One company that should be looking to get in is Cadbury Schweppes, which makes Bubblicious. That green gob coming out of James's mouth during games is eerily reminiscent of Jordan's wagging tongue. "I didn't even know I did it until my mom said something about it," says James. Another possibility is Post cereals, which puts the fruit—well, sugar—in Fruity Pebbles. "That's the endorsement I really want," says James, only half kidding. "Somebody gave me 10 boxes of it for [high school] graduation. Best present I got."
Jordan was successful as a salesman because, with an image best described as corporate-hip, he straddled lines of gender, race and age. That clearly doesn't describe James. "The line has moved to the left, and that means this kid is what America is looking for," says Goodwin. "The hip-hop generation is a culture and style, not a race. LeBron is not Tiger and he's not Michael. He's the next generation."
Wisely the Next Generation does not talk much about being the Next Generation. "My focus is basketball," he says. "The commercial stuff is off to the side." But not far off. "LeBron has to do what Michael did to live up to that kind of corporate investment," says Williams. "He has to dominate his position, take a downtrodden franchise to the playoffs and eventually to a championship. He will make a lot of money and live happily ever after. But no one has ever had more expectations put on him than this young man right now."
LEBRON AND THE CREW
James never knew his biological father, by some accounts a sweet street-bailer and the apparent wellspring of James's athleticism. James doesn't talk about him. Many around Gloria say that she has done her best in raising LeBron, and certainly that's the way her son feels. "My mother is my everything," says James. "Always has been. Always will be." But Gloria, Glo to her friends, did not always provide a stable home for James. When he was five, she and LeBron moved seven times; when he was in fourth grade, James says, he missed 82 days of school; for parts of the next two years he lived with a foster family. (Gloria James declined to be interviewed by SI.)
The man LeBron refers to as his father, Gloria's longtime boyfriend Eddie Jackson, was sentenced to three years in prison for mail fraud and mortgage fraud last December, having served a previous stint for drug trafficking. Jackson and Gloria were recently sued by an Akron businessman who says they owe him $115,874 for a loan he made to them when LeBron was in high school so that Jackson could travel to negotiate shoe deals. The $80,000 loan Gloria famously secured to buy LeBron a Hummer H2 when he turned 18 last Dec. 30 will trail him for a while. "Hey, LeBron," a courtside Pistons fan shouted. "Your Hummer's ugly." James cracked up.
The situation has the elements of classic tragedy: A kid who grew up with nothing is suddenly an 18-year-old with unlimited celebrity, unlimited resources and unlimited charisma. What happens now?
Gloria remains one of the two most important individuals in the cocoon around LeBron. The other is Goodwin, his agent, whose office is in Seattle. Goodwin says his firm's accountants handle James's money and his marketing people (he has three on LeBron's account) work out his endorsement deals. Besides his teammates and Silas, those closest to James on a daily basis are Randy Mims, an uncle, and Maverick Carter, a former high school teammate three years his senior now employed by Nike to take care of their Ninety-Million-Dollar Man. James says he talks to his buddies from high school "almost every day," particularly Sian Cotton, a redshirt football player at Ohio State, and Romeo Travis, a freshman basketball player at Akron. Dru Joyce III, another Akron player and the son of the St. Vincent-St. Mary coach, and Brandon Weems, the high school's incumbent point guard, are also in the circle. Chris Dennis, a family friend who lives in Akron and runs lebronjames.com ("40,000 hits a week," says Dennis), checks in regularly. Nance is nearby too.
And what happens when Jackson gets out of prison? He will be kept out of the loop, says someone close to James.
Is that a strong enough bulwark for the young man? Who's to say? "There's so much riding on LeBron that he can't realize at his age," says Spike Lee, who directed James in an NBA-sanctioned commercial for TNT's TV package. "I told Aaron [ Goodwin], "This can't be messed up.' It's a crucial time for African-American athletes, who are taking such an image-beating, partly because of what happened to Kobe. LeBron has got to perform on the court and, just as important, he's got to perform off of it."