Fifteen years ago, Reebok and Adidas wanted him badly — so how exactly did LeBron James end up with Nike?
Seven-figure checks were flying, and at 18 years old a young king had to make a huge decision
It was a typical Saturday morning at Nike’s Beaverton, Oregon, global headquarters. A spring day in May 2003 so quiet on the billion-dollar brand’s campus that only mild rumblings hinted at the arrival of such an esteemed guest. Yet, for months, a cohort of employees, designers and top-level executives had been making preparations fit for a king.
Who was so deserving of the royal treatment? An 18-year-old from Akron, Ohio, named LeBron James, whose skill in the game of basketball made his decision to skip college and jump straight to the NBA far too easy. He’d been dubbed “The Chosen One,” and folks were salivating at the best player to grace the hardwood since Michael Jordan.
His long-awaited visit to Nike took place in the lead-up to the 2003 NBA draft lottery. The Cleveland Cavaliers would win the top selection and effectively earn the right to acquire the local phenom. To sign a young James to his first sneaker deal, Nike had to come correct.
“It was the single greatest plan I’ve ever seen put together,” said E. Scott Morris, then a senior footwear designer for the Nike Basketball division. The night before James and his camp — including his mother, Gloria James, his best friend, Maverick Carter, and his agent, Aaron Goodwin — stepped foot onto Nike’s campus, Morris got a sneak peek. Countless hours of research went into the presentation. It took hundreds of people to bring it to life.
What sticks out in Morris’ mind is the setting. At the time, co-founder Phil Knight, then Nike’s CEO, was in the process of moving his office from the John McEnroe building to a wing of his own tucked away in the Mia Hamm building. But before he’d even spent a single day behind a desk there, Knight allowed his new working quarters to be dedicated to another purpose: pitching James.
The door of the space, so massive it could’ve been an entryway to Jotunheim, opened to a motion-activated video that flashed the Swoosh and other personalized welcome messages. On either side of a long corridor stood cases of Nike sneakers made iconic by some of the NBA’s biggest stars: Air Jordans, Barkleys, Pippens, Pennys. “You see all these shoes leading down to one case, all the way at the end, in the center,” Morris remembered. “That case had a light over it, and there’s nothing in it. It’s empty, as if to say, ‘Your Superman costume is waiting for you … if you’re ready for it.’ ”
Walk left of the empty case and there was a conference room, where any and everything that could imaginably be branded LeBron was on display. Towels, shorts, bathrobes, swimwear. “They made this guy underwear,” Morris said. “I didn’t even know we made that.” A reception area housed more custom swag, from basketballs to bags to sunglasses.
And if James needed a snack break, Nike had actual Fruity Pebbles waiting for him — because someone, somehow, found out that was his favorite cereal. “No detail was missed,” said Morris, via phone from Oregon. “Everything they thought he might think, somebody’s job was to make sure it was available for his use, or experience.”
Walk right of the empty case and you entered essentially a king’s treasure room. Its marvels included a mini model of James’ 2003 pewter-colored H2 Hummer, and the pelt of lion (think King Joffy Joffer’s shawl in Coming to America). There were also sketches of sneakers crafted by the brand’s top designers: Tinker Hatfield, Aaron Cooper and Eric Avar. It was here that Nike brass — most notably his future brand manager, Lynn Merritt — and James’ team discussed product, and the potential of a partnership. “It’s definitely,” said Goodwin, “the greatest presentation I’ve ever seen.”
Weeks later, and 15 years ago this week, on the day of the draft lottery, Nike and James agreed to the richest initial shoe contract in the history of sports. “A landmark deal,” said Alexandria Boone, James’ former publicist, “one that people will remember.”
That original alliance has since transformed into a lifetime deal worth more than $1 billion. “It’s gotta be,” said Goodwin, “outside of Michael Jordan, the best signing that Nike has ever made.” But back in ’03, Nike wasn’t the only company after the No. 1 pick.
Reebok, first. Adidas, second. And Nike, third. This is the tactical order in which Goodwin, then James’ agent, scheduled his client’s in-person meetings with the top three sneaker brands during that era of basketball. Before the first pingpong ball was drawn at the lottery, Goodwin wanted a deal finalized.
