyed Adidas. Nike had to chuck at Jordan the contract of a lifetime, $500,000 per year for five years and stock options. James got his $90 million from Nike in 2003, and has had his eyes on more ever since.
With the NBA being a global sport that marketed stars, and a league starving for a true face of it since the second Jordan retirement, James came along at the perfect time. Just as websites like Rivals’ rankings of prep players were beginning to become as important as Sports Illustrated cover stories. His name was going to be everywhere in a completely different way, and he was going to control as much of it as possible. Because one thing that 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 was writing stories about him in 2007, when Carter and James held a summit after the Cleveland Cavaliers were swept by the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA Finals. Fortune 500 companies were taking notes from Carter about how to best market James, especially with the olympics in Beijing the next year. Mike Krzyzewski, USA Men’s, but also Duke college coach at the time, gave a toast at dinner in which he said, “Over the next two days the focus needs to be on LeBron, not your individual companies.”
James and his team learned from one of the best at making money — Warren Buffet — years ago, along with a New York boutique investment company Allen & Co. Now he’s in business with Fenway Sports Group, and got Elisabeth Murdoch (daughter of Fox News founder Rupert Murdoch) to invest in SpringHill — his finances will be fine no matter how that succession plan plays out.
Do we need billionaires on this planet is an entirely different discussion. Should such a small handful of people have that much control over the finances of the world? That’s a question certainly the numerous cable news programs can have some while they sell it to advertisers.
What James and his associates/friends pulled off is wildly impressive. Professional athletes who play in the three major American sports leagues are generally well off. The stars stack millions like plates in a cupboard, but like Chris Rock said years ago, Shaq may be rich, but the man who signs his check is wealthy.
These days James is quite a bit wealthier than the family, more specifically the woman, who signs his Los Angeles Lakers check, Jeanie Buss — worth an estimated $500 million. He climbed from midwestern 1980s deindustrialization poverty, and took his gifts of great size and athleticism and molded them into a force the NBA had never seen. Four NBA championships and MVPs later, a healthy 2022-23 season will result in him taking Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time scoring title.
Regardless of how you may feel about James, he took his talent and potential and made sure that every last drop would be rung out, but those drips were going to go in his bucket and not the ones that belong to the corporations. James saw he could play both the game on the court and off for him and his loved ones at an age when most people’s most researched investment in 2005 was a fake I.D. He played the game for keeps and while it’s not over yet, he’s already won it all.