LeBron, Inc.

The Making of a Billion-Dollar Athlete


By Brian Windhorst

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From the New York Times bestselling author of Return of the King comes the story of LeBron James’s incredible transformation from basketball star to sports and business mogul.

With eight straight trips to the NBA Finals, LeBron James has proven himself one of the greatest basketball players of all time. And like Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan before him, LeBron has also become a global brand and businessman who has altered the way professional athletes think about their value, maximize their leverage, and use their voice.

LEBRON, INC tells the story of James’s journey down the path to becoming a billionaire sports icon — his successes, his failures, and the lessons both have taught him along the way. With plenty of newsmaking tidbits about his rollercoaster last season in Cleveland and high-profile move to the Lakers, LEBRON, INC. shows how James has changed the way most elite athletes manage their careers, and how he launched a movement among his peers that may last decades beyond his playing days.







At its core, a professional basketball team isn’t all that different from an average high school squad.


There are fights over minutes, shots, and roles. The good times come from camaraderie, teamwork, and winning. Some people love the coach, some people hate the coach. But there is one major difference that separates the NBA from every other league on earth:


The money.

Chapter 1

The Power of Saying No

Over the years, people have often asked me what the most impressive thing about LeBron James is. It’s a challenging question, one I didn’t know how to respond to for a long time. Eventually I came to believe in an answer, one that was revealing.

I met LeBron in 1999 when he was fourteen and very much a kid. He had a bit of a baby face and the build of someone who you knew was going to eventually become a big man. He had large feet and long legs, but he didn’t need to shave. His teammate at the time and now one of his best friends, Maverick Carter, remembers that LeBron was barely six feet tall when he showed up in the fall of his freshman year at St. Vincent–St. Mary. I remember him being a little taller, but neither of us debate that by the time spring arrived and he was playing in front of a sellout crowd at the state basketball tournament that he was nearing 6-4.

His frame is certainly one of the things many people were stunned by when they first met LeBron, especially before he was on national television every other night. And indeed that is one of the most impressive things about him. He’s 6-8 and has carried as much as 280 pounds during his NBA career—these are simply outrageous dimensions for an elite athlete even when surrounded by other elite athletes. The first strength coach LeBron worked with when he was seventeen told me he’d never seen a teenager’s body take to weight lifting like LeBron’s did, he added muscle so quickly. By the time he entered the NBA he was 240 pounds and didn’t just hold his own but was able to dominate the grown men he played against every night.

During a playoff game in 2006, James twisted his ankle and spent more than an hour in the training room getting treatment. There was a real concern that he might miss the next game. I asked Larry Hughes, his Cleveland Cavaliers teammate, if he was worried. “No. Have you seen his ankles?” It was true, LeBron’s ankles are the size of an average man’s shoulder. Once, when he was in Miami, LeBron gained seven pounds during a playoff game. This seems impossible and even LeBron can’t explain it, other than to say he ate some protein bars at halftime and drank a lot of water.

There’s also LeBron’s feel for the game. He’s a wonderful passer, a master of creating angles and delivering to teammates. He’s left-handed but plays basketball right-handed, which gives him a measure of ambidexterity that few players can match. This has helped make him a dominating scorer, one of the best ever.

His memory is a vital tool, and it’s both short- and long-term. After a game in the 2018 playoffs, James went point by point over a vital two-minute stretch with such rich detail that some in the press conference just started clapping. What they don’t know is he can do the same thing for a game from ten years before. “One time we were watching an NFL game on a Sunday,” said former Miami Heat teammate Chris Bosh. “So he knows every player. But he knows where every player went to school. Like how is he going to know the backup safety went to Colorado State?”

There’s his work ethic, his speed, his durability. All of these are pillars in his case for being one of the greatest basketball players ever. But it isn’t what is most impressive about him—to me at least.

To me, it’s his awareness.

I’ve never met anyone who has the awareness of LeBron Raymone James. His awareness of what’s happening in the game around him. The way he can see something two or three steps ahead. How he will know just where a teammate will be so he can put the ball there and whether that guy likes to have the seams on the ball vertical or horizontal when it arrives. He can anticipate where an opponent might go or what side of the basket he’ll go on.