“We felt like LeBron’s market was not going to be predicated by where he played, but by how he played, and how his brand [would grow],” said Goodwin via mobile. “Whether he played for the Cleveland Cavaliers or the Sacramento Kings, he was going to make a huge difference for whatever [sneaker] company it was.”
James had deep connections to all three of his suitors. On March 26, 2003, he was named the MVP of the annual McDonald’s All-American Game after a 27-point performance while rocking a custom pair of red-and-white “L23J” Reebok Questions, the signature sneaker of Allen Iverson. James had worn Pro Models and T-Macs in games for his team at St. Vincent-St. Mary in Akron and for his AAU squad, the Oakland Soldiers (yes, for three summers, he traveled all the way to California to play ball). And it was no secret how much he idolized Jordan, the most important athlete in the history of Nike’s brand. “LeBron grew up loving everything Nike did,” said David Bond, then-vice president of U.S. sports for Adidas. “It was easy for them to sign him. It was their game to lose.”
On his first visit to Reebok’s Canton, Massachusetts, headquarters, James spent the first part of the day listening to a comprehensive pitch and marketing plan. The company’s top designers had been pulled from projects to focus on James, and James only. They cooked up more than 50 logos, and 10 sneaker designs, which Reebok executives presented in the meeting.
“We were trying to demonstrate that we were a brand that was going to pay attention to him,” said Todd Krinsky, then-president of the RBK division, which focused on fusing sports and music via footwear and apparel. “We didn’t have 1,000 NBA players, so it was a big opportunity for him to work with a brand that was really going to prioritize him.”
About a month before sitting down with James, Reebok released Jay-Z’s first signature sneaker, the S. Carter. And by October 2003, the company had agreed to a licensing deal with Pharrell Williams and would drop his signature line of shoes, Ice Creams. Iverson, still in his prime, was the face of Reebok basketball, and the brand was anxiously planning for James, the soon-to-be rookie, to be the face of its future. “He was really engaged,” continued Krinsky, now the general manager of Reebok Performance. “We felt pretty good.”
What happened next has become the most lasting legend of James’ sneaker saga.
Reebok chairman and CEO Paul Fireman was a man of theatrics, with a win-at-any-cost mentality. In 1996, he signed Iverson, the top selection in the draft that year, although he’d played in Nike at Georgetown University and his college coach, John Thompson, served on Nike’s board of directors. Fireman wanted to secure another surefire No. 1 pick in James, and he was willing to pay more than anyone to do so. He escorted James, his mother and Goodwin into a private room and whipped out a cashier’s check. LeBron could leave with it, Fireman said. But there were two conditions: He had to sign with Reebok and give his word that he wouldn’t engage in conversations with Adidas or Nike.
“I was lost for words … looking at a $10 million check,” James said in 2017 during a conversation with Maverick Carter on UNINTERRUPTED’s Kneading Dough, an interview series focusing on athletes and business.
“I remember getting the check, then giving it to LeBron …,” said Goodwin. “He and his mom looking at it, and his mom’s eyes watering up. … It was an emotional time … the reality of this thing that the two of them had lived their life and worked so hard for was actually happening.”
Krinsky can’t forget the contrasting reactions of James and his best friend. “I remember Mav unbuttoning his shirt and getting some air, and I remember LeBron just being stoic,” Krinsky said. “He wasn’t fazed. … I looked at him and thought, he’s a man already. He knows everything that’s about to come to him, and he’s ready for it.”
The kid then indeed made a man’s decision. “LeBron understood that he had to give that check back to Paul Fireman,” said Goodwin. “Gloria did not. Gloria wanted to keep that check and walk out. But even with that being offered, we had to see what Adidas had to say, and then finally what Nike had to say.”
The next meeting took James to Malibu, California, where the brand he’d worn on the court for years had rented out a house in which to share its strategy. “I was hired by Adidas to sign LeBron,” said Bond, director of basketball at Nike for most of the 1990s. In 2001, he joined Adidas and partnered with Sonny Vaccaro, a longtime (and controversial) marketing executive. Vaccaro, who was fired by Nike in 1991, is credited with being instrumental in signing Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady to their first sneaker deals.
