For Maverick Carter, running King James’ empire was always the game plan
Their goal: Get off the sports conveyor belt and build wealth, power and influence
One of the most familiar faces in Cleveland over the past 15 years has not been a player or coach.
The face belongs to Maverick Carter, one of the architects of Team LeBron, the most impressive player-driven empire in recent NBA history.
Carter is the nominal power behind King James’ throne.
Carter and I were introduced in 2006. James was 21 at the time and had just completed his third NBA season with Cleveland. Carter was 24.
He said then that his focus was not simply to build wealth for James but to establish power and influence. As many professional athletes, especially black athletes, have discovered, wealth does not necessarily equate to power.
The co-joining of those entities was a mission of Carter’s when James and Carter began plotting out the future more than 15 years ago.
“I thought the most important thing was just establishing a mindset of empowerment,” Carter told me Tuesday during a phone conversation. The imperative, even then, “was more or less trying to get LeBron to understand the mindset of empowerment, which he absolutely embraces and lives every day.”
Carter said he and James began having discussions about creating a new narrative even before James was drafted.
“Unofficially it was the mindset that we kind of started to establish as youngsters before we even knew what we were doing,” he said.
Carter said the goal even then was to get off the sports conveyor belt that transports young black talent from their communities and distributes it for the enrichment of mostly white businessmen.
“Being on the conveyor belt wasn’t what we wanted to do,” Carter said. “It seemed like everybody who had been on that conveyor belt was getting the same results, and we wanted different results.”
Not only empowering James but also empowering those who looked like him. James’ first agent, Aaron Goodwin, was African-American. Although he left Goodwin in 2005, James along with Carter and another childhood friend, Randy Mims, formed a sports marketing company: LRMR.
James was ridiculed at the time for selecting close friends to be the architects of his brand.
“I remember one reporter saying LeBron hiring his friend to run his business is like when he needs knee surgery, hiring his plumber,” Carter said.
“So we took a lot of flak, and along the way there’s a lot of bumps and bruises. But you have to be in it for the long term; you can’t be in it for the one hit.”
I asked Carter which black athletes he used as a model. There was Magic Johnson with his theaters and partnership with Starbucks and minority interests in sports teams. There was Michael Jordan with Nike and later as a majority owner of the Charlotte Hornets.
“We didn’t have one individual as a model,” Carter said. “We definitely took bits and pieces from what Magic has done, what Michael was able to build and establish with Nike.”
The closest model was not an athlete but an artist. “The closest thing I could say as a model would be Jay-Z,” Carter said. “Just the way he thought to be empowered and empower his team and really become respected for more than just being a great rapper. So we took a little bit from all of those. But then we kind of developed our own models.”
The model is actually a blueprint for empowering younger professional athletes to leverage who they are, their names and recognition. “The idea is to build businesses instead of just taking money for endorsements,” Carter said. “To really build things.”
It’s also not simply about bringing childhood friends and family along for the ride. The team has to have skills, instincts and intelligence. “A friend trying to run your business, it’s a model, but I don’t know if it will be duplicated in the way that we did,” Carter said.
“It’s just not easy to do, and a lot of the young guys who have come after LeBron, even some before him, have come to me and talked. I try and make them understand that we’ve always been in it for long; you know this has been 15 years. It’s not like, it’s not a drop-in-the-pan thing. Everyone’s saying we did this, we did that. But we’ve been at this for 15 years.”
For the athletes seeking to build an empire, winning is essential. This is a crucial but often overlooked component.
“The starting point for everything that we’ve accomplished started with LeBron. He had to become the best basketball player he could become,” Carter said. “And we always thought that if he really kept the main thing the main thing, which was being a great basketball player, he really had a chance to be one of the greatest that has ever played. And that, still to this day, is the most important.”
The universe sent Carter a message early on that he would forge a career in the business of basketball. The epiphany came after his freshman season of college basketball.
“I was playing basketball at Western Michigan University. I played my freshman year, and after that year I realized that I wasn’t going to make a career playing basketball. After games against Indiana and Michigan, I realized there’s a clear separation between how good I am and the players who will play at the next level. I had to start thinking about, how do I transition into what I want to do next?”
Carter left school and worked at Nike as an intern. James was a high school sophomore at the time but was already being targeted for greatness. He and James agreed that Carter would go to whichever shoe company signed James and would work on representing James’ business interests within the company. James signed with Nike.
Carter was the architect of The Decision, a televised production in which James announced that he was leaving Cleveland for Miami in 2010.
Team James was criticized, but the production was one of the most watched shows in cable television history. James’ popularity took a brief hit but rebounded when Miami reached the NBA Finals. His popularity came all the way back when Miami won back-to-back NBA titles.
In the intervening 15 years, the James empire has expanded beyond basketball, touching marketing, philanthropy, television production and even politics.
When James was in Miami, the players took a team photo wearing hoodies to memorialize the murder of Trayvon Martin.
In 2014, largely because of James, the NBA lengthened the All-Star break.
James became the face of protest that led to the ouster of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling in 2014. Later, James and other players led the Black Lives Matter movement in the NBA and wore “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts to protest the death of Eric Garner.
Last year, when the White House decided to take on professional athletes, James in a tweet, famously called the president a bum.
As we ended the conversation, I asked Carter what he thought Team LeBron would be doing 10 years from now — assuming James isn’t still playing. “I don’t think he’ll be playing,” Carter said, laughing.
“LeBron will be owning a basketball team or a football team and acting. That’s what he’s going to do. He’s going to be an actor, an investor while still being an entrepreneur and owning a club.”
Carter? “I’m running my media company now. I’ll be running some version of that, or some other company.”
For the here and now, winning and having the ability to win is critically important to James, Carter said. It informs his business decisions, though perhaps not whether he will stay in Cleveland after the season or leaves.
“I think it matters for LeBron personally because the first thing that he cares about is winning,” Carter said. “He wants to win. As long as he’s playing basketball, he wants to win. So I think it matters to him personally. But in the grand scheme of what we’re doing, no, it doesn’t matter. “
So we won’t see him in Los Angeles, Philadelphia or Houston?
“He could play on the moon,” Carter said. “He’s the biggest athlete in the universe, the most important athlete in the culture. That’s not going to change, no matter.
“He already is the biggest athlete in the world, so it’s not like he’s going to get bigger. He doesn’t need anything to make him any bigger.“
With all due respect, a victory over Boston in the Eastern Conference finals and a victory in the NBA Finals, even for James, would be an accomplishment for the ages.