LeBron James’s third NBA championship is perhaps his biggest achievement as a professional athlete – despite a track record of unprecedented greatness and a billion dollar deal with Nike – because it not only represented a historic 3-1 Finals comeback over the Golden State Warriors which had never been achieved before in the league, but it also snapped the city of Cleveland’s 52-year championship drought.
Although his South Beach scamper with the Miami Heat did bear fruit, James’s Northeast Ohio championship odyssey punctuated a script whose initial keystrokes were made when James was just a high school phenom and nothing was yet promised.
As the confetti settles and the sting of champagne is wiped away from the eyes, the aftermath of a championship is often marked with both adulation and reflection.
In James’s 2014 letter to fans which announced his return to the Cavs, he wrote, “In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have.”
James’ summation reflects his acknowledgment that although he ultimately became who many thought he could become in a basketball context – a sort of athletic freak with traces of Michael, Magic, Larry and Kobe – there was always the possibility that his hoop dream would deflate under the weight of lofty expectations.
However – aside from the ill-fated “Decision” which alienated not only Cavs fans but basketball fans in general – LeBron James has been piloted by a string of on-court and off-court decisions that have propelled him to rarified-air due in large part to his current agent and long-time confidant, Rich Paul.
While most agents get their clients to sign on the dotted line while sitting across a boardroom table with promises of more zeroes on their contracts then that of their peers, Paul’s introduction into LeBron James’s life actually entailed a shared sartorial interest: throwback jerseys.
Most people’s first glimpse at LeBron James came when Sports Illustrated put him on the cover in February 2002 with the headline, “The Chosen One,” despite the basketball prodigy just having turned 17 years old.
The NBA analysis in the piece suspected that if James came out as a high school junior, he’d be the first pick in the draft. Others pointed to his freakish athleticism – with one coach who faced both Kobe Bryant and LeBron James in high school – commenting, “We played Kobe when Kobe was a senior, and LeBron is the best player we’ve ever played against.”
Buried amidst the statistics and comparisons to NBA greats were mentions of James’s nomadic home life which was marked by a hundred school absences when he was in the fourth grade, and a surrogate father, Eddie Jackson, who had spent three years in jail after pleading guilty to a 1991 charge of aggravated cocaine trafficking. It also pointed to a time when James lives with the family of Frankie Walker, his youth basketball coach, which ultimately gave him the stability he needed to flourish.
“It changed my life,” James said.
The most notable elements to gleam from the earliest national profile of James, is that the expectations were as high as possible — there were dozens of people in LeBron’s ear, and the fame and lure of the NBA lifestyle was creeping in.
Almost exactly a year after the famed Sports Illustrated profile, LeBron James found his amateur status being scrutinized when he was stripped of his remaining eligibility after he accepted two throwback jerseys – a Gale Sayers Chicago Bears replica jersey and a Wes Unseld Washington Bullets jersey – which were given to James at no cost by Next Urban Gear and Music in Cleveland in exchange for James posing for photos to be hung there.
Shaquille O’Neal, who had traveled to Akron to watch James play, commented, “It’s ridiculous to do this to the kid. Everybody’s capitalizing on him — and you guys try to persecute his character and take away his high school career over two jerseys? I think you need to investigate every hometown superstar and see what they’re getting. Give me a break. He ain’t the only guy taking free jerseys.”
At the time, Mitchell & Ness was taking advantage off the sartorial trend which married sports superstars of yesteryear and retro uniform sensibilities with the unexpected reappropriation in the hip-hop community which began to be forged thanks to groups/people like OutKast, Diddy, and Jay Z who had given greater exposure to the trend thanks to music videos like “Skew It on the Bar-B” and “Girls, Girls, Girls.”
The same year that LeBron James’s amateur status was pulled, Mitchell and Ness made $25 million USD in sales. A year later, they would boast $40 million USD in sales.
Rich Paul, LeBron James’s would-be agent/confident, grew up in the Glenville neighborhood on the east side of Cleveland in a one-bedroom apartment above R & J Confectionary where he and his father, Rich Paul Sr., also worked and earned enough money so that Paul Jr. could attend Benedictine, a predominantly white Roman Catholic high school, on the other side of town.
“He was the father of the neighborhood and the voice of reason for everyone,” Paul told The New York Times. “Everything I needed to know to run my business and to be a good human being, I got right here from my father.”
When Paul was only 21 years old, he crossed paths with LeBron James in the Akron-Canton Airport as both he and James were about to board a flight to Atlanta.
While throwback jerseys had initially proved to be a thorn in James’s thriving basketball career – although he was ultimately allowed to play out his senior season – he was once again enamored with the stylings when he noticed that Paul was wearing a throwback Warren Moon Houston Oilers jersey.
