LeBron James Is Already Winning Hollywood
As LeBron James prepares to debut with the Lakers, the NBA star has emerged as one of Hollywood's hottest producers, setting up film and TV projects without ever shying away from the candor that makes him an activist icon and Trump target.
It’s a Wednesday in early September, and LeBron James — newly minted Los Angeles Laker, $1 billion Nike endorsement juggernaut, noted Trump repudiator — is folded into a golf cart whirring across the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank. Shouts of “LaaaaaBraaaan” and “Welcome to L.A.!” pierce the air.
Here, where star sightings are routine and treated with studied indifference, the 6-foot-8, 250-pound James is a different story. Strangers ask for selfies, tell him how thrilled they are that he’s in town and divulge their hopes that he’ll revive what was once the NBA’s most glamorous franchise.
James, 33, is always polite, doesn’t mind the attention, doesn’t wish he could disappear into a scrum of extras, even for a spell. “Anonymous? No. That’s weird. I’m not an anonymous guy,” he says. “You gotta understand, I’m an only child. I like people.”
But James isn’t on the lot for an athlete meet-and-greet. He’s had an office at Warners since 2016, when SpringHill Entertainment, the shingle he started in 2008 with childhood friend Maverick Carter, set up shop in a blue-clad Cape Cod bungalow with a barn-red door in Warner Village, the Potemkin neighborhood that has served as the exterior for such Hollywood creations as Gilmore Girls. James doesn’t use his second-floor office all that much. In fact, he’s on-site today mostly because he’s booked on Ellen, which tapes on the lot, to promote Warners’ animated feature Smallfoot, to which he lends his voice.
Typically at this hour, James would be at the Lakers training facility in El Segundo, near LAX. He gets to practice an hour and a half early each morning, then hits the basement gym of his Brentwood house in the afternoon. (A casual query as to whether he plans to work out the following day elicits a snort: “That’s like asking, ‘Am I going to breathe tomorrow?'”) Carter, 36, who moved to Los Angeles about three years ago, runs the business day-to-day with SpringHill’s eight-person staff.
Still, there’s no question that James’ move from the Cleveland Cavaliers has amplified his status in the Hollywood firmament. Even at a time when star-fronted production companies are ubiquitous, SpringHill is emerging as a unique force. Since his July 2 announcement that he would play for the Lakers (for four years and $154 million), his company has set up projects with dizzying frequency — on Sept. 13, NBC and The CW both announced scripted series with him. HBO already has several on tap, including Student Athlete, about college players going unpaid while their universities make millions, and a Muhammad Ali documentary directed by Antoine Fuqua. Meanwhile, Netflix is in production on a reboot of the British crime drama Top Boy (with Drake) and the limited series Madam C.J. Walker, starring Octavia Spencer as the real-life daughter of slaves who became the first black female millionaire.
And THR can reveal that Ryan Coogler will produce Warner Bros.’ new Space Jam, the long-gestating follow-up to the beloved 1996 Michael Jordan-Bugs Bunny hit. James will play his first starring role in it — he received positive reviews in 2015 for Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck — and it will be Coogler’s first project since the groundbreaking Black Panther. “[Coogler] gave this generation’s kids something I didn’t have when I was a kid,” says James, “and that’s a superhero movie with an African-American cast.”
James is clear he sees a direct line between his activism on subjects like representation and social justice and his budding media empire. “I don’t know if people would trust us to do a story like Madam C.J. Walker if they didn’t know where LeBron stood on these things,” says Jamal Henderson, a former brand manager at Pepsi who serves as president of SpringHill Entertainment.
James has long been an outspoken voice in the national conversation on race. When he was playing in Miami, he and his Heat teammates donned hoodies for a photo that served as a visual protest of the death of Trayvon Martin and Florida’s stand-your-ground law. And he’s been unafraid to call out the frequent mendacities and insults emanating from Donald Trump’s Twitter feed. When he responded “U bum” after Trump claimed to un-invite Stephen Curry and the 2017 champion Golden State Warriors to the White House, it made national news and became the most retweeted athlete post of the year. He’s spoken out about the president’s restrictive immigration policies. And when Trump impugned James’ intellect, tweeting Aug. 3 that Don Lemon, “the dumbest man on television … made LeBron look smart” during a CNN interview — even first lady Melania Trump seemed to come to James’ defense.
