For LeBron James(notes), this has been the year of chasing everything: a championship, an MVP and the unfolding hysteria of the biggest free-agency filing in history. Yet beyond dominating the game, James has harbored hopes of controlling elements of basketball’s commerce and that’s the reason he’s spent more than a year pursuing the next big star, the University of Kentucky’s John Wall.
James befriended Wall at his All-American camp as a high school senior, traveled to campus to watch him play and even enlisted rapper Drake to woo Wall to LRMR, James’ fledgling marketing company.
Now, multiple NBA, agent and sneaker industry sources say Wall is close to partnering with the firm. As the projected No. 1 pick in the 2010 NBA draft, perhaps the most-hyped pro prospect since James himself, Wall will have his marketing and endorsements guided with the perks of a partnership with the globe’s biggest basketball star.
James’ childhood friend, Maverick Carter, is the CEO of LRMR and responsible for running his management company. Carter’s had a consistent presence with Wall’s AAU coach and surrogate, Brian Clifton, for months, and Clifton offered nothing to dispute the word of sources who say James and Wall are going into business together.
Clifton insisted there’s nothing “formal in place” with LRMR, and an announcement wouldn’t happen until Wall completes paperwork to enter the draft. Still, Clifton told Yahoo! Sports, “Maverick is a really good friend and does a tremendous job. It would be smart on anybody’s part to work with him. He’s done some very innovative things. He has an innovative way of thinking.
“The areas they’re moving into would be beneficial to John or any kid. They can select who they want to work with, and it’s absolutely flattering to be considered. These guys are young enough and new enough that what they’re doing hasn’t been around to be in vogue. I don’t think it’s much of a gamble or a long shot. They’re doing a lot of things right, in my opinion.”
With James’ own massive marketing platform – much of which was negotiated under previous agent Aaron Goodwin – most would say the expertise consists simply of sorting through a forest of elite offers. This will be the first true test for LRMR. Those in the industry have mostly scoffed at the young, inexperienced Carter and the rest of the high school pals that comprise the company. All they have to do is answer the phone, doubters insist. Now, they’ll get to prove themselves with Wall.
In the short term, they’ll be negotiating a sneaker deal that promises to invigorate a stagnant market for young players. Reebok is banking that Wall can be its product’s face with the demise of Allen Iverson(notes), and multiple sources say the company’s prepared an offer that could be worth $3 million-$4 million annually. Here’s the test for LRMR: Does it have the chops to get Wall more than the traditional shoe deal?
“Wall isn’t going to be LeBron, but he’s the most-hyped player to come since him,” a rival sneaker industry official said. “And, sometimes, hype is just as important as talent.”
LRMR briefly represented O.J. Mayo(notes) and used James to recruit Minnesota Timberwolves rookie Jonny Flynn(notes) out of Syracuse a year ago. Sources say James has played a significant role in recruiting Syracuse’s next lottery pick, Wesley Johnson.
Nevertheless, LRMR has struggled financially with little, if anything, but James’ own marketing money floating the company. From salaries and offices, lawyers and private jets, 5-star hotels and expense accounts, there’s been far more going out than coming into the company, sources say.
If Carter is short on credentials, his close association with James delivers him the ultimate back-stage pass in the industry. At All-Star weekend in Dallas, Carter was invited into a small gathering between the NBA’s most powerful player agents and Players Association executive director Billy Hunter. “That was the one way the union could guarantee that LeBron would show up for the meeting with the owners,” a prominent agent said.
Because of James, Carter has cachet. Everyone has to take meetings with him. What LRMR has tried to sell to players is this: LeBron can’t take every deal offered him. Sometimes, his hand-me-downs are better than anything else out there. They tried hard to recruit New Orleans star Chris Paul(notes) away from Octagon, but sources say Paul ultimately balked at the idea of purchasing equity in the company.
“They needed Chris a lot more than Chris needed them,” a league marketing source said.
James will go back again and again for Kentucky’s stars. Rival agents gasped when close associate, William Wesley, walked into a Wildcat game with rapper Drake. As one said, “How the hell can I compete with that?” James has made himself part of the Kentucky program. Kentucky coach John Calipari has deftly positioned himself as a favorite of James, hiring one of his high school teammates, Brandon Weems, in his basketball operations, and treating James like an honorary alumnus. It’s good for Calipari’s and James’ recruiting.
“People have made more of that relationship than those two have,” Clifton said. “John’s been at school. He isn’t a professional. But to have a chance to rub elbows with someone of LeBron’s stature is something any kid in the sport would love. John has tremendous respect for LeBron and his accomplishments, and obviously there’s going to be a ‘cool’ factor…”
What college star doesn’t want to trade phone calls and text messages with James? As long as there’s no money or services given, there’s no violation. “Yeah, I have a relationship with him," James told the Cleveland Plain Dealer earlier this season. “A really good relationship. With not only John, but his family. We talk all the time.”
No one can doubt LeBron James’ ambitions. He wants to be the biggest mogul this sport’s ever seen and he’ll likely start with the molding of the next big star’s career. As he chased that championship, that MVP, James made it his business to chase John Wall, too. Yes, this is ambition like no one’s ever seen in the sport. And yet as James discovered, it’s one thing to come into the NBA with hype and famous associations, but another to live up to it all.
“What you do on the court is what matters,” Clifton said. “If you focus on your affiliation with LeBron and don’t take care of your business and don’t become the guy you’re supposed to be, it does very little good.”