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A king’s ransom — the untold tales of the 2003 sneaker courtship of LeBron James — Andscape

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Get This Before It Disappears!

Make 2022 your best year yet and let this Moon Reading decode your destiny with precise wisdom you can’t find anywhere else!

LeBron’s Power Plays is an occasional series examining LeBron James’ two decades in the NBA and how he has influenced both professional sports and the larger culture.

Just past midnight in Akron, Ohio, the night before the 2003 NBA draft lottery, LeBron James finally arrived at a decision.

The 18-year-old nicknamed “King James” put pen to paper on his rookie endorsement contract with Nike, worth a reported $87 million fully guaranteed over seven years. To this day, James’ Nike contract remains the richest rookie shoe deal ever signed by a basketball player.

At 7:54 a.m. in Beaverton, Oregon, on the following day, May 22, 2003, a long-awaited email arrived in the inboxes of dozens of Nike employees.

“Yes, we signed him,” the message’s first line read. “It was more about what he saw and felt, rather than what he *got*.” 

Five hours later, the Associated Press reported the news: After years of being courted by three global footwear companies, the generational basketball talent had chosen the swoosh over rivals Reebok and Adidas.

High school basketball star LeBron James speaks at a news conference in Akron, Ohio, after watching the Cleveland Cavaliers win the NBA draft lottery on May 22, 2003.

AP Photo/Ron Schwane

The bidding process, masterminded by James’ first agent Aaron Goodwin, had escalated to unprecedented heights. All three brands believed they had a realistic shot at signing James.

Two weeks before graduating from St. Vincent-St. Mary’s High School in Akron, James turned down an offer from Adidas, which sponsored the school’s basketball team. James initially expected $100 million over 10 years, but the monetary terms were only partially guaranteed.

James also shockingly declined an initial six-year Reebok offer, including a surprise bonus check presented to him and his mother Gloria by CEO Paul Fireman. The company’s final offer ballooned well north of $100 million with additional perks.

Anticipating closing the deal, Fireman and Reebok executive Tom Shine flew to Ohio the night before the draft lottery and met with James at 7:30 p.m. in a suite at the Radisson Hotel in Akron.

“I thought he was going to go with Reebok,” Goodwin said in 2003. “At one point we stepped outside the room and LeBron said, ‘Hey, I feel comfortable with them.’ Three hours later, he chose Nike.”

James strategically signed his lucrative deal before he or the three sneaker suitors knew where his NBA career would begin.

Cleveland Cavaliers owner Gordon Gund (left), with deputy NBA commissioner Russ Granik (right), with a No. 23 LeBron James jersey at the NBA draft lottery on May 22, 2003, in Secaucus, New Jersey.

Jennifer Pottheiser/NBAE via Getty Images

By the end of the day, the Cleveland Cavaliers cashed in on their 22.5% probability of obtaining the first selection, winning the rights to the No. 1 overall pick. Cleveland’s then-owner Gordon Gund had a wine and gold No. 23 James jersey on hand to celebrate, leaving nothing to surprise for the team’s selection.

“I’m a Nike guy,” James proclaimed in his post-lottery news conference. He was dressed head-to-toe in swooshes, wearing a white Nike headband, black Nike tracksuit and a spotless new pair of white Air Force Ones.

In the end, the swoosh prevailed with the ultimate chess move. In less than three months, Nike designed, wear-tested and delivered a collection of sample pairs of what ultimately became James’ first signature sneaker, the Air Zoom Generation.

“Hey, you’ve got to hand it to Nike,” Goodwin said. “Reebok had drawings of its LeBron James shoe – Nike had nine pairs already built for him.”

Exactly 20 years later, this story is one of the craziest chases in sneaker industry history.

The timeline

Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James waits to check in for his NBA debut against the Sacramento Kings at Arco Arena on Oct. 29, 2003, in Sacramento, California.

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

On Dec. 30, 2002, James turned 18 years old. 

Exactly one week later, in early January 2003, a group of Nike Basketball employees — designers, marketing reps and product developers — received a calendar invite email with a typo in the subject line: LaBron Crunch.”

“If the possibility of a ​​~12/15/03 Air King James launch is to be reality,” the message’s first line read, “we need to group up and plan an all-hands-on-deck attack.”

