A king’s ransom — the untold tales of the 2003 sneaker courtship of LeBron James
Twenty years later, the story behind one of the craziest chases in footwear history between Nike, Adidas and Reebok
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
That being said, I’m proud of the direction we presented. I’m disappointed that the deal didn’t happen and we didn’t get the chance to amplify LeBron’s greatness. I also look back at the product and the branding and think they were compelling. But, you can’t win ’em all.
The presentation book cover was white basketball leather, with a huge embroidery of the logo Adidas designed for him. The proposed logo had “LBJ,” a basketball and a 23.
There was a shoe pictured that became the a3 Superstar Ultra, but it was just a placeholder and not intended to be his signature shoe. It wasn’t intended to be “the Adidas LeBron.” At that time, LeBron was wearing the TMac 2 and liked that type of lower and faster style of shoe. We planned to clean the slate and give him a true statement signature shoe.
The point is Adidas pulled out all the stops … to not win.
The check in the blazer
As told by Todd Krinsky of Reebok.
I remember walking from the product room to the boardroom, where it became our CEO Paul Fireman’s show.
This was the biggest boardroom in the world, with this huge teakwood table that looked like something out of The Flintstones. We sit across from LeBron and his team, and then Paul offers him the deal.
Then came the infamous moment when Paul got up. We had no idea what he was doing because he didn’t tell us. He might’ve told one person — our CFO, maybe, knew. But most of us didn’t know he would pull out a $10 million check. But that was what Paul was about. He’s a creative entrepreneur. He thought, “What could I do to get this young kid to sign with us tonight? What would that do if I give $10 million in cash to a kid who hasn’t even played in the NBA yet?”
It was like that scene from The Untouchables when Robert De Niro [as Al Capone] walks around the table. Paul walked over and asked Gloria, “What bank do you belong to?”
Then, he says, “Here’s a check you can have — if you sign with us tonight.”
I saw Paul pull the check out of the envelope but never saw it or held it. That check went from inside Paul’s blazer pocket to the table right in front of Gloria.
Paul wanted the whole room to be shocked — and we were all like, “Oh. My. God.” I remember Mav hyperventilating a little bit, then unbuttoning his shirt to get some air.
Aaron Goodwin asked if we’d leave the room so that they could discuss it. Ten minutes, 20 minutes, then 30 minutes go by, and Paul is like, “What could they be discussing?”
The emotional decision
As told by Aaron Goodwin, LeBron James’ first agent, who negotiated his endorsement contract offers with Reebok, Adidas and Nike.
It was a cashier’s check. And I remember LeBron and his mom looking at it. Then, Gloria’s eyes start watering up.
She was like, “What should we do?”
I said, “Oh, we giving it back.”
LeBron understood that he had to give that check back to Paul Fireman. Gloria did not.
Gloria wanted to keep that check and walk out. That’s what I’ll always remember more than anything. It was an emotional time. But there was the reality that what LeBron and Gloria had lived their whole life and worked so hard for was happening.
I still have a copy of the check. But even with that bonus being offered, we had to see what Adidas and finally, what Nike had to say.
The Malibu mansion
As told by Romeo Travis, St. Vincent-St. Mary’s teammate.
It was crazy because the Adidas presentation was on the same day as our prom. It was either go to Malibu on a private plane with Adidas, or go to prom. Everybody went to L.A. except for Willie [McGee, a high school teammate], who stayed home and went to prom. Everyone else was like, “Yeah, nah, we’re going to L.A.”
We stayed in the same hotel as the San Antonio Spurs. Adidas had a suite for us and took us to the Spurs-Lakers playoff game the night before. I met Tim Duncan on that trip, and he signed a hat for me.
The next day, we went to a mansion in Malibu. It was on the water and had a pool. The place was truly amazing, especially for guys from Akron, where there isn’t a lot of water.
When we got there, there was this room to get dressed, and everybody had their own pile of clothes. You felt special because it was like, “Adidas knows all our sizes!” They knew I was a 2XL and wore a size 15 shoe.