Together, Bond and Vaccaro spent approximately a year and a half shadowing LBJ the high school star and brainstorming a radical approach to luring him. Bond suspected Nike would tell James he could be the next Michael Jordan. However, using Muhammad Ali as an archetype, Adidas pitched the idea of the young James emerging into more than an athlete (which he’s become), who could not just represent the sport of basketball but also stand for important social issues. Bond even surmised that if presented comparable monetary offers, James would pick Adidas over Nike based upon the long-standing relationship they’d built.
But the day of, an hour before presentation, Adidas panicked. “We had agreed ahead of time, for the final contract, to offer him $100 million guaranteed, which is about what he ended up signing for,” Bond said. “At the last second, the CEO at the time [Herbert Hainer] got cold feet. He wasn’t a hundred percent certain LeBron would have $100 million worth of impact. … We didn’t know what Nike’s final offer would be at that point, but as soon as we slid ours across the table and they saw the number, we knew right then it was over. It sucked, to sum it up. There’s no second place in this game. It’s either you win or you lose, and we lost.”
After the final meeting in Oregon, negotiations concluded in Akron: all three companies on the eve of the lottery. Adidas was the first to be eliminated from contention, bringing James to the brink of a decision between Nike and Reebok. “Up until the end, I thought we were going with Reebok,” Goodwin said in 2003. According to The Associated Press, the company offered $75 million. But Goodwin says now that Reebok came in far higher (he won’t name precise terms), and in the end, James took less money to join Nike.
“Nike is the right fit and has the right product for me at the right time,” James said in a statement released on May 22, 2003, the day he signed a letter of intent. “They are a good company that is committed to supporting me throughout my professional career, on and off the court.” The deal with Nike was worth a reported $90 million — with a $10 million signing bonus. In 1984, Nike had signed Jordan for $2.5 million over five years. In 1992, Shaquille O’Neal signed with Reebok for $3 million. In 1996, Iverson signed for 10 years and $50 million with Reebok. In 1997, Adidas signed Bryant for $5 million and secured a six-year commitment from McGrady for $12 million. Before playing a single second in the NBA, James landed a deal worth more than the initial contracts of five All-Stars, MVPs and league champions combined.
That night — moments after Cleveland was presented with the top pick, and team owner Gordon Gund with a No. 23 LeBron James Cavs jersey — the man of the hour appeared on ABC from a party in Akron. The interview was with in-studio reporter Mike Tirico. James wasted no time repping his new brand, sitting in front of the camera in his outfit of choice: a black Nike Air sweatsuit and white Nike headband.
“He knew he was with Nike, so he just put it on,” Goodwin said. “That’s him. That’s LeBron.”
On July 14, 2003, 2½ weeks after Cleveland drafted him, James and his new team traveled to Boston for a slate of games during the Reebok Pro Summer League. Krinsky sat courtside at the Clark Athletic Center for a matchup between the Cavs and Boston Celtics. During pregame warm-ups, James broke his layup line routine and approached the brand executive he hadn’t seen in months.
“LeBron says, ‘Listen, man, I just want to tell you that you guys gave a great pitch. It’s nothing personal. In the end, I just went with my heart and went with what I thought was right for me,’ ” Krinsky clearly recalls from the 1½-minute conversation. “S—, this kid is 18 — and he didn’t need to do that. But I really do feel like that’s a reflection of who he is. That’s how he handles business. He’s honest. He’s personal. Outside of the depressing saga of building up, building up and not getting him, I’ll always remember that story.”
On James’ feet in that moment — a black-and-white pair of Nike Zoom Flight 2K3s. By Oct. 29, 2003, the night of his NBA regular-season debut, he’d be wearing the Nike Air Zoom Generations — the first signature sneaker of his career. Nike had lived up to its promise to LeBron James. And James more than lived up to his implicit promise to Nike. That empty case, and so much more, has been filled.