On perhaps the most important play of his career, when he blocked Andre Iguodala in the final minutes of game 7 of the 2016 Finals, James went up with a hand on either side of the basket. That’s because he knew Iguodala liked to attempt reverse layups, and he was defending him going either direction. That’s awareness. But that’s not the point.

LeBron’s awareness of who is in the room, what time and place he’s in, and his sense of history are overwhelming. He will sit in the locker room watching a game on television and predict what play will happen next, answer a question from a reporter he knows has flown in to try to trap him into a certain answer, and monitor what two teammates might be talking about in a huddle a few lockers away. That description may seem over the top, but believe me, that’s how he can operate.

This awareness has been at the bedrock of James’s success off the court as well. His ability to understand what he doesn’t know and how to ask for help in these areas has been vital for the expansion of his business empire. His sense of whom he can take advantage of and who are trying to take advantage of him has served him immensely well. It may seem a little coarse, but it’s true. LeBron’s awareness of how he can use his celebrity and popularity to gain leverage in business transactions has fed his bottom line and enabled him to funnel money to charities he cares about without having to reach into his own pocket.

That is not to say he’s been infallible. Like everyone, he’s made mistakes. But his ability to have perspective has often softened their blow and helped turn missteps into lessons.

His awareness helped him navigate what he says was one of the most important decisions of his life. It happened on a Thursday night in May 2003 during his senior year of high school. It was in Canton, Massachusetts, in a boardroom with a man holding a $10 million check with his name on it.

So many years later some of the memories of those in the room have gotten a little muddy. LeBron said he watched Paul Fireman, the powerful man who ran Reebok, write the check. His agent at the time said it was already made out, a cashier’s check produced from a bank envelope.

What no one forgets is that an eighteen-year-old who had grown up with nothing said no. In fact, he said no to a deal that would have been worth up to $100 million in total and the huge check he could have taken with him and deposited the next morning. A few things went through James’s mind when he saw the check. The Reebok executives had done their homework and made sure his mother, Gloria James, was not only in the room when the offer was made but that they handed her the check.

The first thought LeBron had with that eight-figure check in his palm was that his mom’s rent at their government-subsidized apartment back in Akron, Ohio, was once seventeen dollars a month. There was a time when the Jameses lived in a housing project in a valley, a place in the city known as “the bottom.” LeBron said that when he lived there he was sometimes even afraid of going to the top of the hill. Those who lived at the top of the hill knew to stay clear of the Elizabeth Park housing project because it was a hub of violence. LeBron heard gunshots and saw stabbing victims as a child. He often says he’s supposed to be a statistic, that he shouldn’t be who he is, that he never should have made it. Elizabeth Park was full of statistics.

Over the top of the housing development was a long, high bridge known in Akron as the Y-Bridge for its shape as it spanned two sections of the city. At one end there was a hospital with a psych ward. For decades the fence that ran the length of the bridge was low and easily scalable. Like Elizabeth Park below, it had a nickname too: the suicide bridge. Sometimes, kids playing at their rusty playground below it saw bodies falling.

The second thing LeBron thought about, though, was the other offers. This was his first shoe meeting. He’d declared he was going pro a few weeks earlier. Reebok had the leadoff spot. They’d sent a private jet to come pick him up after school that day. There was a trip to Los Angeles set up the next day for him to hear Adidas’s pitch. The next week another trip was planned to Portland to visit Nike.

Reebok wanted LeBron to cancel those trips. They wanted him to sign with them in that moment. In an attempted shock and awe moment, they made one of the most extraordinary endorsement contract offers that’s ever been made to a basketball player.

The idea came from Steve Stoute, a former music industry executive who launched the careers of dozens of artists from Will Smith to 50 Cent to Nas. Stoute was working for Reebok and urged Fireman to do what he’d done with many talented teenagers who had come from poverty. Show them the money, and it closes the deal. A few months before, Stoute had helped Reebok close a deal with Jay-Z, and his first signature shoe, the S. Carter, had just launched.