I remember saying, “Yo, we gotta sign with Adidas.” I was saying, “We.” (Laughs.) We didn’t get to see the other presentations, but I did see that one and thought, if this is what Adidas is doing, I can only imagine what the rest of the companies are doing.
It was crazy because that fall, Dru [Joyce, a high school teammate] and I were almost ineligible to play college basketball because of receiving improper gifts from Adidas. The NCAA tried to rule us ineligible — for going on the private jet and Malibu trip — when we got to the University of Akron. We had to show proof we paid for something, like a percentage of the trip. We had, like, five meetings about it. Nobody knows about that.
The number switch
As told by Sonny Vaccaro & David Bond in ESPN’s 2015 30 for 30 documentary ‘Sole Man‘
Sonny Vaccaro: “[We were at] a tournament [during LeBron’s senior year,] and I made a statement – not an offer – a statement to the James team: ‘LeBron, Gloria, when your son signs, he’s going to get $100 million.’
It was a statement of fact as to where their mind should be. It was an astonishing number. That was an NBA contract, not a shoe company number.
I go to Adidas [headquarters] to see the president.
The only thing I gave a damn about was $100 million.
Adidas rented an unbelievable [house] in Malibu, and we put the contract on the table.
Gloria and I flipped it over, and I couldn’t believe what I looked at.
The numbers changed. My number changed. I told Mr. James, ‘This is what your value is,’ and now, I was giving him a number that wasn’t what my appreciation of his value is. It was over. There was no way in hell they were going to sign.”
David Bond: “Sonny had always said, ‘It is going to take $10 million guaranteed a year.’ The contract offer from Adidas was about $7 million guaranteed, with a number of incentives that got it to $10 million a year. But, it wasn’t all guaranteed. He knew that Nike was going to come pretty hard, with all guaranteed money.”’
Sonny Vaccaro: “It was the dumbest single mistake anybody ever made in the history of negotiating. If he signs [with Adidas], the whole world changes.”
The truth of the matter
As told by Aaron Goodwin, LeBron James’ first agent.
If you saw the movie Air, that doesn’t compare to what happened during the LeBron negotiations.
The truth of the entire matter is LeBron was an Adidas guy. They would’ve signed him if Adidas had come in with the offer they were supposed to.
I knew he wanted to be with Adidas. LeBron wanted Adidas until Adidas screwed up in Malibu. Then, he wanted Reebok because the number was so high. But I thought Nike was the only company that could build the product for him.
The Superman costume
As told by E. Scott Morris, then-senior footwear designer for Nike Basketball.
Nike presented to LeBron on a Saturday, so nobody was on campus. It was midmorning, early afternoon. Nobody saw LeBron come in. It was just the basketball unit and executives.
Phil Knight’s old office was in the John McEnroe building. Then, they moved it over to the Mia Hamm building. His new office was a section cut out of that building — just for Phil. That was where Nike presented to LeBron because Phil hadn’t moved in yet. I got to see the entire setup the night before.
Envision Phil Knight’s office. The door to it looked like a door in Jotunheim. Everyone looked like a small person going into it. Imagine you’re standing at this big giant door, and you look straight down the hallway. There are clear cases on podiums on each side, left and right of this hallway.
As you walk down, you see shoes in the cases like Air Jordans, Barkleys, Pippens, and Pennys. You see all these shoes leading down to one case, in the end, in the center. That case had a light over it, but nothing was in it.
It’s empty as if to say, “This case is waiting for you.”
Of everything Nike did, that was the coolest. It was very much so: Your Superman costume awaits you if you’re ready.
Left of the hallway was a reception area and a conference room. Anything you could brand LeBron with was in that room — shorts, towels, bathrobes, swimwear. Nike even made this guy underwear. Like, I didn’t even know the brand made underwear!
