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Two months ago Adidas basketball executive Sonny Vaccaro told 18-year-old LeBron James how he thought negotiations for the young star's shoe deal would play out: "We will offer you a lot of money, but Phil Knight will offer you so much money you will have to sign with Nike."
Vaccaro's prophesy proved only partly true: James, the certain No. 1 pick in June's NBA draft, signed a seven-year deal with Nike last week. But the 6'8" high school senior from Akron did not go with the company that dangled the most dollars. Nike's offer, which included a $10 million signing bonus and could bring James more than double the reported $90 million if sales goals are met, was more than $15 million lower than a bid by Reebok, according to one shoe-company executive.
Why did James take less cash?
James's visit to Nike headquarters in Beaverton, Ore., on May 17 and 18 seemed to mark the turning point in his thinking. While James, some family members and his business reps watched, a dozen Nike presenters showed him a proposed line of apparel, including nine prototype shoes designed by, among others, Tinker Hatfield, creator of the Air Jordan line. One source close to the talks said Nike spent "millions" on the presentation. Earlier, Adidas had shown James a model shoe at a mansion in Malibu—because James had requested the meeting take place "somewhere warm." But Nike's show topped Adidas's and shamed Reebok's, which was a half-day affair that included only sketches of shoes.
Reebok's push came as a surprise, considering the company had been overshadowed in its pursuit of James. Adidas's Vaccaro out-fitted James's high school team, St. Vincent-St. Mary, and Vaccaro's top lieutenant, Chris Rivers, presented James with a CD of songs by well-known rappers that included lyrics about LeBron and his friends. Nike gave James's friend Maverick Carter a sports-marketing internship, flew James's mother, Gloria, to Oregon to meet company chairman Knight and had Michael Jordan keep in contact.
Early last week Adidas reps flew from Germany to Ohio after being told by James's agent, Aaron Goodwin, that they had one last chance to adjust their offer. But by May 21 Adidas was effectively out of the running. That night James, his family and Goodwin met with Reebok CEO Paul Fireman at an Akron hotel, and Goodwin said James left the meeting "thinking he was going to sign with Reebok."
Yet hours later James had second thoughts. He liked Nike's product best and, according to Goodwin, appreciated its cultivation of "the superstars before him." Around midnight James told Goodwin, "Make the deal with Nike."
Though James's deal dwarfs the reported $3.5 million a year Syracuse star Carmelo Anthony got from Nike, even reps from the losing companies say it might be money well spent. James has the kind of hip-hop cachet that can appeal equally to inner-city kids and suburban teens. "He's got that street game, that street savvy, but he's [also] into the team act," says one shoe company exec. "You look at how he carried himself during intense media scrutiny. It's possible that he could broaden himself where someone like Allen Iverson hasn't."
James is game to try. At a press conference last Thursday following the announcement that the Cavaliers will pick first in the draft, he pointed to the Nike swoosh on his shirt and told photographers, "Make sure you get this." Hey, the young man's got a lot of shoes to sell.