Asked if it bothers him that the president called him dumb, James just laughs. “No, because I’m not,” he says. “That’s like somebody saying I can’t play ball. That doesn’t bother me at all. What bothers me is that he has time to even do that. He has the most powerful job in the world. Like, you really got this much time that you can comment on me?”
James is likely underselling the massive cultural influence of the “me” in that sentence — after all, he has nearly 84 million followers between Twitter and Instagram and could get a sit-down with any political or business leader on earth. “He’s been a master at using his platform,” says Lakers legend Magic Johnson, now the team’s president of basketball operations. “He doesn’t want to see the country go backward. He doesn’t want to see the country racially divided.”
In addition to his outspoken beliefs on racial justice, James also has begun to try to weigh culture from a female perspective, something he attributes to the birth of his daughter, Zhuri, now almost 4. (James and his wife of five years, Savannah, also have two sons, LeBron Jr., 13, and Bryce, 11.)
Having a daughter, explains James, is one reason he can relate to Serena Williams’ Sept. 8 agitation during the U.S. Open women’s final where she was penalized for arguing repeatedly with a male umpire (another reason, presumably, is being a superstar athlete). “What we all have to understand is what she is fighting for is bigger than just that match,” he says. “She is fighting for equality — always having to win more, more, more, just to feel equal. Being an African-American woman playing in a predominantly white sport, she’s dealing with so much more. I have no idea what was going on in her head, but I feel that struggle.”
When asked if we could soon see a female coach in the NBA — which is similar to the premise of Hoops, one of the SpringHill series in development at NBC — he says, “I don’t see why not,” and points to Becky Hammon, now an assistant with the San Antonio Spurs. “She is definitely paving the way right now.” (He then asks if I’ve ever seen Eddie, the 1996 comedy starring Whoopi Goldberg as the head coach of the New York Knicks, saying “that movie was before its time!”)
At Harlem’s Fashion Row gala in lower Manhattan on Sept. 4, where James was the honoree, he delivered an impassioned speech about the influence of the women in his life; his mom, Gloria, and Savannah were there and were the subject of his talk. “We have been down since high school. I listen to a lot of rap music, and a good friend of mine said, ‘You wasn’t with me shooting in the gym,'” he said, referencing a line by Drake about Kobe Bryant that suggests Bryant’s then-estranged wife, Vanessa, did not deserve half of Bryant’s fortune in a divorce settlement because she didn’t earn it. (The two remain together.) From the stage, James looked at his wife and said, “But in all actuality, Savannah was with me shooting in the gym when I [had] absolutely nothing.”
Later, asked if that was a dig at Bryant, James says: “I do know that when [Drake] said it, it was about Kobe Bryant, but Kobe Bryant wasn’t even in my thoughts. [Savannah] was down when I was at my high school, no cameras, no lights. And she was there with me. You wouldn’t be talking to me right now if it weren’t for her. But I got way too much respect not only for Kobe but for Vanessa [to insult them]. That’s so below me. That would have been like a Donald Trump remark.”
James is among the athletes featured in Nike’s new ad narrated by Colin Kaepernick, who set off the wave of anthem protests that continue to roil the NFL. The ad itself has served as another flashpoint in the culture wars, with some dissenters burning Nike merchandise and others praising the brand. Though James and Kaepernick have never met, James is well aware that the NBA is a much different league than the NFL — in the NFL, he says, “It’s the owners saying, ‘Do what we tell you to do, this is our league, our team. And you do what the hell I tell you to do.'”
One reason James has the activist credibility he does — especially in the black community — is that he has not forgotten where he came from. In July, he opened the I Promise School in his hometown of Akron, Ohio. Currently enrolled are 240 third- and fourth-graders, with the goal of having 1,200 students by 2022. So he’s not just throwing bombs on Twitter or donning T-shirts with slogans.
