Two months ago Adidas basketball executive Sonny Vaccaro told
18-year-old LeBron James how he thought negotiations for the
young star's shoe deal would play out: "We will offer you a lot
of money, but Phil Knight will offer you so much money you will
have to sign with Nike."
Vaccaro's prophesy proved only partly true: James, the certain
No. 1 pick in June's NBA draft, signed a seven-year deal with
Nike last week. But the 6'8" high school senior from Akron did
not go with the company that dangled the most dollars. Nike's
offer, which included a $10 million signing bonus and could bring
James more than double the reported $90 million if sales goals
are met, was more than $15 million lower than a bid by Reebok,
according to one shoe-company executive.
Why did James take less cash?
James's visit to Nike headquarters in Beaverton, Ore., on May 17
and 18 seemed to mark the turning point in his thinking. While
James, some family members and his business reps watched, a dozen
Nike presenters showed him a proposed line of apparel, including
nine prototype shoes designed by, among others, Tinker Hatfield,
creator of the Air Jordan line. One source close to the talks
said Nike spent "millions" on the presentation. Earlier, Adidas
had shown James a model shoe at a mansion in Malibu--because
James had requested the meeting take place "somewhere warm." But
Nike's show topped Adidas's and shamed Reebok's, which was a
half-day affair that included only sketches of shoes.
Both Adidas and Reebok sought to make up for any shortcomings
with whopping offers. But the Adidas pitch was based on
incentives, leaving Reebok's bid the most lucrative on the table.
Reebok's push came as a surprise, considering the company had
been overshadowed in its pursuit of James. Adidas's Vaccaro
outfitted James's high school team, St. Vincent-St. Mary, and
Vaccaro's top lieutenant, Chris Rivers, presented James with a CD
of songs by well-known rappers that included lyrics about LeBron
and his friends. Nike gave James's friend Maverick Carter a
sports-marketing internship, flew James's mother, Gloria, to
Oregon to meet company chairman Knight and had Michael Jordan
keep in contact.
Early last week Adidas reps flew from Germany to Ohio after being
told by James's agent, Aaron Goodwin, that they had one last
chance to adjust their offer. But by May 21 Adidas was
effectively out of the running. That night James, his family and
Goodwin met with Reebok CEO Paul Fireman at an Akron hotel, and
Goodwin said James left the meeting "thinking he was going to
sign with Reebok."
Yet hours later James had second thoughts. He liked Nike's
product best and, according to Goodwin, appreciated its
cultivation of "the superstars before him." Around midnight James
told Goodwin, "Make the deal with Nike."
Though James's deal dwarfs the reported $3.5 million a year
Syracuse star Carmelo Anthony got from Nike, even reps from the
losing companies say it might be money well spent. James has the
kind of hip-hop cachet that can appeal equally to inner-city kids
and suburban teens. "He's got that street game, that street
savvy, but he's [also] into the team act," says one shoe company
exec. "You look at how he carried himself during intense media
scrutiny. It's possible that he could broaden himself where
someone like Allen Iverson hasn't."
James is game to try. At a press conference last Thursday
following the announcement that the Cavaliers will pick first in
the draft, he pointed to the Nike swoosh on his shirt and told
photographers, "Make sure you get this." Hey, the young man's got
a lot of shoes to sell. --George Dohrmann
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY STEVE BRODNER
"If there isn't an NFL franchise here, the sun won't sink into
the ocean." --TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A., PAGE 24