We usually wait awhile to write our histories until they fully unfold. It's too hard to tell in real time where the chapter breaks are. But sometimes you just know when to dog-ear a page for future reference. The night lives up to the narrative. All the details matter for posterity. The mid-January game when LeBron James and Kobe Bryant went head-to-head as if they were in their own personal All-Star Game was one of those times.
The best player of this era and the best player of the one before it called each other out and went one-on-one as often as they could. James was relentless to the basket and posted a season-high 36 points. Bryant scored 19 and put on a drive-and-dish clinic, handing out a career-high 17 assists.
Both men played like they cherished the chance to go at it one last time, as though each in his own way recognized how brief his reign at the top of the game will be or has been.
When James missed what would have been a monster two-handed dunk a few minutes before halftime, he and Bryant laughed and looked at each other knowingly. "That's what old age will get you," LeBron said later. "You start missing dunks when you thought you was up there."
Kobe is now 36 and once again unable to play due to serious injury. LeBron, at 30, 41,577 minutes (regular season and playoffs) into his career and halfway into this season, has been marvelous only in spurts, succumbing at times to pain in his knee, back and wrist, prompting speculation that his best seasons may already be behind him.
This is indisputably the King James era. But his reign is finite. Like Kobe and Michael and Magic and the others before him, LeBron knows his ability to dominate the game will wane eventually, and there is a sense of urgency that comes in that recognition.
What may set him apart from his predecessors, though, is the extent to which James has anticipated his opportunities to consolidate power and extend his reach, both on and off the floor.
LeBron has invented new ways for players to wield power.
"LeBron and I have probably been talking about what he wanted to do since he was a rookie," says Maverick Carter, his longtime business partner.
In 2010, James changed the way NBA players and owners thought about free agency and franchise value with his move from Cleveland to Miami and the formation of a new Big Three.
In 2014, he drew up a new model with his move back to Cleveland on a short-term contract that gave him unprecedented leverage for a player. He has built his own business empire with a trusted group of friends and advisors, eschewing traditional agents and marketers. He has spoken out on social issues, organizing a symbolic gesture in support of Trayvon Martin and publicly challenging NBA commissioner Adam Silver to expel former Clippers owner Donald Sterling in the wake of Sterling's racist comments. And he has worked to improve conditions for his fellow players, pressing behind closed doors for a weeklong break at the All-Star Game.
"Trails have been blazed by what LeBron is doing," says USA Basketball head coach Mike Krzyzewski, who has coached James to two Olympic gold medals.
James' office at LRMR Marketing (the firm he founded along with Carter and hometown friends Rich Paul and Randy Mims in 2006) in Akron is immaculate. Everything is where it is because he wants it to be. On one shelf behind his sleek, executive-style desk sits a replica Batman mask. On another rest titles straight off a CEO-in-training reading list: "Last Man Standing," the chronicle of how Jamie Dimon steered JPMorgan Chase through the 2008 financial crisis; "The Operator," a biography of music mogul David Geffen; and "Blockbusters," Harvard Business School professor Anita Elberse's study of what gives entertainment superstars their competitive edge.
James counts hip-hop superstars, including Jay Z and Dr. Dre, among his friends and has been inspired by the steps many have taken to truly own their music and control its distribution, taking authority away from a predominantly white traditional recording industry power base in the process. "Watching those guys evolve from what they were ... definitely [has] played into our consciousness," Carter says. But while hip-hop moguls have provided an example of what it means to build, extend and profit from a personal brand, James is perhaps even more profoundly motivated by a fundamental desire to call his own shots.
I had to become man of the house very fast. I felt empowered when I knew I had to grow up faster than the kids who had fathers, or maybe an older brother.
"-- LeBron James
When he and his agents Paul and Mark Termini laid out plans for LeBron's free-agency period last summer, they were looking ahead to a possible bigger payday under the NBA's new nine-year, $24 billion television deal in 2016, and also to building in options for James to exercise maximum leverage along the way. Teams that called Paul when the free agency period began July 1 were given simple instructions: Make it a max contract, not a penny less, and once LeBron decides on a team we'll tell you how long he's staying. James' current two-year deal, with a player option in the second year, was dictated to the Cavaliers. There was no negotiation.