“This happened all the time in the music business: Give the guy a big advance and they do the deal,” Stoute said. “This wasn’t short money. We were offering him the deal he wanted. He liked what we had to say, and he took the meeting, so we knew we were an option. We assumed if we gave him his price that he’d take it.”

The Reebok executives left the room to let LeBron think about it with one caveat: It was an exploding offer. Take the deal then and he could have the bonus check, but if he walked away the bonus would, too. Some could say that LeBron saying no was brilliant. Some could say it was too risky. He had an experienced agent, Aaron Goodwin, with him and was getting advice, but no one would have blamed him for saying yes. Even Nike and Adidas would have understood him saying yes. It was the type of offer you probably shouldn’t say no to.

At eighteen, even with his whole life basically in front of him, LeBron had the awareness to say no.

“I clapped in the room,” Stoute said. “Fireman couldn’t believe it; it made no sense to him. I knew I’d seen something I’d never seen before. I clapped out of respect. I’d been around young, professional, and successful African Americans that had come from meager circumstances for years. And when LeBron said no to that money in that room, I realized that we as a generation had evolved. I was blown away. He turned the money down and went to homeroom the next day!”

“You have to think of the back end,” LeBron told me a few years later. “I was going to be making a deal for life. You don’t think about the first check; you think about all of them.”

Having that type of awareness is the basis for this story. This book will chronicle LeBron’s journey off the floor, which has run parallel to his unique playing career. As with the game, he’s had incredible victories and humbling defeats. Fallout from some choices has been just as bitter as losses in the Finals. Some victories have brought him enormous satisfaction, even if it stayed largely private. This book will detail both.

In a way, this is only the start of LeBron’s business career: He’s planning for the forty or so years after his basketball career ends. LeBron and his family, friends, and business partners have grand plans that could make what’s happened so far just an introduction. LeBron set his sights on becoming a billionaire long ago and has evolved into not just counting money but expanding influence through ownership. Ownership of brick-and-mortar businesses. Ownership of intellectual property. Even ownership of professional sports franchises.

How he’s gotten this far, though, is a remarkable story. And you’re about to read it.

Chapter 2

The Bag Man

As she finished a cigarette outside a small college gym in Hackensack, New Jersey, Gloria James laughed when I asked her about Las Vegas. It was the first week of July 2001 at a showcase event for young basketball players, the Adidas ABCD Camp, and her son was having one of the most important weeks of his teenage years.

LeBron was headed to Vegas the following week for a tournament, and Gloria told me she was planning to go. We were just killing time out in the sun between games. The gym was packed and hot. I made small talk about slot machines. “Brian, I don’t have two nickels to rub together,” she said. “I’m not putting anything in those machines.”

The summer of 2001 was a momentous time to be a high school basketball star. That June the NBA fully fell in love with high school prospects. It had been building for a few years, starting with Kevin Garnett leaping from high school in 1995 and then Kobe Bryant the following year. Both had become stars, and the league was looking for more. In 2001, four of the top eight players taken were straight from high school, including the first-ever number one overall pick, Kwame Brown. As a result, the pro scouts were swarming the ABCD Camp and getting side-eyed in the process from the top college coaches who had a new level of competition now.

A few months earlier Matt Doherty, then the coach at North Carolina, was trying to talk a high-profile commitment named DeSagana Diop out of going straight to the NBA from high school. He drove to a meeting with Diop at Oak Hill Academy in Virginia and showed him a list of the salaries for first-round picks. Doherty was trying to show Diop if he came and played for the Tar Heels for a year and made himself into a top pick he’d earn a lot more than if he entered the draft that year and was taken late in the first round, where he was projected.

It was a reasonable pitch. The previous fall, I’d also made the drive to Mouth of Wilson, Virginia, to Oak Hill and spoke with Diop. He wasn’t sure he was ready for the league. But when Diop looked at Doherty’s printout he saw that even the last picks of the first round were guaranteed a three-year contract at nearly a million per year. Diop, who was from Senegal and never dreamed of such wealth, decided to enter the draft practically on the spot. (He ended up getting picked eighth and made $1.8 million his first season.)

