A person close to James said Tuesday that the Cavaliers' superstar would strongly consider playing overseas if he was offered a salary of "around $50 million a year."
James' current contract expires after the 2010-2011 season, but he can opt out after the 2009-2010 season, and while several NBA teams are working to create salary cap space for his impending free agency, none could offer a contract beginning at even $20 million a year.
The Russian team CSKA Moscow and the Greek team Olympiacos, which recently gave Josh Childress a contract approaching $30 million over three years, have already contacted James, according to the person close to him. The person added, however, that no monetary or contractual discussions have taken place.
While $50 million a year seems outlandish, it is within the realm of possibility, considering the reported $250 million contract David Beckham received two years ago to join Major League Soccer, the $33 million Michael Jordan was paid by the Chicago Bulls for the 1997-98 season, the strength of the euro in comparison to the dollar, and the fact that European clubs are not bound by a salary cap.
While several NBA players have left the league this summer for more lucrative contracts in Europe, no stars have done so -- or even considered it. Joel Litvin, the NBA's president of league and basketball operations, said the league is not concerned about this developing trend.
"I don't want to say it's much ado about nothing, but we think it's overblown a bit," Litvin said. "It's not something we're losing sleep over. "
But losing a player of James' magnitude would be nothing short of a nightmare for the NBA.
"For the most part, the league considers the players to be fungible products," an official from the National Basketball Players Association said. "But LeBron is one of the three or four players the league would definitely hate to lose. If a team lost him or Kobe [Bryant] to Europe, it would lose its mind. It would be devastating."
But both Litvin and the NBPA official said they don't foresee anything -- even the loss of a superstar -- leading the NBA to eliminate the salary cap and thereby compete financially with the European teams.
"It would be disappointing to lose one of our star players, but I have no concern at all about the best players playing anywhere but in the NBA for a long time to come," Litvin said. "I'd be surprised if one of our top players chose to go to Europe but if it did happen, there are many players who would step up and fill the void."
The source close to James said LeBron would play in Europe only for a year or two before returning to the NBA. He said James would view it as an opportunity to popularize the game and himself overseas. He added that James would not consider himself to be playing in the "minor leagues."
"Not at all," the person said. "He believes those guys are pros also."
The entire scenario falls in line with James' stated goals of becoming a billionaire and "global icon." But the representative from the players' association will have to see James in a European uniform before he believes it.
"First of all, we don't know that there's going to be a $50 million offer," the official said. "And secondly, he wouldn't be able to accomplish over there the things that he wants to do over here, which are to win NBA championships, MVP awards, etc."
But he could become filthy rich and a global icon.
Chris Broussard is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.