He has been compared to Magic Johnson, deemed better than Kobe Bryant, and put right up there with His Airness, Michael Jordan. Not yet 19, LeBron James is a 6-ft., 8-in. bundle of no-look passes and arching three-pointers who was just named by USA Today the high school player of the year for the second straight time. With James playing guard, his Akron-area high school won three state championships in his four years there, playing to overflow crowds at the local college's 5,942-seat auditorium. Kobe stops by when he's in town. So does Jordan, who last time out gave James a pair of black Air Jordan high-tops.
The timing couldn't be better. With Jordan having just played his last game, the stars may be in alignment for James to become the Air Apparent. By early May, he is expected to announce his intention to play in the NBA, likely becoming the first pick in the June 26 draft. But even before NBA Commissioner David J. Stern announces his name, LeBron James is Big Business in the making. A bidding war has been brewing for months between Adidas and Nike, and eBay is flooded with James-autographed memorabilia.
He's a can't-miss prospect -- unless, of course, he misses. And that makes James perhaps the biggest crapshoot in sports. The NBA is littered with high school phenoms whose game never rose to pro levels. Worse yet, there are the superstars who could do it all on the court but couldn't sell tons of sneakers, soft drinks, or burgers. Bryant, whose game was honed on the courts of Italy, never connected with U.S. teens in the inner city. Vince Carter plays in the obscurity of Toronto for a lackluster Raptors squad. Then there's the sad tale of Grant Hill, who has spent most of his career on the disabled list after signing a seven-year, $80 million contract with Fila Holding. "The problem with James is that he is in high school," says Jeffrey Bliss, head of Javelin Group, an Alexandria (Va.) sports marketing firm. "It takes longer for them to develop, compared to kids coming out of college."
But the future is now for LeBron. Already armed with a lawyer and public relations team, James began sifting offers even before naming an agent. "We've had a dozen of them, just kicking down our door," says James's Cleveland-based attorney, Fred Nance. Nike Chairman Phil Knight flew James's mother, Gloria, up to Beaverton, Ore., for one meeting, while legendary Adidas star-finder Sonny Vaccaro has outfitted James's high-school team with sneakers and other gear. "I'm like a member of their family," says Vaccaro, who first noticed James at 16.
By all accounts, James should strike it rich. As the first selection, he's guaranteed by NBA rules a three-year, $11 million contract. Whichever shoemaker wins will likely pay him north of $25 million over four years. Nance says soft-drink, fast-food, and packaged-goods companies are also lining up. "His visibility has never been higher," says sports manager Leon Rosen, whose clients have included Magic Johnson. "This is the time to get what he can."
But will Nike or Adidas get their money's worth? A lot depends on how they market James, says Rick Burton, a professor of sports marketing at the University of Oregon. "You could argue that Nike made Jordan as much as he made them," he says. Nike and Adidas have told James they would spend serious money to focus attention on him. But Nike still sells truckloads of Air Jordans -- plus shoes endorsed by Gary Payton, Vince Carter, and Chinese sensation Yao Ming -- while Tracy McGrady's sneaker scores big for Adidas-Salomon. Will a kid from Ohio generate buzz among that crowd?
Some say yes. LeBron's high-flying game and his inner-city style could make him a winner, says John Horan, publisher of the Sporting Goods Intelligence newsletter. But what market he heads to won't be decided until May 22, when the NBA lottery determines which of 13 lowly teams gets the top choice. In the post-Jordan era, the league no doubt hopes that Chicago, New York, or even the Los Angeles Clippers snags James. But it may be a team in a marketing wasteland like Denver or Toronto. That could turn a dunk shot into an ugly-looking brick.
By Ronald Grover in Los Angeles, with Stanley Holmes in Seattle