Then, there was another conference room that just had accessories: Basketballs, bags, sunglasses. Nike had everything waiting for LeBron, down to Fruity Pebbles, his favorite, in case he decided to take a cereal break. There was also a mini model of the Hummer he had — and even a lion’s pelt. You know, in Coming to America, the lion’s head and skin that King Jaffe Joffer wore on his shoulder — it was like that. There were all these kingly things as if you had walked into a king’s treasure room.
When I tell you, no detail was missed — Nike didn’t miss a single thing. Everything the brand thought LeBron might think, it was somebody’s job to make sure it was available for his use or experience. If he said, “Hey, I’d like to have —” … “Oh, we already have that!”
Nike went all-out. I think it was the single-greatest presentation ever done for an athlete.
As told by Ken Link, then-design director for Nike Basketball. He designed the LeBron 2-6 shoes, the LeBron 7 creative brief and the Zoom Soldier team shoe series.
The rumor floating around was we weren’t going to get him. That May window, all of this great work and samples are coming in. But we’re hearing the other brands will offer $100 million.
We thought it was a done deal that we wouldn’t get him. We said, “Oh, there’s no way we get him. He’s already in Adidas’ back pocket. It’s just gonna be a money game.” Then, there were comments, “We’re not going to pay $100 million for him.” That was all leading up to the pitch.
But I kept wondering, “Is he going to see the path with us, or is he going to take the money?”
It’s a tribute to him and his team, the Four Horsemen, that he saw the path. He’s a very, very smart guy. He doesn’t get the credit for being maybe the brightest, smartest mind basketball has ever seen. He’s that visionary. He was thinking so much bigger than just the money. He was thinking long term. He could see this bright future ahead of him. Come that May, he chose the path.
The Air Zoom … Norbel?
As told by Jeff Johnson, then-director of development for Nike Basketball.
Air Zoom Generation was the code name. It was the only code name I ever had to do. In January, my boss Brad Johnson approached me and said, “Look, we’ll kick off development on a shoe for LeBron. Get it into the system.” I entered it into the system, so people could start working on it and the process and costs could be tracked.
I originally put it in as Air Zoom Norbel. Just “LeBron” backward. Brad nixed that within two hours. (Laughs.) It got vetoed quickly.
So, I returned to my desk, thought about it briefly, and said, “OK, well, he’s the next generation. Air Zoom Generation?”
It sat in the system. Internally, we still called it “The LeBron Shoe.” I was expecting marketing to take the reins and rename it at some point.
It wasn’t until we landed him and knew we were going to production that we had the conversation of, “OK, what are we going to call it?” Everyone just felt that Air Zoom Generation was such a good name, and we wouldn’t come up with anything better.
LeBron also didn’t want his name on the shoe name yet. The second shoe was switched to Zoom LeBron 2. This bums me out because I might’ve ended up naming the entire signature series. [laughs]
As told by Romeo Travis, James’ high school teammate.
For James’ 18th birthday on Dec. 30 of his senior year in high school, his mother Gloria took out a $50,000 loan for a metallic silver Hummer H2, which featured a booming sound system, three TVs and a video game connection. The Ohio High School Athletic Association confirmed that the loan did not violate James’ amateur status.
The abnormal became normal.
One day, LeBron called us to his house and said, “Yo, come outside.”
And outside was the Hummer.
We said, “Yo! This not yours. Whose is this? Whose car did you borrow?”
He said, “This mine.”
It was the first time I saw a car with a reverse camera. I was just so excited for him. As much money as everyone else was making around us, I felt like he deserved that Hummer. He earned it, filling up those arenas. It was cool that his mom was able to do it.
We used to go to this saloon called The Boot on Sundays whenever it was a three-day weekend and there was no school on Monday. It was always a specific Sunday, and they would throw a big teen night party.
All the high schools from Akron, Cleveland and every surrounding city came together in one place, like, 5,000 kids. We pulled up in the Hummer. We all wore our own jerseys. It was amazing — just a crazy night.”
The real design inspiration
As told by Aaron Cooper of Nike.
