As reports trickle out that Zion Williamson could potentially sign one of the largest rookie sneaker deals in the history of the NBA, it’s fun to remember just how coveted LeBron James was by the Big 3 of shoe companies at the time he entered the league in 2003.
Adidas, Reebok and Nike were all jockeying to secure the most-hyped NBA prospect of all time, and in an excerpt from ESPN NBA reporter Brian Windhorst’s upcoming book, “LeBron, Inc.: The Making of a Billion-Dollar Athlete,” we learn just how crazy the bidding war got — and how close LeBron was to signing with Reebok over Nike.
Per Windhorst, Reebok initially offered James and Aaron Goodwin, his agent at the time, a deal worth $100 million, including a $10 million signing bonus, an offer that was virtually unprecedented at the time. That number made adidas back out, and though Nike secured a meeting with James, including a lavish presentation that introduced the lion imagery as a part of his potential clothing line with the company, execs only presented James with an offer around $70 million.
Reebok smelled blood in the water, and eventually upper their offer to a total of $115 million, per Windhorst, but LeBron couldn’t bring himself to commit. Why? Partially because he’d always dreamed of playing in Nike shoes and gear, and partially because he just didn’t like Reebok’s shoes all that much.
But LeBron had something else on his mind. He knew the numbers. He’d been sitting with the reality that he might be going with Reebok for a couple of weeks at that point. But he didn’t want to do it. He didn’t like their shoes that much. A couple of years earlier, one of Reebok’s endorsers, Shawn Kemp, had said the shoes Reebok gave him failed during games, calling them “throwaways” in an interview with a newspaper reporter. Reebok sued Kemp for saying it, but he said it just the same. LeBron had always envisioned himself wearing Nike and wanted to be a part of their great ad campaigns and work with their designers.
Nike, once thinking they were out of the race, were informed by Goodwin that LeBron still wanted to sign with them. Phil Knight, Nike’s CEO, OK-ed a higher offer, and LeBron eventually signed a 7-year, $77 million deal with the Swoosh, which included a $10 million signing bonus, the same amount that Reebok had initially offered. The rest, as they say, is history, and LeBron now holds a lifetime contract with the brand he’s been with since he was 18.
It’s telling of how sure LeBron was he’d make it in the NBA, to leave nearly $30 million on the table to work with the company he wanted to be with. Beyond that, it’s wild that Shawn Kemp and so-so shoes changed the course of Reebok’s and LeBron’s histories in the world of basketball sneakers.