Signing with the Los Angeles Lakers may have been an imperfect basketball choice for LeBron James, but it was a prudent and potentially brilliant business choice. The older LeBron got, his business affairs had only become more sophisticated and his future ambitions more grand. LeBron’s longtime friend and business partner Maverick Carter once told me that LeBron looked at his playing years as only a fraction of the time he intended to make an impact on the world. He was certainly not the first athlete to feel this way; many have gone on to have massively successful post-playing lives in business, philanthropy, politics, and sports. Namely Magic Johnson, who was running the Lakers. LeBron wanted to leave all of these options open.
When looked at with some perspective, LeBron going to Miami in 2010 was a basketball decision, a way for LeBron to establish that he could be a champion. Going back to Cleveland in 2014 was a legacy decision, both to erase a black mark on his reputation and to secure his place in history by winning a championship in his hometown. The L.A. move in 2018 was a business decision, the culmination of 15 years of learning, positioning, and exploiting the incredible fame and opportunities his basketball talents allowed. It was about how he was going to live for the next 50 years and what he’d leave his family when he was gone. That it came with nice weather, beaches, and an iconic basketball team was just the icing.
Less than three months after his move to L.A. was official, so, finally, was Space Jam 2. It had been under discussion for at least five years at that point. Different writers, directors, and producers had been attached at various points along the way. Carter and LeBron had seen and rejected numerous scripts. They had many meetings about it, discussions over dinners, brainstorming on private jets, and long talks after games when LeBron was in Cleveland and Carter was in L.A. on the front line. Once he was a Laker, though, the deal went through.
In the fall of 2018, SpringHill and Warner Bros. made the announcement that Space Jam 2 would go into production in the summer of 2019. They gathered a strong team with Ryan Coogler, who had scored a huge hit with his film Black Panther and would be a producer, and Terence Nance, who created a late-night sketch show for HBO called Random Acts of Flyness and would be the director. LeBron and Carter would produce and, of course, LeBron would star in the film alongside animated Warner Bros. characters from Looney Tunes, namely Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck.
The first Space Jam film came out in 1996, but its roots were in a Super Bowl ad for Nike in 1992. It was the brainchild of the famous Portland firm Wieden+Kennedy, the same company that produced the pitch for LeBron when he came to Beaverton when he was a shoe free agent in 2003. Nike created the ad to pit Air Jordan against Hare Jordan, played by Bugs Bunny. It was one of the most memorable Super Bowl ads of that era, and Nike did another series of ads the following year.
Director Joe Pytka has said in interviews that Nike founder Phil Knight really was the reason Space Jam happened because he paid Warner Bros. for the rights to the characters, paid Jordan to shoot them in front of a green screen, and then bought the expensive Super Bowl commercial space that field-tested the idea. Then Knight didn’t get any of the $230 million that the movie grossed in worldwide revenue, although Jordan was wearing his signature shoes for everyone to see.
The real home run for the operation was in the merchandising. The Chicago Tribune reported there were 78 tie-in products with Jordan’s likeness that came out of Space Jam and that Warner Bros. realized $1.2 billion in sales with the Looney Tunes characters. The soundtrack that went with the film, which featured the single “I Believe I Can Fly” by R. Kelly, went platinum six times over. Money is still coming in from the film. That explains why Warner Bros. has so long been interested in getting LeBron to accept and embrace the role.
Space Jam 2 has a chance to make or break SpringHill and LeBron’s future career in films.
Jordan’s take from the original film has never been reported. The dynamics of moviemaking in 2019 are much different than they were in the mid-1990s. But LeBron and Carter have been put in a position to profit significantly if all the parties can manufacture a hit. Seventeen producers were listed for the original film, including Jordan’s agent, David Falk, and his longtime business manager, Curtis Polk. But Jordan was essentially an employee. Warner Bros. built him a gym to practice in when he wasn’t filming, but he didn’t have a house on the Warner Bros. lot like SpringHill does. He also didn’t have a choice of two $20 million Brentwood mansions to sleep in.
Space Jam 2 has a chance to make or break SpringHill and LeBron’s future career in films. If it’s a success, Carter will probably be given a green light to go on and make other big-budget movies that could enhance the company. LeBron, if he’s anywhere near as well regarded playing alongside the cartoons as he was alongside the actors in Trainwreck, would be able to perhaps expand his acting opportunities. When Trainwreck came out, LeBron was lauded for his performance and his ability to deliver funny lines. The New Yorker called it the “greatest movie performance by an active professional basketball player,” which was high praise to be sure. Then again, he was playing himself, just as he’d played versions of himself in the other acting roles he’d been a part of. Maybe, just maybe, if LeBron comes off as the hero in Space Jam 2 he could fulfill another dream that’s been bouncing around his head over the years: to play a superhero.
It’s all part of the evolution from teenage basketball star to young millionaire, pitchman, NBA star, businessman, NBA superstar, agent, documentary producer, Olympic champion, TV producer, business mogul, actor, entrepreneur, NBA champion, political activist, movie star, philanthropist, movie producer, franchisee, content creator, humanitarian, and, maybe someday superhero.
He has a show in which he and celebrity friends talk about everything from their childhood to politics in a barbershop. He has a documentary with former NBA player Al Harrington, who launched his own marijuana business. He was the voice of a yeti in the animated movie Smallfoot. And this only scratches the surface. Carter promises there’s so much more in the pipeline and the incubator.
The journey has made LeBron internationally famous, hugely respected, and fabulously wealthy. If you believe him, though, he’s still just getting started.
Excerpted from LEBRON, INC.: The Making of a Billion-Dollar Athlete by Brian Windhorst. Copyright (c) 2019 by Brian Windhorst and reprinted with permission from Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.
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