- The Washington Times - Monday, August 25, 2003

LeBron James has evolved into a legalized form of gambling with corporate America.

James is the basketball flavor of the moment on whom corporate America is betting a considerable sum to be the next Michael Jordan or Magic Johnson.

Wherever James goes these days, he is usually trailed by someone lugging a suitcase of money from corporate America.

James stops at a convenience store, and someone wants to hand him a bunch of money to endorse a chili dog. He goes to a shopping mall, and store owners are prepared to hand over their inventory in exchange for his stamp of approval.

It can’t be easy. It must get tiresome.

James steps outside his house and people start throwing money at him. Everyday is a ticker-tape parade with James, only the adoring throng is throwing dollar bills in his direction instead of confetti.

Not too long ago, James was just another high school basketball player with a Hummer H2.

Now he is a high-powered businessman who has a team of marketing advisers, legal gurus and image consultants endeavoring to bring his deity-like presence into your home.

The progress of his basketball career is almost incidental. He certainly does not need the NBA’s money. That is just walking-around money to him, tip money. Not that he ever needs to tip anyone.

He goes out to dinner on the compliments of the chef seeking to be the official chef of Team James.

James is the luckiest teen in America. America is his personal candy store. He can have whatever he wants from it, so long as he smiles nicely and agrees to put his name on a product.

No one is sure how this came to be.

Sports Illustrated did a story on him and then other media outlets did the same. Then ESPN started to live with him last winter, and before you knew it, you had this critical mass of interest in the comings and goings of a high school player.

It did not make a lot of sense.

James became a celebrity before he became an accomplished basketball player. In a way, he became famous for being famous, not unlike some of the souls who routinely show up on talk shows. You do not know why they are on television other than the fact that is what they do. They are professional talking heads whose expertise on a particular topic is secondary to the familiarity of their faces.

James was a gifted high school player, no doubt. Reasonable basketball types have all embraced the potential of James. He is the can’t-miss kid. Yet the professional ranks in all sports are littered with can’t-miss kids who missed.

James probably has more reasons now to miss than his predecessors. His latest endorsement deal, with Sprite, is worth $12million. He also has a $90million deal with Nike, a $6million deal with Upper Deck and a deal with Juice batteries, the terms undisclosed.

James does not really need his NBA work, as you can see. He can invest his money wisely and let his money do the work for him.

Being an NBA player is not all it is said to be anyway.

If you are an NBA player, it seems you have to worry about police officers more than the average citizen. You also have to worry about women and becoming the next Father of our Country. There are a lot of players working on claiming that title.

Some guys go to the NBA hoping to become an All-Star. Others go to the NBA hoping to become the Father of our Country. That is just the way it is. Who can figure it out?

James can hang out with his friends if he likes or lead the Cavaliers to 25 hard-fought victories in his rookie season. Either way, America will be obligated to toast a Sprite in his honor.

His is an incredibly peculiar circumstance, almost a virtual-reality thing. He has been handed a number of prizes on the basis that he might earn them one day.

One of his representatives says his client’s soda-pop deal is in line with building the LeBron brand, whatever that means. The representative says the message behind the Sprite is that it is all right to be yourself.

You never knew soda pop could be so enlightening. But there you have it.

You can be yourself, James can be himself, and corporate America can be itself.

So have a Sprite. And remember: Be yourself.

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