For a guy who never deigned to spend a day in college, LeBron James has become quite the big man on campus.
Since back in 2003 when I saw him play high school ball in Trenton, I observed a special drive in LeBron and wondered just how high he could ascend as a player. But I never would have expected him to have this much ambition off the court. He didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t want to mimic Jordan. He wanted to find a way to do it differently and better than Jordan could have conceptualized.
LeBronÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s association with John Calipari and the University of Kentucky Ã¢â‚¬â€œ with Marquis Teague the latest example of his broad reach Ã¢â‚¬â€œ is another indication that heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s breaking new ground in his attempt to embed himself as one of the most powerful figures in the game.
Now, IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m not quite sure LeBron has much, if any, actual business sense. How could he? HeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s a young 25 with a high school education. Nor do I think his business associates with his LRMR Marketing Group Ã¢â‚¬â€œ Maverick Carter (right, in purple) and the rest of his childhood friends Ã¢â‚¬â€œ have any particular business skills other than being LeBronÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s friends: namely, showing up at parties, administering fist bumps and picking between sports drinks to do commercials for the King.
But IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m not quite sure it matters what those guys know if LeBron follows his instincts, which are leading him to the age-old playground maxim: Cool kids hang out with cool kids.
ThereÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s a subculture of underlying freshness thatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s epitomized by LeBron, whoÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s drawn by nature to people like Jay-Z, the king of hip-hop high society, and hedge fund god Warren Buffett. Sure, BuffettÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s 100 years old, but heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s richer than God and discusses finance Ã¢â‚¬â€œ in laymanÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s terms, IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m sure Ã¢â‚¬â€œ with LeBron on a yacht. (That description there pretty much applies to Jay-Z as well)
And then thereÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s LeBronÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s budding relationship with Ã¢â‚¬Å“itÃ¢â‚¬Â coach John Calipari and his sleek University of Kentucky basketball program. Even putting aside the fact that Calipari put LeBronÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s friend Brandon Weems on his staff after what amounted to a recruiting visit last July, LeBron and Calipari both have some sort of working relationship with William Ã¢â‚¬Å“World Wide WesÃ¢â‚¬Â Wesley.
LeBron told Cleveland.com the following:
Coach Cal is family; it’s a big family that we have and we’re going to stick with each other. Wherever Cal is, for the most part, I’m going to try to show my support to him. He’s a great coach and a great friend. It’s good that we can have that kind of relationship.
This goes deeper than Nike, and it has helped to create a virtual pipeline of top amateur players, to college, to sports representation in the pros.
Wesley, until recently, was only really notorious for being notorious, and for somehow steering every top recruit to CalipariÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s schools. But it came to light about a month ago that he was going to work for entertainment and sports agency CAA to represent coaches Ã¢â‚¬â€œ including Calipari. CAAÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Leon Rose is LeBronÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s agent, in a deal said to have been brokered by Wesley. LeBronÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s LRMR is a spin-off of CAA that still maintains ties to the parent agency and its resources.
None of this is hidden, of course. But it does explain a whole lot Ã¢â‚¬â€œ for example, what entity was likely bankrolling Wesley. The relationship between Wesley and CAA surely canÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t be a new thing, not with him working as a runner on behalf of Rose to secure clients, including the ultimate in LeBron.
Meanwhile, every high school kid worships LeBron, including No. 1 2011 point guard Marquis Teague, JeffÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s brother. LeBron supposedly gave Teague a call recently, and itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s widely assumed that he extolled the virtues of his favorite college. Teague, of course, committed to Kentucky, like most recent Top 5 prospects. LeBronÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s influence trumped LouisvilleÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Rick Pitino adding TeagueÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s high school coach to his staff.
The relationship between James and recruits like Wall and Teague starts with LeBronÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Nike camp in Akron. Most top high school players come through the camp, where theyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re all too ready to forge a relationship with the greatest player and pop culture icon in the game. ThereÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s nobody out there who wouldnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t want to pull out their iPhone and tell their friends, Ã¢â‚¬Å“Hold on a second, LeBronÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s calling me.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Sidebar: ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s the same thinking that went on with Harrison Barnes, who seemed like a lock for Duke until North Carolina introduced him to Jordan, and that was that. I mean, BarnesÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ middle name is Jordan.
What does LeBron get out of this, besides having his buddy on staff as a UK graduate assistant? He gets a feeder system for his marketing agency. The latest potential partner Ã¢â‚¬â€œ LeBron calls them Ã¢â‚¬Å“partners,Ã¢â‚¬Â not clients Ã¢â‚¬â€œ is John Wall. LeBron has been courting Wall for LRMR, even sending Drake Ã¢â‚¬â€œ Jay-Z for the younger set, who did a LeBron-themed song/video Ã¢â‚¬â€œ to a UK game with Wesley. Though WallÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s supposedly deciding between agents, itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢d be stunning if he didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t sign with LRMR.
It is a pretty impressive system, actually, the way it flows: LeBron hits it off with the top kids in Akron Ã¢â‚¬â€œ at least the ones who donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t dunk on him Ã¢â‚¬â€œ and steers them with the help of Wesley to Kentucky, a place to keep his guys all in one place. Calipari gets out of the deal any recruit he wants, it seems. And LeBronÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s constant presence around the program raises the probability that theyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re going to sign with him when they hit the NBA. ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s a relatively new infrastructure, so itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll be interesting to see whether the final aspect plays out like that going forward, but I wouldnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t bet against it.
I also feel as if this helps satisfy an unfulfilled craving LeBron possesses to be associated with a college program. When he shows up at Kentucky games, heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s received like a returning hero, despite never having played there. He has Nike hook them up with the freshest gear and sneakers, and for a guy who didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t even get one year to experience college life, he now has a surrogate NCAA team all his own.
If you think about it, itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s sort of the same idea with fellow straight-to-NBA player Kobe Bryant, whoÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s said he would have picked Duke if he had gone to college. He commissions special edition Kobe sneakers for the Duke basketball team to wear during the NCAAÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s, and campaigned openly for Mike Krzyzewski to get the Lakers job a few years back. Of course, Kobe isnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t attempting to represent players, and he doesnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t help Krzyzewski recruit.
Anyway, it all comes back to LeBron, who has no intention of being like Jordan, getting to the end and not knowing what the next move is. The King wants to expand his empire until he has his hands in everything: high school, college, professional. And he wants that to last.
ThereÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s something pretty shady about the whole thing, but itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s all out there to see. If they were doing UNLV hot tub stuff, the whole thing would have come down already. IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m not saying Calipari wonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t get sanctions at some point, but they wonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t be LeBron-related Ã¢â‚¬â€œ heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s too smart to promise or solicit future representation or anything like that. ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s just assumed and implied.
The beat goes on. The cool kids stick together.
And even without a championship yet to his name, LeBron stays winning.