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Can LeBron James win on and off the court in Los Angeles?

USA TODAY SPORTS logo USA TODAY SPORTS 10/17/2018 Josh Peter
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LOS ANGELES – LeBron James, 33 and entering his 16th NBA season, is set to make his regular-season debut with the Los Angeles Lakers with unprecedented status.

When he and the Lakers take the court Thursday against the Trail Blazers in Portland, James will be recognized almost universally as the best basketball player in the world –as usual. But this year, according to The Hollywood Reporter, he also is “one of the town’s hottest producers.”

Basketball LeBron and Hollywood LeBron. It is something previously unseen in Tinseltown – or any town, for that matter.

Asked about James’ foray into the entertainment industry, Magic Johnson, the Lakers’ president of operations, said James “is the model for these young players to learn how to dominate on the court and be a champion but also dominate off the court.’’

But can he do it in Los Angeles?

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It’s worth reviewing what’s he’s already done.

Win three NBA championships. Earn four NBA Most Valuable Player Awards. Make the All-Star game 14 times. Open a charter school in his hometown of Akron, Ohio. Pledge up to $42 million in college scholarships for students in Akron who attend the University of Akron. And, in what now seems more significant, make a couple of movie cameos.

But this feels different. Much different in the new locale. In signing a four-year, $153.3 million contract with the Lakers, this is shaping up to be James’ boldest and toughest challenge yet.

On the court, he will try to resurrect a storied franchise that has failed to make the playoffs in five seasons, and it’ll be NBA title or bust. After all, Magic, Kobe Bryant, Kareem-Abdul Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain wouldn’t be Lakers legends without those Larry O’Brien trophies.

Off the court, James’ success will be measured by Nielsen ratings, box office receipts and critics' reviews as he tries to expand what the Harvard Business School called James' “Hollywood Empire.’’ Yes, James' foray into the entertainment prompted a 2017 Harvard study.

Steve Soute, who along with James co-produced the HBO documentary Student-Athlete, which cast the NCAA as corrupt, said James is engaged in the entertainment projects.

“He has an active interest in reading scripts and looking at content,'' Soute told USA TODAY Sports, "and knowing what stories he wants his name attached to.''

It hasn't taken long for James to capitalize on living in Laker Land. In July, paparazzi got tipped off and documented James emerging with Al Pacino and Leonardo DiCaprio after dinner at a restaurant in Beverly Hills.

Since announcing his decision to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers to join the Lakers, James has granted just one extensive interview – to The Hollywood Reporter. That paper, which focuses on the entertainment industry, has chronicled the flurry of James’ recent, off-the-court moves, including:

► Securing Ryan Coogler, the director of Black Panther and Creed, to team up with James on making the sequel of Space Jam;

► The debut of his James’ own HBO show, The Shop;

► And the development of the documentary Shut Up and Dribble, a title that underscores not only James’ outspoken ways but also his outsize aspirations.

"It’s more than just being a basketball player,’’ Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka said, “and I think LeBron is showing that he stands for that and that your interests and your future and what you do with your life can be limitless.’’

Turning down $10 million gift

The roots of James’ business empire can be traced to Akron, where he grew up with a single mother.

“My uncles always taught me, they taught me how to have a savings account," James said during an interview taped for one of his own media companies. "They'd give me a dollar and they'd be like, 'Listen nephew, go spend 35 cents of it and keep the other 65.' Or, if they gave me two dollars, they'd be like, 'Go ahead and spend a dollar of it, but stash the other dollar.'

"So I'm always in my head about stashing and keeping my money sacred and to myself because I didn't know when my uncle was going to give me another dollar here and another 50 cents here."

At 18, as a high school senior, James no longer was counting quarters. He, his mother and an agent flew to Reebok’s corporate headquarters to hear a pitch for a sneaker-and-apparel deal. During the meeting, Paul Fireman, Reebok’s CEO, wrote a $10 million check – a gift, he explained, if James would agree not to visit Nike or Adidas.