As such, the college coaches and pro scouts were elbow-to-elbow at the ABCD. It was a bizarre time, as the pro scouts were allowed to watch the kids but not, per NBA rules, talk to them; while the college coaches were allowed to talk to them but not, per NCAA rules, mention their names to the media. LeBron, who was just sixteen and still growing, was the consensus best player at the event as he put on a show for three straight days and soundly outperformed some of the older players at the camp. Rick Pitino, who had just been hired to coach at Louisville, emerged from the gym that afternoon and told television cameras that LeBron—without using his name, one of the NCAA rules Pitino apparently followed (he lost his job years later after the school was accused of violations)—was headed for NBA stardom.

Ira Berkow, a Pultizer Prize–winning columnist from the New York Times, came across the Hudson River and watched LeBron for an afternoon during the camp. In the Times the next day, Berkow proclaimed that he could probably go pro after his upcoming junior year of high school. It was the brightest national media spotlight that’d been shined on LeBron to that point, and it created a little bit of a frenzy. Sonny Vaccaro, the amateur basketball legend who famously recruited Michael Jordan to Nike and Kobe Bryant to Adidas during his long and prolific career, told me LeBron might have been a lottery pick in the high school–laden draft that’d just taken place because he was already better than all the eighteen-year-olds who had been picked.

Naturally Vaccaro was going to be complimentary. He was in full-out recruit mode by that point, having arranged for LeBron’s high school team to get a contract with Adidas that would outfit him in gear from head to toe. LeBron’s freshman year, he couldn’t wear his preferred number 23 because the school only had even-numbered jerseys, and new uniforms were purchased once every few years. By the time he was a senior, LeBron had worn more than a dozen varieties of uniform designs, and he wore a new pair of Adidas shoes nearly every game. Bottom line, though, Vaccaro was right: He was better than all of them.

While they had a pretty good idea he was headed to the NBA in the near future, the reality of the situation hit LeBron and his family that week. Not only was it clear that he wasn’t ever going to college, but he was going to be the target of shoe companies who were always interested in capturing a star to help market their product. The reason is pretty basic: The earlier a shoe company could identify a possible star, the better they can develop a relationship and try to box out competitors and sign him to a more reasonable deal. As the Reebok executive Steve Stoute said, young basketball players are comparable to young music artists in this way. An important difference, though, is that a record label can find and sign young talent immediately, no matter their age, to make sure competitors couldn’t get a chance. Because of the amateurism rules that govern high school sports, shoe companies have to wait. That only makes the stakes and the competition higher and hotter.

This set of circumstances swings both ways: There’s a measure of pressure on the young athletes to increase demand and to perform under pressure. Yes, it was clear LeBron was one of the select few who had a legitimate chance to make it big in the world of basketball. But he’d also have to maintain the momentum. If he could have signed a multimillion-dollar deal at age sixteen, he would have. But he couldn’t play in the NBA for two years, and a lot of things could change in that span. To make sure LeBron got the best coaching, competition, and exposure, he was going to need to travel the country more than ever before. And Gloria, who had struggled her entire life, clearly didn’t have the resources to make this possible.

That’s what struck me as Gloria made the offhand comment about the slot machines. First off, she’d already hit the lottery. Her son was going to be in position to make massive sums of money. But there was a lot of spending already going on. LeBron always just showed up places, had new stuff, was well fed, and had a car to get around and a place to stay. The money had to come from somewhere, and it wasn’t coming from his mom. And there was going to be a lot more of that in the next couple of years.

What was happening was one of the first lessons LeBron would learn about the business world.

Eddie Jackson had known Gloria and LeBron for years. When LeBron was young, Eddie and Gloria were a couple. There’s a well-known photo of LeBron playing with a miniature basketball hoop he got for Christmas as a young child. Jackson claims to have been the one who bought it for him. Gloria and Eddie’s relationship was over by the time LeBron was in high school, but he was still providing for the family in some ways.

