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As Jay-Z made a toast next to his co-host, LeBron James, at a VIP dinner during All-Star weekend, he spoke of branding, about a new world order of celebrity businessmen. They declared this the Two Kings dinner in New Orleans and the star-studded list of invitees included NBA owners and stars, music label executives and A-list performers. Jay-Z talked of a tomorrow when these two monuments to music and basketball will transform the rules of engagement for the iconic performer, one witness said. He talked of making history.
For the Cavaliers officials watching, there had to be something of a collective gulp. They have been uneasy witnesses to a dance between James and Jay-Z, a bond between a generation’s most celebrated entertainer and athlete. These two spend a lot of time together – traveling, talking and sharing big ideas.
What’s unnerving to Cleveland is that Jay-Z happens to be a part owner of the New Jersey Nets with unlimited access to James’ heart, mind and ambitions. Of course, the Nets are plotting a move to a sparkling new arena in Brooklyn, perhaps as soon as the 2011-2012 season. They’re clearing cap space and planning a pursuit of James when he can opt out of his contract in the summer of 2010.
Cleveland officials won’t talk about James and Jay-Z, but if you were wondering about the franchise’s fear of losing him to the brighter lights and bigger city, understand that the trade owner Dan Gilbert and general manager Danny Ferry made had everything to do with winning now and crushing James’ concerns that Cleveland is unable to surround him with a championship cast.
LeBron doesn’t want to just win titles. His stated wants include becoming sport’s first billionaire athlete. Among his advisors, he counts Warren Buffet. Jay-Z has helped James focus his mind on chasing something bigger than basketball. The question will be this: For the kid out of Akron, will his hometown – will even winning – be enough to hold onto LeBron James?
So yes, Sonny Vaccaro has been fascinated to study the burgeoning partnership since the days Jay-Z – whose real name is Shawn Carter – visited James at Vaccaro’s high school All-American camp in New Jersey. Vaccaro is responsible for some of the most profound marketing marriages in basketball history. He sold Nike on paying college coaches to be billboards for shoe companies, on spending everything they had on North Carolina’s Michael Jordan. When everyone else believed Jordan had a chance to be an excellent pro player, Vaccaro was convinced he would be transcendent for the company.
Vaccaro is out of the game, but forever connecting and consulting with those shaping the landscape. If nothing else, he is sure of this: In two years, Cleveland could be fighting a perfect storm of circumstances.
“I think that LeBron will have to look long and hard about leaving Cleveland,” Vaccaro said. “Dan Gilbert and the city have embraced him. They’ve done everything they can to make a championship-type trade. Danny Ferry did a good job with that. But knowing LeBron and knowing the world as I see it, the most appetizing thing would not be the New York Knicks for him, but the Nets with Jay-Z.
“Jay-Z is the one person that I can put in a parallel universe with LeBron from where they started and where they are now. If LeBron has a role model in life, it’s Jay-Z. I’ve never been around a more perfect match of young genius. What would be better than these two kids in New York?
“Maybe this is only able to happen once, when the money is there in New Jersey, and his contract is up in Cleveland. When you think of the marketing roll that LeBron could be on after winning gold in Beijing, wow. …I’m not sure the sun and moon have ever aligned like this.”
(Vince Bucci/Getty Images)
LeBron James has stated he wants to become sport's first billionaire athlete.
Jay-Z is a Grammy Award-winning rapper, the ex-president of a record label, a club owner, a clothier, a hotelier. Now, he has started a new ad company – Translation Advertising. This is the kind of fortune, the kind of legacy, that James is chasing for the long run.
This drive and determination isn’t lost on Gilbert, the Cavaliers owner who absorbed several million more dollars in salary and luxury tax with the trade that brought Ben Wallace, Joe Smith, Wally Szczerbiak and Delonte West to the team on Thursday.
James initially sounded cautious about the trade. After a blowout victory over Memphis on Sunday night, James gushed over its promise. Ferry delivered James shooting and the ultimate wildcard, Wallace. If Wallace has nothing left from his Detroit days, this deal could be doomed. Still, Cleveland feared the status quo in the East. Between the Cavs and the conference’s two best teams, Boston and Detroit, the gap has grown too profound.
Two years ago, the Cavaliers heard Jay-Z’s public position on LeBron’s future and could only imagine what might be said in private. When asked about the possibility of him someday joining the franchise, the Nets’ part-owner paid no mind to league tampering rules and gushed, “How amazing would that be? I tell people all the time, he's my friend first. If Cleveland is building a championship team around him then my advice is to stay there. If it’s the Nets who are building a championship team that could be around him then my advice is to come to the Nets.”
The league office noticed the comments, but never leveled a fine for tampering. What can Cleveland do? Complain? No chance the Cavs will try to tell James who his friends can be, especially when they pre-date his days in the NBA.
When it comes to branding, nothing and nowhere could be bigger for James’ global profile than becoming the King of New York. There has always been a belief that his endorsement deals, including Nike, include clauses that trigger bigger payouts if James lands in a major market.
The Nets are clearing cap space for a free-agent class that includes James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, but James is the unmistakable target. So much so, the Nets have an internal business plan for the move into the new Brooklyn arena that includes a modest section on his eventual recruitment, estimates of his marketing worth and the salary-cap space that needs to be cleared for his signing.
This is the kind of advanced planning every team does, but there’s a credibility to the Nets’ pursuit that comes out of Jay-Z’s relationship. As for changing the landscape as iconic branders, it was no coincidence that James showed up at a New York-Cleveland American League division series game in October wearing a Yankees cap. Whatever calls of traitor ensued in Cleveland, the deed was done: Suddenly, the world identified LeBron as a Yankees fan.
Mere months later, Nike has a LeBron-Yankees shoe planned for March release. For those wanting to believe James is setting the stage for a move to the big city, the line of shoes does forward the idea that he wants to be identified with New York.
Between now and the summer of 2010, this promises to be a fascinating story line. Jay-Z has opened LeBron James’ mind to looking far beyond basketball, beyond the traditional journeys to superstardom. Together, they talked about changing everything for the global icon. Between now and 2010, the Cavaliers have to sell LeBron James that all that can still happen in Cleveland.