His contract with Cleveland puts him in a position to demand a higher salary at the end of the current season (either with the Cavs or some other team), but for James its most appealing quality is that it presents him with choices. When the season ends, win or lose, he -- not Cleveland owner Dan Gilbert, not the owner of a prospective suitor -- has moves to make. He is in control. "LeBron is the best player on the planet," says Paul. "His leverage, flexibility and ability to control his own destiny are what matter most."
Some point to the awkwardly handled "Decision" he made to leave Cleveland in the summer of 2010 as a first expression of James' will to self-determination: "I'm taking my talents to South Beach." But LeBron says the roots of the feeling run deeper and extend further.
"I think a lot of it comes from being an only child," he says, reflecting on the years when he and his mother, Gloria, lived a difficult, nomadic life in Akron. "I had to become man of the house very fast. I felt empowered when I knew I had to grow up faster than the kids who had fathers, or maybe an older brother. That feeling stuck with me throughout grade school and high school.
"When I became a professional, I went the traditional way of signing with an agent and thought that was the way to do it because it was traditional. But I didn't feel like I felt when I became the man of my house when I was 7 years old. The only way to get back to that was if I empower guys around me. So I got rid of my agent and we started our own firm, our own marketing company, LRMR. I was with the guys that I trusted. Guys that I grew up with and guys that I believed in."
In 2001, at age 16, James arrived at the famed Adidas-sponsored ABCD basketball camp run by Sonny Vaccaro. He was wearing Nikes. Later that summer, he showed up at Nike's All-American camp in a pair of Adidas. Pass on the quick nickel for the slow dime is an oft-repeated refrain in James' career. Take your time. Increase your options. Feel good about your choice. Cash in.
By not committing to either Nike or Adidas in the months leading up to his entrance to the 2003 NBA draft, James had given Reebok time to get in on the bidding for his services as well, and in the end he and his representatives negotiated a record six-year, $90 million endorsement deal with Nike before he had ever played a game in the NBA.
"The media came to me and asked if I was offended by what [LeBron] did [at camp]," Vaccaro remembers. "Offended? No. I applauded him. ... because he understands who he is."
In 2006, billionaire investor Warren Buffett invited James to appear in a video that would be privately screened for investors at Buffett's annual Berkshire Hathaway summit in Omaha, Nebraska. There was no short-term payoff. He had to let Buffett win at a game of H-O-R-S-E, the video would never air anywhere else and he wouldn't get paid a dime. It was long play all the way. James jumped at the chance.
"I know when LeBron was younger he said he wanted to be a billionaire," says his financial advisor, Paul Wachter. "But I think [his] ambition is much broader than that. I think his ambition is to really understand the world and be a significant person."
When Michael Jordan was asked to weigh in on behalf of Democratic candidate Harvey Gantt in a racially charged 1990 Senate race against Jesse Helms in North Carolina, he famously abstained, reportedly later telling a friend, "Republicans buy sneakers, too." But if Jordan cautiously conserved the influence he had built up as a player and a businessman, James seems committed to spending his cultural capital on social issues.
In 2012, James organized a team photo in which he and his Miami teammates wore hoodies, heads bowed in silent, devastating solidarity with the fallen Trayvon Martin. James put the photo on his Twitter account with the hashtag #WeWantJustice, stepping into ongoing national debates about racial perceptions and gun laws and re-energizing a tradition of athletes, like Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali, who expressed strong opinions on cultural issues. Last year, when TMZ released the audiotape of Donald Sterling telling his former girlfriend not to bring black people to Clippers games, James quickly called for his ouster from the league. He didn't take the temperature of the Heat's media relations staff or check in with representatives from his corporate partners but instead simply and publicly said, "There is no place for Donald Sterling in this league."
People didn't look to Michael Jordan for his opinion. But people look to LeBron for his opinion. This is our culture now. We expect the people who do have a public voice, and are in a position to make and influence decisions, to speak out.
"-- Juliet E.K. Walker, University of Texas professor
And his statement set the tone for the Sterling discussion and process, making it inevitable that the longtime Clippers owner would be exiled from the NBA.