A breakdown followed in the email — outlining Nike’s plan to design a shoe and land James. Key dates and development deadlines were pinpointed for the design of the shoe, potentially dubbed the “Air King James.” 

Three trips to Nike’s Asia factories were mapped out for mid-January, late February and early April 2003. The ultimate objective on the timeline: “handcarry” size 9 and size 15 final sample pairs back to Oregon ahead of the brand’s pitch meeting to James, possibly taking place in May.

The company called on its three most-celebrated basketball designers — Tinker Hatfield, Eric Avar and Aaron Cooper — to collaborate on a shoe for James. By then, each had designed some of the industry’s signature silhouettes for NBA players Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, Penny Hardaway and Scottie Pippen.

Nike’s initial brainstorming meeting was scheduled for Jan. 10, 2003, from 1-2 p.m. PST. The emailed invitation concluded with one line:

“Drop the ball once and we don’t deliver.” 

Meanwhile, Goodwin scheduled meetings for James with each sneaker company. Dates were scheduled during the two weeks leading up to the NBA draft lottery on May 22, 2003:

  • May 7: Reebok headquarters in Canton, Massachusetts.
  • May 10: Adidas presentation at a mansion in Malibu, California.
  • May 17: Nike headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon.
  • May 21: Final negotiation day from a hotel suite in Akron, Ohio.
  • May 22: Watch the NBA draft lottery in Akron.

The first word

As told by Ralph Greene, then-global director of sports marketing for Nike Basketball.

St. Vincent–St. Mary High School guard LeBron James on Jan. 4, 2003. during his senior year.

John W. McDonough/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images

When Nike first started looking at LeBron, it was before high school. He was in the eighth grade. There was word out about a kid who was big in size. We got word back from Nike talent scout George Raveling.

Rav said, “The boy is not only good, he’s supermature.”

From a basketball point of view, Rav saw his ability to control a game and empower teammates. And LeBron’s ability then was way above any other eighth or ninth grader.

Oh, and LeBron’s passing — that’s really where his maturity was, according to Rav.

Phil Knight really trusts George Raveling. So, when Rav told him LeBron could play, he believed him. It was that simple. If you got Knight to believe something was the way to go, his style was: When you place a bet — place it. Because if you go in half-a–ed and it’s a win, you don’t get all of the potential winnings. And if you lose, it’s because you went in half-a–ed. To Phil Knight, there was no way to play this game other than balls to the wall.

So, yes, Knight wanted LeBron at Nike.

The tryout

As told by Aaron Cooper, the lead designer of the Nike Air Zoom Generation, James’ first signature shoe.

The first time I heard about LeBron was through Lynn Merritt, [Nike’s sports marketing director]. He was the first to tell me about this kid. “The next phenom,” so to speak.

Back then, there wasn’t as much talk because there wasn’t social media. So, when you heard about somebody, they were significant. Lynn was like, “You gotta see him for yourself.” So, I traveled with him to meet this Ohio high school player named LeBron.

I remember watching tryouts for his high school basketball team during his senior year. Which, you would think, LeBron wouldn’t need to try out. But he did, and I appreciated that. I also truly felt like he was the hardest worker on the court in his tryouts. It said a lot.

Here’s a kid who was 17 at the time. He had all this hype around him and knew a lot of money would be in his future. He was incredibly focused, gracious, humble and eager. He could’ve been the opposite. 

After the tryouts, he did another workout at full speed with a trainer. What stuck out early on is he always wanted to be the best version of himself, and I’m sure he believed his best would be better than most people. He wanted to be the best LeBron he could be. And then, whatever happens after that, happens.

The Iverson connection

As told by Todd Krinsky, then-vice president of Reebok’s RBK division, current president and CEO of Reebok.

Todd Krinsky started at Reebok in 1993 working in the mailroom. Three years later, he helped lead the company’s signing of Allen Iverson.

After a decade in the industry, Krinsky knew he was courting a generational superstar in James. Reebok welcomed James, his agent, his mother Gloria, and his best friend and former high school teammate Maverick Carter, to the company’s Canton, Massachusetts, headquarters.

Philadelphia 76ers guard Allen Iverson (left) and Cleveland Cavaliers guard LeBron James (right) answer questions about the Allen Iverson Celebrity Summer Classic in Washington on July 9, 2004.

