SBJ/June 9 - 15, 2003/Opinion

Sweet dreams come true for Nike, James

Michael Jordan stepped off his throne as the player at the end of this past NBA regular season. Nike had to identify a correct "someone" to step into the line of succession and assume MJ's royal perch.

So, was anyone truly surprised at the sum of the ransom for LeBron "King" James' likeness and more?

The $90 million contract was the apparent result of a bidding war between Nike and Reebok. Adidas recognized how discretion was the better part of corporate survival and kept its powder dry for another battle.

This was a battle that Nike could not afford to lose. The acknowledged leader in the $8 billion sneaker, apparel and sports lifestyle market, Nike stood to lose lots of luster if it did not dig deep into its pockets for the most recognized and most intriguing young athlete in sports today. It couldn't lose James because he epitomized the Nike modus operandi in setting trends and creating mystique.

Ninety million dollars over seven years to any athlete endorser is monumental. With similar and more money invested, respectively, in Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods, Nike had some tangible sense that it will get a significant return on its investment and then some.

But $90 million to an unproven, albeit engaging, teenager attempting to dominate a league of mostly adult and largely proven basketball quantities is a huge leap of faith. Nike apparently believed that the risk posed by Adidas making King James its savior or Reebok proclaiming LeBron as the correct "answer" was worth the money it paid.

Since Jordan is history, the sneaker sales game is about who is hot, whose buzz is on adolescent lips, creating the need to be like Mike or, now, to be like someone else. Blocking access to James would prevent Nike's competitors from reaping rewards from his star — if, in fact, he is a star.

The NBA and Nike might seem like strange bedfellows in the courtship and signing of LeBron James for their respective organizations. Prior to James' signing by Nike, the NBA may not have cared who won the sweepstakes, although the league respects tremendously the Nike marketing machine.

Nike had its prayers somewhat answered when Cleveland, a reasonably large market near James' hometown of Akron, Ohio, received the first lottery pick in the upcoming draft.

King James is wearing the Nike crown.

Now that the deal between Nike and James is done, however, both the NBA and Nike, without exercising caution, have become potential obstacles to their respective success with James.

Nike made a $90 million bet that James becomes part of the personality parade that celebrates the lifestyle images Nike purveys. For Nike to cash that bet, James has to be more than an electrifying player. He has to assume and polish a persona that beckons us all to come with him on this magical run he calls a career.

The extraordinary care and pressure James will experience will yield either a diamond or something less. If it's something less, Nike can't be too disappointed, just maybe a bit thinner in the wallet. After all, in Jordan's void, James' current brand of less may be more than whatever else Nike has now in basketball.

While there is plenty of conjecture regarding LeBron James' impact on Nike, what about James' impact on the NBA — and I'm not talking points per game?

With a Nike deal in hand that equals most free-agent maximum contracts under the NBA salary cap, what will motivate James in his most dire of NBA experiences? Namely, those times when nothing he does seems right or when his game has, like that of most rookies at some point or another, hit a plateau.

The NBA's risks in this deal have to do with team chemistry, player discipline, player development and how cooperative James will remain. How does any coach or GM command his attention when James' desire to get his numbers outweighs the need to win or even to set a good example? If his defense proves unbearably leaky, does James sit, thus limiting visibility of his personal line of "kicks" to a glimpse on the bench?

Young players often test authority, just as most teens test their parents. Will James be any different?

Should any of the preceding possibilities occur, we'll hear either anguished screams or desperate demands coming from James' team in Beaverton, Ore.

And why not? Nike money is heavy. When it is thrown around in such massive quantities, even the pro teams feel it.

In regard to LeBron James, Nike has to feel that its has more than paid the cost to be the boss.

Perhaps the greatest risk for the Nike branding machine and to the prevailing fan perception of NBA superstardom is that James doesn't choose the path already chosen for him by his shoe company and his advisers.

Maybe he becomes aware that he has young fans and even successors, like 3-year-old Mark Walker Jr., Reebok's million-dollar symbol for "basketball of the future" and its pathetically chosen answer to LeBron-mania.

Social activist Ralph Nader recently wrote to James asking him to "use [your] cultural status to help make the world a better place" and to speak out against global evils. Suppose James heeds Nader's plea to take the millions, rise to icon status and then stand for humanity?

What if James determines that he won't be like Mike and will never be Tiger Woods? Suppose he (and not some impersonal "personal" foundation making mere cash donations) truly understands that instead of representing a pair of shoes, a tiresome signature dunk or an artificial, corporate-induced lifestyle, he has the leverage to be a leader, a symbol for positive action and change?

Maybe, in response, little Mark Walker Jr. and hundreds of thousands — even millions — of boys and girls just like him, standing in line for their turn, decide to be like LeBron and make the right choices rather than try to copy a move to the hoop.

Like being in the right place at the right time for $90 million, dreams do come true every once in a while.

Len Elmore is an analyst for ESPN and CEO of online educational services firm Test University.

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Adidas, Basketball, NBA, Opinion, Reebok

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