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How LeBron James Can Leverage His $110 Million: Scott Soshnick

If LeBron James knows what’s good for him, and his decision-making this offseason makes that a gargantuan if, he will embrace those comparisons to Michael Jordan.

If ever there was a time for James to Be Like Mike, as the Nike ad said, this is it.

Not Jordan, the player or pitchman. That’s asking too much of even the Chosen 1, which is tattooed across his back. Surely, though, James could find some time to mimic Jordan, the union stalwart. Surely the National Basketball Association’s two-time Most Valuable Player could emulate Jordan, the negotiator and rabble-rouser. He could follow Jordan, the advocate, the guy who recognized how important his voice was to the cause. Surely James could represent the rank-and-file.

It would be a good first step in turning James’s Summer of Me into the Summer of We.

James got everything he wanted this offseason when he left the Cleveland Cavaliers and joined the Miami Heat. But he paid a price. His TV special, labeled “The Decision,” was disastrous. It played like one man’s ode to himself. It was the sort of self-aggrandizement we’ve come to expect from, say, Terrell Owens, not James.

Just like that, all the accumulated good will was gone. And not just in Cleveland, either, but everywhere. James went from loved to loathed. Out-of-touch egomaniac, they said. But that can change, starting this week, when owners and players resume negotiations on a labor contract that would avoid a work stoppage after this season.

He Got His

This labor war isn’t James’s fight. He got paid, about $110 million, which is why it’s so important for him to get involved. Jordan didn’t have to worry about getting paid, either, but he adopted the cause anyway.

Jordan came across as selfless. Imagine the headlines: James, defender of the basketball everyman. Hey, his image resurrection has to start somewhere.

No matter what Commissioner David Stern says it’s star power, not teamwork, that rules the NBA. Folks watch to witness sizzle, not the Spurs, who built championship teams on yawn-inducing buzzwords like fundamentals.

James is the game’s biggest star, which is why, unfortunately for him, his TV special on ESPN was watched by almost 10 million people.

But that’s the past.

Take it from someone who covered just about every negotiating session in 1998-99, when owners imposed a lockout that for the first time in league history resulted in dark arenas during the regular season.

Most-Powerful Man

There were ho-hum negotiating sessions and there were the times when Jordan showed up. Usually unannounced. One guy changed everything. He brought clout. Jordan was the most powerful man in basketball. The owners knew that.

Jordan walked in and the owners understood they were in for a fight. They could see the players were galvanized. Jordan brought confidence to his side of the table. He brought charisma. Most importantly, though, he brought leverage.

One time Jordan had his fill of the late Wizards owner, Abe Pollin, who had just lectured the players about the broken business of basketball.

Jordan told the league’s longest-tenured owner that if he couldn’t make money then he should sell the team. Only Jordan could have done that.

Pollin went ballistic, his voice rising like Jordan taking off from the foul line. Stern hurried to remove Pollin from the microphone.

No Backing Down

Jordan served notice that he, global icon and ambassador for the game, wasn’t backing down. Here was Jordan, who could have easily been sunning himself in some tropical locale, sipping cool drinks. Instead, he was fighting for the benchwarmers.

Hey, if nothing else, maybe James, a wannabe billionaire and buddy to Warren Buffett, will learn something. It worked for Jordan, who this past season became the first former player to own a majority stake in an NBA team, the Charlotte Bobcats.

The owners have a 12-member negotiating committee that includes hawks like Wyc Grousbeck, former general partner of the venture capital firm Highland Capital Partners and now majority owner of the Celtics, and Dan Gilbert, whose open letter to Cavaliers fans made public his outrage at what James did and how he did it.

A number of marquee players, including free agents James, Dwyane Wade, Paul Pierce and Amar’e Stoudemire attended the bargaining session held during All-Star weekend, skipping their league-mandated community service event. Hey, they were there. It wasn’t much of a sacrifice.

Now, however, is when the work begins in earnest. Proposals. Counter proposals. Nights. Weekends. Conference calls.

The union’s nine-player executive committee will be working on behalf of the group. James should be there, too. Just like his idol.

(Scott Soshnick is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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