Saul Loeb/MCT/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

One thing I remember most, to this day, is how incredibly calm, reserved, stoic and confident LeBron was as an 18-year-old. I’ve honestly only experienced that with an athlete twice. 

First, with Allen Iverson, in his agent David Falk’s office in 1996. When Iverson first walked into the room, I remember thinking, “He knows what’s coming for him. And he’s ready for everything.” 

The second time I experienced that feeling was with LeBron when he came to Canton in 2003. He had already begun conversations with Nike; he was gonna see what Adidas had to say, and he met with us at Reebok. So, the entire athletic industry was orbiting around this 18-year-old kid for a few weeks. That’d be daunting for anyone. But like Iverson, LeBron was poised and ready for all of it.

St. Vincent-St. Mary High School player LeBron James wears a custom “L23J” Reebok Question in the McDonald’s All American High School Game on March 26, 2003, at Gund Arena in Cleveland.

Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

We had Iverson talk to LeBron. A.I. didn’t come to the pitch meeting, but they talked a few times about Reebok. We facilitated an initial call with Allen, who had been at the company for seven years. He had just come off the MVP and NBA Finals season. He had the Answer IV, which was a huge-selling shoe the previous year. 

We had also been making LeBron custom versions of A.I.’s first shoe, the Question, in St. Vincent-St. Mary’s colors and for the McDonald’s All-American Game, with “L23J” on the side. Allen spoke on our behalf and was excited that LeBron was considering joining Reebok.

The mental phenom

As told by David Bond, then-Adidas vice president and business director of basketball and U.S. sports; former director of Nike Basketball (1992-2000) and Nike director of innovation (2000-2001).

St. Vincent-St Mary High School senior LeBron James wearing Adidas, which sponsored the school’s basketball team.

Phil Masturzo/Akron Beacon Journal/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

In 2001, I was hired by Adidas to sign LeBron. So, he dominated my life for a few years.

The budget to pitch LeBron sat outside of basketball. It was a brand-level priority.

On one of our visits to where he lived in Akron, I brought a video camera and started asking him a series of questions while he ate pizza. This was going into his junior year of high school, and I asked him, “LeBron, could you play in the NBA next year?” — meaning his senior year in high school.  

I didn’t realize until I got the tape home and watched it back. He said, “Well, Atlanta …” and went down Atlanta’s roster. He said, “On that team, I think I could start at the two guard.” Then he went to Boston’s roster and said, “I think I could be a small forward.” He went on to Chicago. Detroit. On and on and on.

He had memorized, in alphabetical order, the NBA teams and their rosters. And before I asked that question, he had already thought about where he would fit on each team. And he was right. His senior year, there was a spot on any NBA team for him, and he probably would’ve started opening night when he was 17 years old. 

What made him great then and ever since is he was smarter and more mentally unique than everyone else. Physically, he was amazing — a solid 6-8, 240 in high school, which is physically gifted. But his brain is what stood out to me. He had prepared himself and was born to be what he is. There was no backup plan. He wasn’t flooding his brain with anything but being a basketball player.

The player exclusives

As told by Gentry Humphrey, then-director of footwear for the Jordan Brand.

By the time he finished high school, James had received 18 player-exclusive sneakers from Nike, Reebok, Adidas and Jordan. Each shoe had green and gold color schemes, and some featured custom “L23J,” “LBJ,” or “King James” embroidery.

St. Vincent-St. Mary High School player LeBron James wears an Air Jordan 9 PE at Greensboro Coliseum in Greensboro, North Carolina, on Jan. 15, 2003.

Bob Leverone/Sporting News via Getty Images via Getty Images

At that level, s—, no one had ever gotten PEs in high school. The shoe was in his high school’s colors, but we put our twist on it with materials. It was a pretty simple execution. 

We knew he was going from high school to the pros, which made it easy. Previously, you couldn’t do PEs for a high school player going to college. The plan was always that Nike would try to sign him and Jordan Brand was just complimenting the plan. Michael was still relevant then, but we wanted to share the wealth.