At the time, Jackson described himself simply as “a businessman.” He did have some legitimate dealings as a promoter, but by his own admission, he was a criminal. He spent time in jail on drug charges when LeBron was younger. But while LeBron was in high school, Jackson was running a real estate fraud scheme that ended up getting him sent to federal prison after a plea bargain when LeBron was a senior.

These facts led many to assume that Jackson had nefarious intentions, and they saw his connection to LeBron as a character flaw in both men. Clearly, it was not ideal for LeBron and his family to be involved with, and perhaps benefiting from, a felon. But the truth is that Jackson’s role was more nuanced and, at times, rather important. He was the one who helped get LeBron his first car. Eventually he allowed LeBron to move into a house he owned. He bankrolled some of the trips LeBron took and made sure Gloria got there too, so that LeBron was more comfortable. Jackson was the closest thing LeBron had to a father and, for a time, LeBron even called him his father. Did Jackson do this with money he earned through fraud? Maybe. Did he have some side deals working where he benefited from James and probably saw some of the endeavor as a long-term way to enrich himself? Perhaps. But it doesn’t mean he wasn’t important to LeBron’s journey. And it doesn’t mean that Jackson didn’t care for LeBron and try to protect him, which he absolutely did.

When Jackson saw the situation developing around LeBron in 2001, he knew he needed help funding what was becoming quite the operation. Through a mutual friend, he arranged a meeting with a man named Joe Marsh, who at the time was one of the richest people in LeBron’s hometown of Akron, Ohio. Marsh had largely earned his fortune as an agent and promoter himself, just on a massive and much more legitimate scale. His specialty was setting up tours for big-name acts. His clients included David Copperfield, Janet Jackson, Fleetwood Mac, and others. If you ever went to a Lord of the Dance show, chances are it was a Marsh production. A few years earlier he and his partner had sold their company for $118 million, making him fabulously wealthy.

Jackson saw Marsh as a solution to a problem. Marsh’s intentions seemed to be all business: He wanted to create a connection to what he, correctly, saw as a potential cash cow. Jackson and Marsh agreed to a transaction. Shortly after James returned from New Jersey with the belief that he was headed toward being a number one draft pick, Marsh gave Jackson a $30,000 check. It was the first installment of what ended up being a $100,000 loan to Eddie and Gloria over the next two years. It was hardly a favor. Marsh had Jackson sign a document that put a 10 percent annual interest rate on the loan and guaranteed the full rights to a documentary LeBron was expected to take part in. Plus there was an agreement to participate in endorsement deals for LeBron in the future.

Marsh obviously was a successful businessman. This could have been seen as a shrewd move, not unlike an angel investor getting in early to fund a startup and then being in a position to amplify his investment first when the stock took off. Others might say it was usury disguised as a helping hand, a veteran of the entertainment business taking advantage of some naivete. What it is fair to say is that Marsh was dealing with an in-over-her-head Gloria and a young and inexperienced LeBron, who barely seemed to know what was going on when he was brought to a meeting at Marsh’s mansion on a lake outside Akron after the deal was finalized.

From some people’s viewpoint, LeBron and his family taking part in a cash-for-influence deal from an agent like this spoiled his amateur status on the spot. Had this come to light at that time, he probably would have been banned from playing high school sports and been shamed in the process. But considering the landscape, which side was acting in poor faith gets a little more complex.

Only Jackson knows how much of that loan he actually spent on the family. Maybe he spent it all on them. By the time the payments ended, Jackson was in prison and Marsh was sending monthly checks directly to Gloria. Though LeBron met Marsh, he never signed anything, and that ended up becoming important. Over the next eighteen months, LeBron had a couple of meetings about the documentary and showed some interest in taking part. But LeBron’s interest waned after his high school team was upset in the state championship game his junior year, triggering a wave of criticism that started to sour LeBron on the media for the first time. Also, LeBron was getting more famous.