There’s a topic that I have to set the record straight on. It’s been written many times in many places that the overall design aesthetic of the Air Zoom Generation was based on LeBron’s Hummer. But that’s not the case.
It was based on the concept of being a modern-day soldier. His AAU team, the Oakland Soldiers, was very important to him. He told me why the team was called the Soldiers and the importance of the military to him. It was all a part of a story of who he was and still is.
Unfortunately, at the time, the U.S. was at war in the Middle East, and it wasn’t something Nike wanted to make part of the storytelling. I respected that and certainly didn’t want to bring controversy to a special time and person.
The shoe has a boot stance and a boot-type aesthetic representing a soldier’s field boot. That’s also why we had the special edition wheat field boot colorway that he wore in the rookie game. A few seasons later, Ken Link created his playoff shoe series called the Soldier.
The only Hummer inspiration came toward the end of the process. I originally designed the word “KING” in the Hummer typography for the side of the midsole. The top two eyelets are a spoke of the Hummer’s rim, and the midfoot lace bar is from the Hummer. Being humble, LeBron wanted to switch it to “NIKE,” which is on the final shoe. Those are the only things from the Hummer.
Because the Hummer was part of LeBron’s story, looking at the car for some of the last finishing touches was fun, but it wasn’t the main inspiration behind the design. Our job was to create a signature-level product for LeBron and embody his personality and story into the shoe. That’s what great design is — where performance and style meet in the middle — and you can’t separate the two.
As told by Aaron Cooper.
The design for the bottom of the shoe came from Tinker. When I came back to the office and talked about the importance of the lion to LeBron, that’s what Tinker sunk his teeth into. We talked about the concept of a lion chasing its prey, and really digging its claws into the earth. We were inspired by LeBron’s ability to chase down an opponent for a block, and stop on a dime when he needed to make a play. That’s why Tinker incorporated those big bold herringbone grooves for the grip.
The kitchen sink
As told by Jeff Johnson of Nike.
We were designing and developing a shoe for LeBron, without his knowledge, while he was in high school. We intended to completely blow him out of his mind and not only put a shoe on the table but also: Here’s one in your size. That’s something Nike had never done before — and I don’t know if they’ve done it since.
The $110 retail price point was decided on really early. But I’m pretty sure we did not make our target profit margin. Our mindset was, “Throw the kitchen sink at it, and don’t worry about the cost.” It’s gotta be special.
It was probably a $150 shoe — at least. There was Zoom Air, Air Max, the Sphere lining, a great shank plate, and the double heel counter with one piece mirrored with a sunglass finish and inserted over the other. There was the molded toe tip and the best leather you could imagine. There was also a high-end sockliner. What more could we have shoved into that thing?
Multiple parts make up a prototype. You’ve got an outsole, a midsole and an upper. Each of those molds is going to be $2,500 to $4,000 each. That’s the cost when you’re doing an entire production run. When you’re doing one-off samples, the costs are much higher. We didn’t care. We had three months. It was a mad scramble to make it happen.
We had multiple prototypes at the meeting in his size. One of the first ones was the Timbs one, in all wheat. That was part of the inspiration. He had once said, “I could play in Timbs, if I had to.”
The fact we were building a product for somebody who hadn’t even signed with us was a high-risk, high-reward scenario. Nobody on the team would decide if the shoe moved forward – it was completely up to LeBron.
It wasn’t just the effort put into the shoe; more than anything, Nike tells an incredible story. Having an amazing story, not just drawings, but a product you could put on your feet, really communicated how serious Nike was about landing him. We wanted to land LeBron and ensure nobody else got him.
The gin martinis
As told by Nike’s Ralph Greene, the sender of the celebratory teamwide email.
We thought it was over for a while. Near the end of that Wednesday, I remember we started preparing to tell people we didn’t get LeBron, because the whole basketball department was invested in this.
Lynn [Merritt] left to clear his head. Then, by the end of that day, Nike got the deal done. This was the night before the email went out telling everybody.
We were pumped, and even though it was after business hours, we wanted to tell people. Lynn and I go to a bar in Beaverton and just start drinking.