There was a brief exchange between the two. Paul mentioned that he sold the jerseys out of the trunk of his car, gave James the name of his connection in Atlanta, Andy Hyman – of Distant Replays apparel – and he told him to drop his name for a discount. The two then went on their way.
“It was fate,” Paul said. “I could have missed the plane. I could have taken an earlier flight. I could have not worn the jersey. I could have been having a bad day and not spoken to him.”
As Chris Broussard noted in an ESPN the Magazine profile, “Tiny and thin but with swag twice his size, the then-21-year-old Paul strolled toward the gate in his authentic Warren Moon, complemented by white Air Force 1’s with the red sole and red swoosh. James and his friends did double takes. Finally James approached the little man and asked where he got his jersey.”
Although the shared connection initially involved sportswear, the two kept in touch after James returned from Atlanta.
“We hit it off instantly,” James said. “Every time I was doing something, I’d call Rich and ask if he can make it, and he’d say, ‘I’ll be right there,’ and he was.”
Despite James’ seemingly-assured selection as the number one pick in the 2003 NBA Draft, Rich Paul didn’t attempt to hitch his wagon to the star; instead cultivating his relationship with Andy Hyman in Atlanta who began selling Paul the throwback jerseys at only a little above cost resulting in $15,000 USD a week in revenue for the budding Ohio entrepreneur.
“He was so persistent, but in a very nice way,” Hyman remembers. “He is a really charismatic guy and has a sweet way of dealing with people.”
Hyman himself was also capitalizing off the trend, most notably selling 200 jerseys to football star, Warren Sapp, and seeing Big Boi of OutKast dropping $5,000 USD at his shop on East Paces Ferry Road in Atlanta.
“Whenever a celebrity walks in, I basically kidnap him,” said Hyman. “If he wants to buy $3,000 worth of merchandise, I might sell it for $2,000. It’s weird. The rich get richer, but if they’ll spread the word about the store, it’s worth it.”
Distant Replays and Andy Hyman generated $4.2 million USD in revenue in 2003 from throwback jersey sales. He was ready to expand his business, and Paul wanted Akron to be the location of a shop that he could call his own.
LeBron James was drafted first by his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers in June 2003. Soon after, he enlisted the help of Rich Paul for a yearly, $50,000 USD salary – although neither he or James had a specific job title or position laid out.
“He told me that he really didn’t have a job for me, but that he wanted me close and we’d figure it out,” Paul said.
James also brought along two lifelong friends, Maverick Carter and Randy Mims, thus cementing what would become known as the “Four Horsemen.”
As James settled into life in the NBA, so too did each member of the Four Horsemen – with Carter handling marketing, Mims doing travel and logistics, and Paul, of course, falling back on his keen fashion sense which he used when James would shoot commercials and Paul would serve as his stylist.
While the team cultivated his growing empire, LeBron James had left the actual business of basketball and endorsement deals to his agent, Aaron Goodwin, who had notably landed him a $90 million USD contract with Nike.
However, this all changed when James fired Goodwin and hired the Four Horsemen – rebranded as LRMR Marketing – and handed off all off-the-court businesses and marketing to his childhood friends and Rich Paul.
“Let me guess,” wrote one sports columnist. “A few years from now, when LeBron needs knee surgery, he’ll have his plumber do the job. When he needs his taxes done, he’ll hire Mike Tyson.”
ESPN quoted one agent anonymously: “How’s he going to walk into a Fortune 500 sports brand company and negotiate a deal? You can’t give a dentist a scalpel and say, ‘Go do heart surgery.'”
For the next six years, LeBron James was represented by Leon Rose of powerhouse agency, CAA. But with free agency looming in 2014, James once again changed agents. This time, he went all-in on his relationship with Rich Paul who had forged his own firm, Klutch Sports Group, who already represented NBA talent but no one near the talent and marketability of LeBron.
In 2014, LeBron James returned to his hometown Cavaliers, penning a letter, writing, “Before anyone ever cared where I would play basketball, I was a kid from Northeast Ohio. It’s where I walked. It’s where I ran. It’s where I cried. It’s where I bled. It holds a special place in my heart. People there have seen me grow up. I sometimes feel like I’m their son. Their passion can be overwhelming. But it drives me.”
While most assumed his decision to return home was his own, many speculated in the days and weeks prior to the announcement that Rich Paul was pushing for it as well, who according to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports called it “something of a mission.”
With the championship game still fresh in the minds of many, Cleveland fans will undoubtedly point to LeBron James’s heroics and Kyrie Irving’s clutch 3-pointer as major reasons why their championship drought is over. But maybe who they should really be thanking is Warren Moon, Rich Paul and Andy Hyman.
- Featured/Main Image: CMG Digital