He’d been on the cover of Sports Illustrated. He met Michael Jordan. He had less interest in working on a film with someone he’d never heard of. After meeting Spike Lee at an event when he was seventeen, James told Marsh he wanted to have Lee direct the documentary. Marsh tried to accommodate him but had trouble even reaching Lee. The documentary never got off the ground, and LeBron and Gloria ending up cutting off communication with Marsh. By the time LeBron was a high school senior, access to money and credit was no longer an issue. It was harsh, but to them, Marsh had served his purpose.

Frustrated he’d been cut out, Marsh sued James during the first month of his rookie season for $15 million for money lost on the documentary and possible marketing deals. He said LeBron had breached oral contracts, even though those oral contracts were arranged when he was a juvenile. Marsh said he didn’t want to be LeBron’s agent and barely knew who he was when the loan was made; he was just making a business transaction, and his business partner had not lived up to their end of the deal.


  • "Windhorst knows himself some LeBron, as he demonstrates here in detailing how a basketball player transformed himself into a shrewd entrepreneur worth well over a billion dollars...A fascinating look inside the prototype for the new corporate athlete."—Booklist
  • "This is a shoo-in for business-minded sports fans."—Publishers Weekly
  • "For LeBron devotees and readers interested in the mechanics of off-the-court business dealings, this is a good choice."—Kirkus
  • "[LEBRON, INC.] explains, as no one has done before, how the business of basketball, including most importantly the endorsement game, is played."—p.p1 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; text-align: center; font: 12.0px Arial}New York Journal of Books

    "On the surface, this story may seem like it would only appeal to Cavaliers fans -- don't be dissuaded. The work illustrates the highs and lows necessary to reach the level of a champion, and will be the basketball book to own in 2017."—Library Journal (Starred Review)
  • "[A] dishy and fun narrative...With lively writing and rich anecdotes that reveal the struggles that made the triumph anything but inevitable, Windhorst and McMenamin provide the definitive account of the greatest accomplishment of one of the game's greatest players."—The Washington Post
  • "I've always admired Brian's acumen and his seasoned perspective. This story with Dave McMenamin of LeBron and the Cleveland Cavaliers' championship run is captivating and filled with spectacular detail."—Tracy McGrady, 7-time NBA All-Star
  • "Brian Windhorst and Dave McMenamin are courtside and in the locker room for the most improbable comeback in NBA history. Through exhaustive, incisive reporting, the duo have delivered an important, essential book for all NBA fans."—Jonathan Abrams, New York Times bestselling author of Boys Among Men: How the Prep-to-Pro Generation Redefined the NBA and Sparked a Basketball Revolution
  • "This account of how a championship was built is the best NBA book in many years."—Booklist
  • "Brian Windhorst and Dave McMenamin don't just cover the NBA. They live it. And in RETURN OF THE KING, their storytelling has never been better. From the decision-making process in the Cavaliers' front office which led to LeBron James' return, to the assembly of a championship roster, to the players-only email from GM David Griffin with the Cavs down 3-1 in the NBA Finals, to the candid exchanges between LeBron and Tyronn Lue, there is nothing left uncovered. Man, what a compelling read!"—Ernie Johnson, studio host of TNT's "Inside the NBA"
  • "On the court and off, the LeBron James journey back to Cleveland and back to a championship is one of the most intriguing stories in NBA history. Brian and Dave do a masterful job of adding context, details, and behind-the-scenes anecdotes to the signing, the season, and the series. RETURN OF THE KING is a great way to remember all that led up to the Finals and the greatest comeback."—Mike Tirico, NBC Sports

On Sale
Apr 9, 2019
Page Count
256 pages

Brian Windhorst

About the Author

Brian Windhorst has covered the NBA for ESPN since 2010. He began covering LeBron James in 1999 and was the daily beat writer on the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Akron Beacon Journal and Cleveland Plain Dealer from 2003 to 2010. He is also the co-author of three books, including the New York Timesbestseller Return of the King, The Franchise, and The Making of an MVP.

Learn more about this author