James grew up in the projects with a single mother who had him when she was 16; he missed 83 days of school in the fourth grade. And to this day, he expresses disbelief that he and his closest friends made it out. “Two of my guys are playing professional basketball overseas, one of my best friends is now the athletic director at our alma mater [St. Vincent- St. Mary]. Another one of my friends is the advance scout for the Cleveland Cavaliers. Another friend is doing community work in our hometown. So we have all made it,” he says. “But we have, all of us, sat across from people who have been killed in the past five years, multiple people. I got a phone call on my honeymoon in Venice five years ago; one of my friends that I grew up with got killed.” Another was murdered 18 months ago.
James didn’t always feel comfortable speaking out; in 2007, when he was 22, he declined to sign a letter circulated by his Cavaliers teammates calling out China — the host of the 2008 Summer Olympics — for its role in the genocide in Darfur. (He said at the time that he did not have enough information and later did address the crisis.) And the fact is, James’ NBA career has coincided with the painful — and at times ugly — national conversation about systemic violence against black Americans that gave rise to the Black Lives Matter movement.
“LeBron has realized that in this time, especially, you have to pick a side,” says former ESPN host Jemele Hill, who has had her own social media skirmishes with the president. “He could choose to stay disengaged. He doesn’t have to put himself out there. But I think he cares about his legacy and his impact beyond what he achieves as an athlete.”
“The goal is to be a lighthouse, where the creative people in this town — especially the young and diverse filmmakers that are all the rage now — see us as an option,” says Henderson, who while working at Pepsi created a memorable Mountain Dew campaign featuring rappers Mac Miller, Lil Wayne, Tyler the Creator and Joey Bada$$. “That’s honestly it. Just know, ‘Hey, we’re here. We’re serious. We want to do projects that matter.'”
Many of SpringHill’s projects come through its overall deal with Warner Bros. as well as regular agency business. But in a town that churns on who you know, James and Carter are ringers. “They’re so connected, it unlocks doors for us,” says Henderson. “I mean to be candid, it unlocks a ton of doors.”
While it’s too early to say whether Space Jam falls into the “projects that matter” category, it’s certainly the most anticipated. “I’ve been hearing about Space Jam 2 since I was 16,” says James, “humbled” to take on a role originated by Jordan. “He was the greatest thing I’d ever seen.”
The original is still the highest grossing basketball movie of all time, earning an estimated $250 million. And the remake has taken on almost mythical proportions in Hollywood: Warner Bros. greenlit the idea in 2016; at one point, Justin Lin (Fast and Furious) was attached to write and direct. That’s when Jordan, in what the internet interpreted as a slight to James, suggested then-Clippers forward Blake Griffin for the starring role.
After James signed on, Carter brought in Coogler, whom he had met through actor and frequent Coogler collaborator Michael B. Jordan (the three had driven from L.A. to Las Vegas to see a boxing match, and when Jordan fell asleep, Carter and Coogler talked “for three hours, just about life and work and hip-hop and friends and family, everything … we’ve been friends ever since,” says Carter). They tapped Terence Nance, who created HBO’s Random Acts of Flyness, to direct. Production is tentatively slated for 2019 during the NBA’s off-season.
Like the original, the new movie is sure to be well stocked with cameos from NBA players. But Jordan? “We’ll see,” says Carter, “Hopefully there will be a role for Michael if he wants it. But Michael Jordan is Michael Fuckin’ Jordan. It doesn’t matter [if James] calls him, he’s gonna do whatever the hell he wants, which he has earned that right to do.” And then he adds: “LeBron and Michael are not sitting around talking about Space Jam.”
Carter and James stress that their version will not be a sequel, though it could certainly be the beginning of a new franchise. “There’s already been one that was good, we gotta make a film that’s great,” says Carter.
For James, Space Jam is the realization of a childhood dream. “I always wanted to be a superhero. Batman was my favorite,” he says. “But I knew I could never be Bruce Wayne. You’ve got to understand, for me that was in no way possible; I never felt like I could be the president of a multibillion-dollar company.”
