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Monday, February 16, 2015
LeBron James Reveals Ambitious Plan to Build Hollywood Empire
This story first appeared in the Feb. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
The janitor at the Akron, Ohio, office complex that houses the LeBron James Family Foundation and LRMR, the sports management company headed by the NBA superstar, eyes me warily. We're in the elevator, though I don't know what floor I'm supposed to go to. There are signs for medical offices, investment firms, a real estate company. But nothing for the foundation or LRMR. "We took it down," explains the janitor. "Too many people peeking in the windows." Having established that I am not an overzealous fan, he presses the button for the third floor. "Down here on your right," he says, gesturing at the deserted hallway. "Last door."
I see two impressionistic silk-screen portraits of James hanging in the lobby of a dark, seemingly empty office. More camouflage. When I ring the doorbell (a sign instructs: "press hard"), a cheerful woman emerges from the shadows. "Sorry," she says, after she unlocks the door. "We like to keep it dark."
James isn't even here (I am taking a tour of his office in advance of a meeting with him the next day). But several pairs of his signature Nike sneakers — his deal with the shoe giant nets him $20 million a year — sit in display cases. The nameplate on his desk reads King James. I have been talking to his adviser Adam Mendelsohn about this interview for several months. There have been multiple postponements, not least of which was the delay caused by his return last summer to the Cleveland Cavaliers in a $42.2 million, two-year deal that made global headlines.
In Akron — where the sign marking the town line announces "Home of LeBron James" — residents are likely to spot James taking in a movie at the multiplex or eating a steak at Ken Stewart's Grille with his childhood friend and business partner Maverick Carter (the M in LRMR; the Rs are for James' sports agent Rich Paul and right hand Randy Mims, also friends from the early days). Though he lives on an estate with a steel fence and multiple guard shacks, James doesn't always like to be sequestered. In better weather, he'll ride his bike to the office. Everyone here knows where James lives; when the rumors started flying last summer that he would leave the Miami Heat and return to the Cavaliers, hundreds of fans (and reporters) showed up to stake out his house. But even here in Akron — where he grew up in subsidized housing, where his mother, Gloria, and his closest friends still live, where he and his wife, Savannah, who have been together since high school, are raising their family (sons LeBron Jr., 10, and Bryce, 7, and a daughter, Zhuri, born Oct. 22) and where he is a familiar sight at his alma mater, St. Vincent-St. Mary High School — even here, his stardom is all consuming.
"I can't live anywhere normally," he tells me the next day at his office. He has just padded in wearing gray sweatpants, a white T-shirt with a gray Nike swoosh and black Nike shower shoes with socks. He folds his 6-foot-8 frame into an office chair and rests his massive tattooed arms on the table. "I do normal people stuff," he continues. "I go out to eat. It's just I'm not normal, and I know that. It's not like I'm trying to say I'm bigger than ..."
Asked if he misses anonymity, he smiles: "It's been so long, I don't remember."
At 30, James already is assured his place in basketball's pantheon of all-time greats. But even with likely many years left in his playing career, he is laying the groundwork for a business empire. Having already earned close to half a billion dollars through endorsements, investments and NBA contracts, he envisions an entertainment conglomerate that befits his one-of-a-kind stature and philanthropic, family-values, all-for-the-fans persona.
His stardom already has opened doors in Hollywood. Spring Hill Productions, named for the housing complex James moved into with his mother when he was in sixth grade, is growing a portfolio of TV and digital projects where ownership and creative control are elemental: the Disney series Becoming; the Starz scripted dramedy Survivor's Remorse; the reality show Uninterrupted for Turner's digital platform Bleacher Report; a trivia game-show pilot for NBC. Sources say the company is close to finalizing a deal for a series show on CNBC — which has had success in primetime with reruns of Shark Tank — that will have James and Carter leading the transformation of distressed businesses. And they also are talking to executives at NBCUniversal's male-targeted Esquire Network about a "bucket list" show featuring James.