James has since spoken out about the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the death of Eric Garner after being put in a chokehold by a Staten Island police officer, and was one of many NBA players to wear "I Can't Breathe" T-shirts during pregame warm-ups earlier this season.
Carter says James and the team he's assembled around him are conscious of an opportunity and a responsibility to be seen and heard, and to represent a kind of confidence and authority as young black men. It's something they've talked about from the beginning. Media-shy by instinct, Carter knows interviews he gives, for example, will resonate. "I don't like to do press," he says. "But I know sometimes I need to do it because every time I do there's young people -- black and white, but I think about young African-Americans because that's the experience I grew up with -- who hear it."
And Juliet E.K. Walker, a professor of black intellectual history at the University of Texas, says James' awareness is in keeping with the expectations of the times. "People didn't look to Michael Jordan for his opinion," she says. "But people look to LeBron for his opinion. This is our culture now. We expect the people who do have a public voice, and are in a position to make and influence decisions, to speak out."
James has made at least half a billion dollars in his career. When he talks to CEOs, he does so as a fellow businessman as much as an endorser. His position -- as the game's best player and its most influential public figure -- and his willingness to leverage it, have contributed to a new norm for athlete activism. "I'd rather him be that way than be mum," says former McDonald's CEO Don Thompson, who has had a long business relationship and friendship with James. "I'd hope [he] wouldn't put me or McDonald's in a bad position, but I do expect LeBron to stand up and speak on the values and things he says are important to him."
As the NBA once again approaches All-Star Weekend, with James' Cavs team surging, a key question for the league and its players is whether he is mapping out a template others can and will replicate. If James is an exception, the game remains largely the same when he ages out. If he convinces other superstars to see the field as he does, then there may be a possibility for systemic, lasting change to the way of doing business in the NBA.
The stakes are high. In 2006, James called Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony to urge them all to sign just three-year extensions off their rookie deals, ensuring they all could become free agents in the same year (2010) and positioning them to pool their power and resources. Anthony declined, but we all know what Bosh and Wade did, and we know league owners were so frightened by the move that they locked out the players in 2011 in order to try to prevent it from happening again.
If James' return to Cleveland pays off, either financially or in titles, or both, the way he has made sure his hands are at the controls may inspire other elite players to drive similar bargains. Krzyzewski has seen the rise of a new consciousness on his Team USA squads. "It's like evolution," he says. "Guys are getting good advice ... they're learning how to be real businessmen. They learn best practices from one another."
Not everyone is LeBron, of course. He may have led by example, demonstrating to players across the league the value of leverage and flexibility, but his moves are underwritten by a one-of-a-kind talent and nearly unprecedented value to a team and its market. It's difficult for other, less-talented, less-marketable players to follow in his footsteps.
Guys are getting good advice ... they're learning how to be real businessmen. They learn best practices from one another.
"-- Team USA coach Mike Krzyzewski
So far, only a few have. Last summer, Detroit center Greg Monroe turned down the Pistons' long-term contract offers for the chance to become an unrestricted free agent in July 2015. After four years of losing in Detroit, Monroe and his agent, David Falk, decided that choosing which team he really wanted to play for was worth the risk of playing this year on a one-year, $5.5 million qualifying contract. Phoenix Suns guard Eric Bledsoe was prepared to do the same. Bledsoe, also represented by Paul and Termini, told the Suns he would sign a one-year, $3.7 million qualifying contract if Phoenix didn't up their four-year, $48 million offer in restricted free agency. Negotiations were tense and dragged into September, raising the specter of a holdout, before the Suns gave in and offered Bledsoe a five-year, $70 million deal.
Others are more circumspect. "It really is tempting to do all that," Golden State Warriors guard Klay Thompson told ESPN's J.A. Adande this fall, before he signed a long-term extension with the team, instead of opting to become a restricted free agent this summer. "But I'd rather have the security right now, you know?"
