Clutch. Traitor. Gutless. Fearless. Champion. Choke Artist. Exactly what fans believe LeBron James to be is subject with as many variables an algebraic equation. And after his decision to opt out of a contract that would have paid him nearly $20.6 million to play for the Miami Heat next year, there’s no reason to expect sanity to be introduced to the conversation.
There’s a problem with defining Lebron James, even a decade into his career with plenty of ball left to play, by his prowess or failures on the court. As empty and subjective as the term is, James’ most meaningful legacy is already solidified, and it happened by virtue of exactly the thing that made so many fans keep up this loathsome game of ‘Bron bashing. James has mastered free agency. In doing so, he’s become the living embodiment of laissez-faire economics, inasmuch as the principle can be applied to an athlete bound to an oligopoly by a union-negotiated labor pact. The financial clout of NBA owners–a group which three years ago locked out players compensated by the billions rather than disclose how much coin the owners rake in off their labor– no longer matters to him.
Lebron is the singular, emancipated athlete in all of American professional team sports. Excepting Floyd Mayweather, who rakes in so much from his fights that he pays his own opponents out of his pocket, James may be the only truly free athlete in America. He is the anti-“$40 Million Slave,” enriching himself by wringing more ownership and more control out of every new deal, and creating considerable clout for his contemporaries at the same damn time.
Only if you were paying close enough attention could you have envisioned what James has accomplished. In hindsight it should have been obvious that what most regarded as blunders were part of a strategy from which Lebron and his team never wavered. In 2005, he canned his agent and formed his own personal branding enterprise with friends from high school to represent him. In ‘10 he went on ESPN — under the auspices of a charity fundraiser — to announce he was leaving his hometown team, ringless, to play ball with his friends by the beach.
Since then? You laughed, and loathed. He won. Lebron now makes more money off the court than the Association’s luxury cap allows; he reportedly raked in $30 million alone from his investment in Beats Electronics when Apple bought the maker of fancy headphones. While fans scream about Lebron’s legacy, his playoff losses, his opt-outs, Lebron never has to play another game of basketball to continue earning millions. A decade ago we all thought Tiger Woods would be the first billionaire athlete. Today, is there any doubt LeBron is the odds-on favorite?
That’s without even getting into the fact that, for the second time in less than five years, he’s held up every general manager in professional basketball by just announcing his opt-out. That’s a feat considering free agency was designed to allow good players to test the waters and make as much as they can. LeBron opting out in free-agency should actually be a non-story; in the case of the Knicks’ Carmelo Anthony, who opted out of his deal days before LeBron did, it nearly was. Even Vegas hit the brakes for LeBron, and we all know sports betting pretty much stops for nothing.
None of this, of course, will satisfy the basketball heads for whom nothing short of eclipsing MJ’s athleticism and trophy case will be good enough for Lebron. There’s irony in that ridiculous comparison because Lebron has already eclipsed anything Jordan ever did by way of leveraging the clout that being the world’s best basketball player bestows. Yes, Jordan revolutionized sports marketing with his Nike apparel deal, cologne, commercials and the like. But during his career, those deals paled next to LeBron’s in important ways. Jordan mostly licensed his name to products; LeBron refuses deals in which he receives no equity in the company he does business with (see above re: Beats). You want LeBron? You’re cutting him into the profits. And Jordan’s deals mostly enriched Jordan: he rarely bestowed his marketing largesse on any of his contemporaries. LeBron has connected so many of his peers with the Warren Buffetts, Steve Stouts and Tom Werners of the world that ESPN the Magazine dedicated a spread last year to diagramming the tycoons caught in his orbit. (SN: I edited the thing; it took two weeks just to make sure all the connections were right.)
Another one of LeBron’s pals, Jay-Z, raps on Drake’s “Pound Cake” about how many millionaires his lyricism created, then throws shade at one of them for his ungratefulness: “Dame made millions/Biggs made millions…Beans would tell you if he wasn’t in his feelings.” Wherever Lebron signs in free agency, his contract will come with a guaranteed amount of hate. If only his detractors could get out of their feelings for a bit, they might actually appreciate his most significant accomplishments.