LeBron James is quickly becoming one of the most influential people in the history of the NBA. Mikan put the league on the map. Red and Russ turned it into a real sport. They changed rules for Wilt and Kareem. Dr. J made it a high-flying league (with help from Elgin Baylor, Connie Hawkins, and David Thompson). Larry and Magic turned the league around after a down spell in the late 1970s and MJ made it a richer, more marketable, more global sport.
Where MJ left off, LeBron picked up. His influence is widespread, but two (related) things stand out above all else: he made it cool to be a good guy and he encouraged players to take control of their own destiny (and narrative). The recent crop of young talent drafted into the league has been one grounded, mature, interesting, and intelligent guy after another, and the current crop of young prep talent on the precipice of the NBA is exactly the same.
They’re more likely to want to emulate Warren Buffett than Allen Iverson. They brag about being good kids. They do PSAs promoting gender equality. They’re far more likely to start a fashion line than to get a DUI. From Durant to Curry to Westbrook, all the way to kids like Karl-Anthony Towns and Jayson Tatum, there is nary a top player you wouldn’t want babysitting your kid. Even “exceptions” like Boogie Cousins seem like pretty likable dudes off the court. Can you say that about Major League Baseball? Or the NFL? HA. Call it the “LeBron effect,” although Jay Z clearly has a role as well.
To affect that kind of change, LeBron had to more or less just be himself. The deeper, harder work has been his role as the spearhead of a somewhat under the radar (but very real) movement to seize power from large (and largely white) institutions – talent agencies, media companies, the NBA and its individual teams – for himself, his business associates, and by extension, all NBA players, some of whom are his business partners.
No athlete has ever had a better sense of his own self worth at such a young age and no one has leveraged it as well, either. After waiting a few years so that he and his top lieutenants, Maverick Carter and Rich Paul, could learn the ropes of the league, LeBron acted. First, in 2006, came LRMR, a marketing and branding outfit founded by him and Maverick Carter (the initials stand for the first names of James, Paul, Carter, and a fourth partner/friend, Randy Mims), that would handle LeBron’s representation away from the court. When the venture was announced, LeBron was mocked for handing his career over to childhood friends.
All did they did was change the athlete/endorser game forever by partnering with a series of brands with high growth potential and demanding equity instead of a flat fee. The two most notable examples are Beats by Dre and Blaze Pizza. Endorsers have historically been (highly paid) hired help. LeBron demanded more. Others will follow. Six years after LRMR was formed, they did the same thing again, this time with LeBron’s on-court representation, forming Klutch Sports, run by Rich Paul. Once again there was derision, but far less of it. Once again, a smashing success.
In between was The Decision. It took place just over seven years ago and it’s important to view it as part of this overall narrative, rather than as an isolated event. He knew his decision would be a big deal and that ESPN and others would make millions covering it. An idea was conceived – by Jim Gray of all people – courtside in LA at the 2010 Celtics-Lakers Finals, and Maverick and LeBron quickly signed on. They would write their own narrative and make a few million dollars for charity in the process. And more importantly, by going to Miami, LeBron tilted the axis of the NBA toward the players and away from the teams.
No longer would it be a duty to re-sign with the team that drafted you (although most stars do that at least once, LeBron and KD included). The “free” in free agency would be emphasized. Once every couple of years – and at this point, every single year – would be a time for elite players to re-assess their situation and have a chance to switch teams if they wanted. This mentality also extended to labor negotiations. LeBron and Chris Paul knew there was massive TV revenue coming in and made it clear that the players would be demanding their fair share and wouldn’t back down, hiring fierce player advocate Michele Roberts as Executive Director of the union.
The Decision was a catalyst for all of this. Could it have been shorter? Sure. Losing Jim Gray and having it at a less privileged Boys and Girls Club than Greenwich, CT wouldn’t have hurt either. But honestly, what was so terrible about it? Do people really hate LeBron that much? Is it because of his word choice, ie: “taking my talents to South Beach”? Is it because they recoil at seeing a young black man freely exercising his considerable leverage? I once thought he should have tipped off Dan Gilbert about the decision so the Cavs weren’t blindsided, but after learning more about Dan Gilbert, he can go fuck himself.
Yes, it could have been done better, but the criticism doesn’t match the reality. Not by a mile. In fact, he was ahead of the curve. No one would ever do it today because of the legacy of The Decision, but it is a good idea, primarily from a programming/content perspective. It was a precursor to Uninterrupted, the player-centric media company owned by James that – surprise, surprise – cuts out the traditional media middlemen of yesteryear.
Owning your own marketing company. Owning your own agency. Owning your own media company. Taking control of your free agency decision and giving three million fucking dollars to charity in the process. Becoming a part-owner of and strategic advisor to every brand you get in business with. Signing a series of one-year deals to maximize potential financial upside while simultaneously using your leverage to force your team to stay competitive if they want to keep you. Leaving Cleveland for a second time and joining the Lakers for the final four years of your career and then buying them (with silent partner David Geffen) from Jeanie Buss when you retire. (Okay, I added that last part in, but the only far-fetched part about it is Jeanie Buss deciding to sell).
All of this is LeBron’s legacy (in addition to what I mentioned above about being a role model for younger players and everything he has done on the court and with his considerable charitable endeavors, not to mention being a great father/family man).
The Decision was part of that, and it’s about time it gets the respect it deserves.