When James and Carter started SpringHill (named for the housing project where James lived in high school), there were plenty of doubters. The truth is, they only did it because they needed to establish a shingle in advance of the release of More Than a Game, the 2008 documentary about James’ rise to fame as a high school phenom.
They didn’t have a plan for breaking into Hollywood. But they knew what they were not going to do, and that was to turn James into a human billboard, indiscriminately lending his name to whoever wrote the biggest check.
They also knew they needed guidance. In 2005, they found Paul Wachter, a money manager whose clients include Jimmy Iovine, Bono and Arnold Schwarzenegger. James was 20, Carter 23 at the time. James had fired his experienced agents — the ones who hammered out his original, landmark $90 million deal with Nike — in favor of his good friend Rich Paul from Ohio, who remains his representative in basketball matters and now runs his own agency, Klutch Sports Group.
“People in the sports world were going, ‘What’s he doing? He’s crazy!'” recalls Wachter. “In my world, no one was thinking about them much at all. So my original attitude was, ‘Why am I meeting them?’ My client base was people who were much further along in their careers. But LeBron has unbelievable peripheral vision — not just on the court, he also has it mentally. He sees stuff other people don’t.”
It wasn’t until Survivor’s Remorse, the scripted half-hour that aired on Starz from 2014 to 2017, that Carter and James realized they could pull off the Hollywood thing. “People always told me, ‘It’s hard to sell a TV show,'” says Carter. “But it’s even harder to get a show on the air and keep it on the air. It’s really fucking hard. To have a show that we did run for four seasons … that was the first one where we were like, ‘We can do this.'”
In January 2015, the duo unveiled The Bleacher Report vertical Uninterrupted, designed to allow athletes to speak directly to fans and cut out the interpretive voice of sports reporters. By the end of the first year, Warners-owned Turner Sports had invested $15.8 million into Uninterrupted; there are now 30 employees at the Uninterrupted offices in Hollywood.
James’ takeaway from all these projects speaks to his origins as a child of poverty. “I used to go on set [of Survivor’s Remorse] and see all the jobs that we were creating,” he says. “More than anything I’ve ever accomplished on a basketball floor, to be able to see that, like people that never get recognized from craft services all the way to the person putting a mic on your chest? That is a pretty cool thing.”
Says HBO CEO Richard Plepler, who first met James about two years ago when he arranged a dinner at his Connecticut home (and is now involved in James’ numerous HBO projects), “LeBron is just a preternatural talent. Anybody who is great at anything has an extra gene. And I think LeBron is one of these people who may have a couple extra genes.”
Rising media mogul he may be, but James is clear that his focus is basketball. In fact, one thing that irks him and Carter is the assumption that he chose the Lakers because his business is based in Los Angeles. “It’s like, ‘Oh, LeBron signed with the Lakers, boom, all this stuff starts happening,'” says James. “Hell no, this stuff has been in the works.”
It is true that James has had a home in L.A. since 2015, when he purchased a $21 million manse in Brentwood; in December he added another $23 million, 16,000-square-foot home, also in Brentwood. And he says his Lakers deal (his first season tips off Oct. 18 in Portland) has not changed his social life as much as one might assume. “I don’t do the celebrity move around. I’m not that type of a guy, really,” he says. “I go train and I go home. Sometimes I’ll take my wife to dinner.”
Moreover, he’s not leaving Cleveland entirely. He says his charitable foundation will remain in Akron. And he has no plans to unload his Akron estate (there isn’t much of a market for a 30,000-square-foot, $10 million home in northeast Ohio). In fact, he says, he plans to summer there.
“The goal is to continue to do what we’ve been doing, and if we make a billion-dollar company at the end of it, we will pat each other on the back, hug each other, pop some great wine … but that is not the goal. It’s never been the goal,” he says. “I’m going to continue to play basketball at a high level, continue to give back to my community and make great content for people to fall in love with.”
This story first appeared in the Sept. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.