Somehow, the news gets leaked out. Our phones start ringing when the next SportsCenter airs at the bar and the deal is announced. Different players are calling. I won’t give any names, but not many of them were congratulatory. There were guys in the league like, “What the f— are you guys doing? He hasn’t even played a game yet.” It was hilarious. We turned our phones off and finished our drinks.
As told by Ken Link, then-Nike Basketball design director
[Nike brand manager] Lynn Merritt is the straw that stirs the drink of LeBron for Nike. Period. To say it any other way is not factual.
There was a big game, and LeBron broke his wrist. At the end of the game, LeBron didn’t have anyone to take him to the hospital, so Lynn took him to get his arm fixed.
Lynn was always there. Lynn looked at LeBron like the responsibility that he was. Here’s a young kid; he’s “The King,” and will do special things. Lynn was thinking, “How do I help this kid stay on the path, to build this to what it can be?”
Lynn was the guy. He was always saying the right thing and always saying the thing that would help LeBron build. If something weren’t right, he would say, “Is that a big enough idea?” He continually would push this idea that “LeBron is so special, that we have to continually lift up and up.”
Everybody put their heart and soul into it, but Lynn was the one constant, reminding us of the special opportunity and responsibility.
We were just trying to win each of these missions that we went on. Lynn would entrust people and at the same time, empower them. He always wanted everyone around, so LeBron felt supported by Nike.
His nickname is “The General” for a reason. He always had a plan to go into battle.
The selfless swoosh
As told by Aaron Cooper of Nike.
The swoosh just bounced back and forth — on sketches, on prototypes, and then, all the way down to the finished sample. On one sample, I took Wite-Out, blocked out the swoosh on the collar, and drew a new one on the side.
The conversation was: Do we be more irreverent and put the swoosh on the collar? Or, do we be more traditional, be more expected and put it on the side?
LeBron was the one that said, “We need to put the swoosh on the side.”
That was constantly the question: Is it a Nike shoe, or LeBron’s signature shoe? If he was already established in the NBA and it was a bold signature shoe, it would’ve been directly called The Air LeBron, had the swoosh up on the collar and said “KING” on the side instead of “NIKE.”
At that time, there were a lot of signature shoes that weren’t moving off the shelves. In our conversations, LeBron felt like he hadn’t proven himself. He said, “Because I haven’t played yet, it needs to be a Nike shoe first.”
The first night of summer league
As told by Todd Krinsky of Reebok.
The summer after we didn’t sign him, the NBA had the Reebok Pro Summer League in Boston. The first night was the Celtics vs. the Cavaliers. I was sitting courtside before the game. And LeBron came right up to me from the layup line.
He spent a minute and a half explaining what was in his head to me. He says, “Listen, man, I just want to tell you that you guys gave a great pitch and it’s nothing personal. In the end, I just went with my heart, and went with what I thought was right for me.”
Like, s—, this kid was 18. He didn’t need to do that. But I feel like that was a reflection of who he is. That’s how he handles business. He’s honest and personal. And I’ve always respected that about him.
LeBron gave me a bear hug and wished me luck, and I wished him luck. He walked away, and it was one of those surreal moments. Watching him go back into the layup line, I said to myself, “This kid knows everything that’s coming for him. And he’s ready for all of it.”
The good news
As told by Aaron Cooper.
At the end of the day, the contract was gonna be what it was gonna be. But we know that product is a long game. And LeBron understood that. It wasn’t about a one-time deal. Whether Reebok’s check was $10 million, $20 million, whatever – at the end of the day, it shouldn’t have mattered, and it didn’t end up mattering.
Sports marketing’s role is to get athletes to see the bigger picture. Another company might show up with a bigger contract and make things look more attractive on the surface. But Lynn would help young athletes see the bigger picture, understand what it meant to be a Nike athlete and everything else that comes with that. That’s why Lynn Merritt was so good at what he did.