The player exclusives worn by James in high school:


Zoom Flight 2K3 — gold patent/green “LBJ + 23”

Zoom Flight 2K3 —gold patent/green “SVSM” alternate embroidery

Zoom Flight 2K3 — white/green “LBJ + 23”

VC 2 — white/green/gold

VC 2 — white/white/green

Zoom Ultraflight — white/yellow/green

Air Max Finisher — white/green/gold

Shox Limitless — green/white

Shox Limitless — white/green


Pro Model 2G — green/gold “L23J”

A3 DunkFest — white/green/gold “L23J”

TMac 1 — white/green

TMac 2 — green/gold

TMac 2 — white/gold


Question — white/green “L23J”

Question — white/red “L23J” (McDonald’s All American Game)


Air Jordan 9 Retro — white/green (Ohio state playoffs)

Air Jordan 18 — black/silver “King James” (Jordan Brand Classic)

The most comfortable shoe

As told by Aaron Cooper of Nike.

The Adidas Pro Model 2G was released as a Retro in 2022, and inspired by the “L23J” player exclusive originally worn by LeBron James.


On our first Akron trip, I asked him, “What innovation could we bring to the table from a performance standpoint?” 

He said, “Comfort.” 

Everybody has their definition of comfort, so we needed to understand his definition. At the time, he said the Adidas Pro Model 2G was the most comfortable shoe model he had ever worn. 

He explained why and I understood what he liked about them. There was underfoot comfort. The collar had good padding. The materials in the upper were fairly simple and compliant. It was just a comfortable shoe. There was no innovation, but nothing was wrong with it. 

With some shoes, you put them on, and you’re like, “This shoe’s great, EXCEPT for this one thing.” But I felt like the Pro Model was a good, all-around shoe.

He wore a new pair of shoes from Adidas, Reebok or Nike in every game of his senior year. I was following every shoe and trying to get feedback about what he liked or didn’t like, specifically regarding comfort.

After he told me comfort was his priority, I told him, “We will design you the most comfortable basketball shoe you have ever worn. Period.”

When we got to the pitch meeting, we had his shoe in his size for him to try on. LeBron put them on for the first time, jumped up about four to five times, stopped and said, “Coop, these are the most comfortable shoes I’ve ever worn.”

The Reebok ‘LJ’

As told by Todd Krinsky.

St. Vincent-St. Mary high school player LeBron James dunks in the Reebok Question at the McDonald’s All American Game at Gund Arena in Cleveland on March 26, 2003.

John Biever /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images

We had an entire LeBron room.

We had logos, designs and ideations of how we thought his signature Reebok collection could look, surrounding the whole “King James” concept. He was really into all of it. And it didn’t feel like he was just being polite. 

As the years have gone by, I’ve read subsequent stories in which it’s been said that one of the things that put Nike over the top was that they had a prototype of an actual shoe in their presentation. We didn’t have a physical prototype yet, but we had sketches in our meeting.

We had a couple of different concepts we were working on. There was a shoe we pitched that had an evolution of the Pump technology. There was also a DMX with the moving air concept. And there were other different innovations we wanted him to introduce in basketball. 

Our shoe wasn’t going to be called the Reebok LeBron 1. We didn’t have a specific franchise name yet, but we had options that incorporated his name as initials — and he would’ve helped pick the final name. We had names with “LJ” in them, surrounding different logos of a king. We gave him a lot of options.

The Adidas challenge: Will you use fame to change the world?’

As told by David Bond.

The presentation book created by Adidas for high school basketball star LeBron James.

Nick DePaula

I still have the presentation book that Adidas made for LeBron. Each was a gigantic coffee-table book featuring rare photography, which we had to buy usage rights. We made about 20 books.

Our presentation and strategy were not to inspire LeBron to be the next MJ but to be the next Muhammad Ali, an Adidas athlete. 

We wanted to partner with him to be more than a basketball player. This was 2003, way before the whole world went in that direction. We thought the world needed something deeper than another well-designed basketball shoe for a superstar athlete. 

Part of our offer was to invest in community centers every year. We also encouraged him to stand up for important issues using his platform. The direction came from talks with LeBron while he was in high school. We simply offered to partner with him, and Ali was the benchmark. 

LeBron has gone on to do many of those things on his own. He has created schools and community centers. He has stood up for what he thinks is right. He has been a pillar in the community. He didn’t need us to help him. He did great on his own.


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