After opening the season on the road in Dallas, the Spurs will host the Chosen One, a.k.a. LeBron James, and his Cleveland Cavaliers in their home opener. When LeBron last visited the Alamo City, at about the same time last year, the Spurs routed the Cavs, James wowed the crowd with 20 points, and after the game, Coach Gregg Popovich was heard spouting, “You can’t stop LeBron.” Both teams went on to successful regular-season campaigns before bowing out in their respective conference semifinals in grueling Game Sevens. Back then, it was something of a stretch to think that James, and not Tim Duncan, would ultimately make the All-NBA First Team.
When the Finals were over, LeBron joined Team USA as they embarked for the FIBA World Basketball Championships in Japan, eventually capturing the Bronze Medal in somewhat disappointing fashion. Before he landed on Japanese soil, LeBron’s ulterior motives were clearly outlined in a seminar by his marketing company, LRMR, in which he stated his intention to become the world’s first billionaire athlete. “I say all the time, and I tell my friends and teammates, that you have to go global,” James told the Akron Beacon-Journal. “In basketball and business. It is only going to help my business. Once I knew the world games were going to be in Japan, I knew I was going to be on board.”
LeBron’s billionaire strategy relies heavily on the Nike machine and its penetration into Asian markets, which have recently been dominated by the emergence of Houston’s Yao Ming, who wears Reebok, and Tracy McGrady, who pitches for Adidas. LeBron’s plan also calls for him to represent Nike and the United States in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where he expects to be able to conduct interviews in Mandarin — he’s reportedly been taking lessons. Team USA itself was criticized before the World Championships, dubbed “Team Nike” by many, as nine of its members represented the company, including Head Coach Mike Krzyzewski. Spurs guards Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili were also part of the Nike promotional campaign in Japan, titled “The Ambassadors,” which was centered on LeBron.
“Great young talents like LeBron James epitomize the Conveyor Belt, a process by which athletic gold is mined and distributed largely to the benefit of white institutions and individuals in the billion-dollar sports industry,” writes William C. Rhoden in Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Back Athlete. This “Belt” creates young African-American millionaires, but reinforces a “white-is-right” mentality that prevents athletes from galvanizing their power.
While at first glance LeBron falls into Rhoden’s characterization for a product of the “Conveyor Belt,” he has gained powerful leverage in terms of controlling his destiny on and off the court. His decision to skip college and jump to the NBA before the league outlawed the practice garnered him millions, whereas he would just be entering his senior year if he had pursued a degree. Being drafted by Cleveland with the number-one pick kept James and his money in his home state of Ohio, which also contradicts the depiction of a superstar athlete fleeing from his community. The billion-dollar question remains, though: Will James stay in Cleveland, or eventually relocate to New York in his quest for global domination?
On the hardwood, he remains perhaps the most gifted player in the game, and the league is clear on his status as an icon. Jordan represents the past, Kobe the present, and LeBron is the future. If LeBron, who makes close to $23 million a year, makes it to a billion before Tiger Woods, who makes about $87 million a year, it would surprise many — except perhaps LeBron himself, who perpetuates a seemingly unshakable, confident demeanor. When asked last season what he thought about the Spurs defense after the Cavs’ loss, he responded in typical LeBron fashion. “It was really nothing new,” said James. “Nothing I haven’t seen before. I was able to attack at times, draw the defense in and kick it out; sometimes we made the shots, sometimes we didn’t. Basically though, we try to do the exact same things they try to do, only they do it about five times better right now.”