James turned it down.

“I still can’t believe I left that $10 million,’’ he said with a grin during another interview taped for his media company. He also credited his uncles again, recalling they told him, 'Never put all your eggs in one basket. And give it an opportunity. Give people an opportunity.' "

So James met with Nike. And a month before the Cleveland Cavaliers selected him with the first pick of the 2003 NBA draft, James signed a seven-year deal with Nike that reportedly was worth $90 million and then the most lucrative deal ever awarded by Nike.

Two years later James fired his agents, both veterans in the industry, and handed the business reins to Maverick Carter, a boyhood friend of James who at the time was 23. He also hired Rich Paul, also from Ohio, to serve as his manager. Together, the group founded a company called LRMR Management Company, LLC that provided sports and brand management services – and served as a glimpse of what was to come.

James also came to befriend billionaire Warren Buffett, who is a friend of Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert and who met James not long after James joined the Cavaliers. During a recent interview with USA TODAY Sports, Buffett lauded James for his “money mind."

“People really do have minds that function better than other people’s in certain areas that you can’t give a test for," Buffett said. “And LeBron, in addition to a lot of other talents, he has a money mind. And he gets stuff. …

“He can separate out the cream from the crap, and you get more of the latter proposed to you than you do of the former. You really have to be able to suss it out."

Buffett said James listened and was thoughtful.

“He thinks about the world well,’’ said Buffett, who said he and James communicate periodically. “And he hasn’t forgotten Akron. He’s a real human being.’’

A very wealthy human being.

Everything comes from basketball

James has made $765 million since he turned pro in 2003, according to a Forbes report published in July. He has spent it, invested it and grown it his way – and led to Hollywood.

The Harvard Business School study examined its the growth of James’ business empire and the shift into the entertainment industry. Known for his basketball IQ, James and his top executives have made smart moves off the court, too.

As expected, James’ cashed in on an array of endorsement deals, such as the lifetime deal with Nike that, according to the Harvard study, is worth more than a $1 billion. But the Harvard study noted “highly lucrative brand partnerships,’’ through which James got equity in companies like Beats Electronics, Blaze Pizza and Samsung. 

The better those companies did, the richer James’ got.

“LeBron has unbelievable peripheral vision – not just on the court, he also has it mentally,’’ Paul Wachter, a a prominent money manager whose clients also include Bono and Arnold Schwarzenegger, told The Hollywood Reporter. “He sees stuff other people don’t.”

In 2009, it appears, James and his inner circle saw an opportunity in the entertainment industry. So they founded SpringHill Entertainment, named after the Akron apartment complex where James grew up.

In 2015, James and Carter negotiated what the Harvard study called a “first-of-its kind,’’ three-year deal with Warner Bros. entertainment. It included an exclusive television deal, a coveted first-look movie deal and space on the studio’s lot.

As of 2017, according to the study, SpringHill Entertainment had aired three shows – The LeBrons, an animated web series on YouTube; Survivor’s Remorse, a sports sitcom on Starz; and Becoming a sports docu-series on Disney XD. The came The Wall, a successful game show on NBC and Cleveland Hustles, a CNBC show about Cleveland that’s spinning off into a series.

The pipeline was loaded, too, with eight other projects in development – the most notable being the sequel to Space Jam, in which James has cast himself as the star, with the original having starred Michael Jordan.

LeBron vs. James. The debate has intensified about who’s the greatest basketball player. Perhaps the debate will now shift to business, with Jordan having amassed enough money – mostly from his Nike shoe-and-apparel deals – to take over as majority owner of the Charlotte Hornets in 2010. The franchise is worth an estimated $1 billion.

James may be headed for that same billionaire-dollar milestone, albeit through a different path. As his regular-season debut with the Lakers neared, he indicated he’ll use the same approach he always has.

“The main thing is the game of basketball,’’ James said. “I’ve always been true to the game and I believe the game gives back to you when you’ve been true to the game. And everything else has benefited from that."

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