Players' careers are short and the risk of injury is high. It's hard to pass on guaranteed money and security. Former NBA All-Star Grant Hill understands the hesitation. In the mid-1990s, Hill, an ascendant young star with the Pistons, was pursuing a plan similar to James' off the court, negotiating his deals and building his brand. "I had an office and I had employees in Detroit," he says. "We were handling it ourselves ... being at the table and really controlling the relationship[s]." He hired a lawyer, Lon Babby (now president of the Suns), to do his contracts and paid him an hourly rate rather than a commission. But Hill lost his leverage in a heartbeat when he suffered a broken ankle in 2000. "Before the ankle ordeal," he says, "things were pretty good." After the ankle ordeal, things were never the same. Over the course of a four-year contract with the Orlando Magic, Hill was able to suit up for just 57 games and missed the entire 2003-04 season. He still had a good career, just not the one he could have had. Instead of being the bridge between Jordan and Kobe, Hill is the reason there are 15 years between MJ and Kobe but just six between Kobe and LeBron.
Klay Thompson and his young colleagues can see ahead to the possibility of a higher salary cap when the NBA's new $24 billion contract with ESPN and TNT goes into effect. They are tempted to wait and keep their options open, a la James. For every Eric Bledsoe or Greg Monroe, there are 20 more Klay Thompsons. When guaranteed money is available, and the risk of a Hill-like injury is ever-present, not many can imagine chasing cards all the way to the river.
In part, they don't have James' talent to bank on, and even those who are legitimately elite don't have his track record to trust in. At age 26, Kevin Durant is poised to assume King James' throne. He's taking notes. "I watch the Kobes and the LeBrons and the Carmelos," Durant says. "I see stuff and I try to figure out why they make their decisions." But the lessons take time. Durant signed a five-year extension off of his rookie deal in 2010. "Obviously, when you sign a deal you want to have the best options for yourself, the best flexibility for yourself," he says. "But I loved Oklahoma City so much I wanted to dedicate and show them that I'm all about team."
Durant signed his extension the same year LeBron left Cleveland to team up with Wade and Bosh in Miami. At the time, Durant was praised for his loyalty and character, while LeBron was vilified for his selfishness. James had shaken up the status quo. Durant had played according to the rules of the traditional NBA economy. But when the Thunder traded away explosive teammate James Harden in 2012, he had little leverage, and three years later the team is still searching for its first title. "To be honest, I just didn't know. I was 21," Durant says.
As league owners and the players' association head toward their next collective bargaining agreement negotiations (the players can opt out of the current CBA in 2017), behind closed doors, James and NBPA president Chris Paul will encourage their membership to fight for more flexible contract structures and a greater piece of the league revenue pie. They will make sure their membership is aware of the value of players' output and presence to individual franchises. You can expect them to cite figures like those presented by John Carroll University finance professor Leroy Brooks, who estimates James' economic impact on Northeast Ohio to be between $250-520 million over the course of the 2014-15 season. They will definitely point out that the highest-paid players of this generation make a third less than those of the previous era (LeBron has never made more than $20.6 million in a season, while Michael Jordan made $33 million in 1997-98 and Kobe earned $30.3 million in 2013-14). And be assured they will trumpet that the average value of an NBA franchise has more than doubled in the past four years, according to the latest Forbes magazine valuations.
When the league arrived at its new television deal in October, James was the first player to weigh in, telling reporters in Cleveland there is "no way" owners can cry poor in the next CBA negotiations "after we continue to see teams selling for billions," and he recommended negotiations for a new agreement between players and owners start "sooner than later."
From the beginning, James has imagined himself as part of a collective, part of a team that can accomplish great things if its members are willing to band together, defy convention and brave criticism. That's the story of him and his boys from Akron forming LRMR, and it's the story of his return to Cleveland last summer, too.
"People said that I was making the worst decision ever," LeBron said this fall at the premiere of "Survivor's Remorse," the television series he and Carter co-produced for the Starz network. "'Why would I give all this to three guys who didn't finish college? Who had no education about what sports marketing means? Who didn't know what being a professional is? Who don't know how to make money or build a brand? We got dirt thrown on all four of us. But I always just believed in those guys. We used that as a motivation, and we're here today."
Notice the pronouns: "Us." "We."
In the end, the value of whatever power James has built up in the NBA will be determined by whether his fellow superstars make the LeBron James strategy something that belongs to "them."
If they do, who knows where things might lead? As James puts it, "I am kind of the guy that has the power without even having to put a name on it."