The World According to LeBron

I’m rooting for LeBron.

And not just because he is Cleveland’s best shot at winning a title. That’s a given.

His on-the-court skills had Northeast Ohio at hello — 27 points in his NBA debut, Rookie of the Year, youngest player to hit just about every statistical marker, a triple-double in his first playoff appearance.

Put a basketball in his hand and it might as well be the world. (And it is, on this month’s cover.) 
In fact, that’s exactly King James’ plan: Go global. Take on the world.

Last summer, he set a game plan in motion to transform LeBron James the basketball player into a global icon — Brand LeBron — by the time Team USA tips off in Beijing for the 2008 Summer Olympics.

In a town often criticized for thinking small, LeBron’s dream feels like a huge leap, one that could end in a monster dunk for the region. And that deserves more cheers than you can cram into The Q.

At a July marketing summit in Akron, LRMR Marketing, the firm LeBron created with friends Randy Mims, Maverick Carter and Rich Paul, gathered heavyweights such as Nike, Coca-Cola and Microsoft to get beyond endorsement deals, to brainstorm about partnerships and to begin LeBron-building.

By August, LeBron was in Asia with Team USA for the FIBA World Championships, where he met face-to-face with journalists from China and Japan. The year before, he visited Tokyo, Hong Kong and Beijing with Nike for a series of kids clinics and other events. And the Cavs have reportedly been in talks to open next season in China. It’s all an effort to assist his growing business interests.

But success in Asia is no layup. Other companies with their own stars such as Houston Rockets Tracy McGrady (Adidas) and Yao Ming (Reebok) are putting on a full-court press too. So James is working on his game, learning Mandarin, so he’ll be able to conduct bilingual interviews at the Olympics. He made a pilgrimage to Omaha, Neb., to meet with business and investment guru Warren Buffett.

“LeBron could be the first billion-dollar athlete in all aspects,” Lynn Merritt, senior director of basketball sports marketing at Nike, told Advertising Age back in July.

In this age of me-first athletes, the day of the billion-dollar player isn’t too far off. So I’ll take LeBron and his passion for building a winning team, whether it’s with the Cavs, his childhood pals or Nike, Coke and Bubblicious.  
And with advances in tech­nology from the Internet to cell phones, LeBron may have an opportunity for international reach like no athlete before him.

For a while, I was obsessed with “The LeBrons,” Nike’s commercials promoting the Zoom LeBron IV sneakers in which LeBron stars as his alter egos — Wise LeBron, Business LeBron, Kid LeBron and Athlete LeBron. I downloaded the spots from the Web to my computer and watched the behind-the-scenes clips on YouTube.

Like his play on the court, his creativity drew me in. Much of what you see is ad-libbed by LeBron, according to Nike’s Merritt. And though it’s a stretch, Merritt suggested LeBron has “probably got a bigger future in acting than his future in basketball.”

But to say LeBron is a natural may be too easily dismissing what makes him special.

“There just seems to be an authentic aura about him,” commented Rich Thomaselli, Ad Age’s sports marketing reporter, who covered the Akron summit.

That’s the same sense I got after reading senior editor Colleen Mytnick’s “Planet LeBron” piece in our pages this month (see page 70).

One of the big ideas to come from the brainstorming session in Akron over the summer is a plan dubbed “Go Inside.”
Built around the premise of Lance Armstrong’s “Livestrong” campaign, “Go Inside” would, as Thomaselli put it, “be the linchpin of a social responsibility effort that’s already started by [LeBron] and his James Family Foundation in Akron, where his charitable efforts have been well documented.”

So that’s why I’m pulling for the hometown guy. Because if he can build a billion-dollar enterprise and directly give back to the community, it would be something great for us all to witness. 
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