Nike was — and still is — the best athletic company, best footwear company, best marketing company and best basketball company. And LeBron was the next best player. It all just added up.
When I got the word that LeBron was signing with Nike, it was pure excitement. It was like, All is right in the universe. It was all meant to be.
If he hadn’t signed, it would’ve felt just so wrong. If he had signed elsewhere, however long the contract was for — seven years, 10 years — I don’t think it would’ve lasted that long. Eventually, he would’ve come over to Nike.
Christmas in May
As told by Romeo Travis.
We call it Christmas in July, but it was obviously May. We were still in school. And LeBron said, “Come by the house. I got something for y’all.”
We get there, and everyone has this huge duffel bag full of Nike stuff in their sizes. Everybody got Jordans, Nikes, sweatsuits, and headbands. So, we were all in there going crazy! Like, “Oh, my God, ’Bron signed with Nike!”
He’ll tell Nike, “Take care of my guys and show them some love.” That’s what he did from day one. Even to this day, he’s still like that.
There was no way I would’ve come to school if I just signed with Nike. But LeBron did his homework on time and was at school like everything was normal — like nothing happened. Imagine getting a $100 million contract and being at school the next day.
We always would rag on LeBron, like, “Oh, you think you the man now.” All that type of stuff. But he always stayed calm and poised. He wasn’t the jerk that he could’ve been.
I always say God blessed one of the best people because he knew how to handle everything.
The ‘Pressure’ commercial
As told by then-Sacramento Kings point guard and Jordan Brand athlete Mike Bibby.
I was in his first commercial, guarding him. At first, Nike wanted to show him blowing by me and dunking.
I said, “No, no, no. I’m not going to be in a commercial showing a rookie blowing by me and dunking. We ain’t gonna do that.”
So that’s why the commercial blacks out when he finally dribbles. I said, “Maybe you guys want somebody else. Because I have respect for myself. I’m not gonna let anybody blow by me. I don’t care if it’s LeBron James or Doo Doo Williams – I’m not gonna look like a dummy on TV.”
The debut of the king
As told by former NBA commissioner David Stern to Andscape in 2018.
Opening week [in 2003], I probably went to five games, but this one [between Sacramento and Cleveland] was the most highly anticipated, it’s fair to say. And Nike had gone out of its way to build up what would happen. They were doubly interested in the debut of the king.
Nike was placing a huge bet on this young man’s success. I admire the athletic and apparel companies. [Back then], if you wanted to know what 12-year-olds were likely to be in the NBA in six or seven years, you should’ve checked in with the shoe companies, because they knew.
What was going through my mind the entire game was, “This kid has game.” It was clear that Nike was onto something big.
The person behind the product
As told by Aaron Cooper.
Right away, I was impressed with LeBron’s character. His whole humbleness, eagerness and respectful nature always came into play whenever we were together. LeBron’s mom Gloria did an amazing job raising him and putting a great village around him.
She was instrumental and around most of the time. You could tell the relationship’s importance and its impact on his life. She was a part of our process too. Because of her presence, his guard was never up. She was always there. She was always respectful. And she would chime in. She was a key piece of the great dynamic that we had together. We even made pairs of the AZG just for Gloria in white and pink, her favorite colors.
Because of Gloria, I’m not surprised to see the person and father LeBron has become all these years later, and the impact he’s been able to have on people in his hometown and around the world. He organized his small basketball tournament on one of our trips to Akron. The price of admission was to bring school supplies. LeBron and his friends put on the tournament, collected all of the school supplies and then distributed everything to whoever couldn’t afford them.
You have to consider the context of everything going on in LeBron’s life then. This was all before social media. He wasn’t out to gain followers on Instagram or TikTok or put on a front at any point because it’d look good online.
One of the most important things that I learned from Tinker, that he learned from [Nike co-founder] Bill Bowerman, is that it’s always about the person behind the product. The character and story of that person matter most – and LeBron had that quality about him right from the start. The athlete behind the shoe is what creates the stories that live on and keep the shoe relevant.