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LeBron visits Los Angeles and courtside is as interesting to watch as the game itself

The business and networking magic rivals the action on the floor

LOS ANGELES — Not far from the Cleveland Cavaliers’ bench and its superstar LeBron James sat Los Angeles Rams star running back Todd Gurley in seat 27 along the baseline near the basket at Staples Center. Two seats from Gurley was renowned investment adviser Paul Wachter, who has worked with James, actor Arnold Schwarzenegger and singer Bono, among others. Two seats down from Wachter was Anthony Saleh, CEO of Emagen Entertainment Group, whose artists include rappers Future and Nas and singer Alina Baraz.

Sandwiched between Gurley, Wachter and Saleh on this Sunday night were James’ two right-hand men, agent Rich Paul and business manager Maverick Carter. When it comes to Los Angeles Lakers games at the Staples Center, so much is understandably made of their 16 NBA championships, the long list of past superstars and the celebrity sightings, such as award-winning actor and season-ticket holder Jack Nicholson. Often overlooked, or perhaps not widely known, is the business that is done game to game among billionaires, millionaires and movers and shakers of the Los Angeles business, sports and entertainment worlds.

Jack Nicholson attends a basketball game between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Cleveland Cavaliers at Staples Center on Sunday in Los Angeles.

Allen Berezovsky/Getty Images

James is not tipping his hand when it comes to where he will be playing next season if he opts out of his contract as expected. The Akron, Ohio, native’s home state and familiar Cavaliers, his buddy Chris Paul and leading MVP candidate James Harden and the Houston Rockets, and the budding power Philadelphia 76ers are all expected to be in the running. But considering the possible top-shelf money that could be made by going to Los Angeles, the Lakers could offer the most lucrative long-term choice for James.

Yes, James already has major business deals and endorsements. Forbes magazine reported that the four-time NBA MVP earned $86 million in 2017, including $55 million from product endorsements. The NBA’s leading pitchman also has a lifetime deal from Nike that could net him more than $1 billion, and he has an estimated net worth of $400 million, according to Celebrity Net Worth. But James could put himself in a position for much more money, business power and open Hollywood doors by playing for the Lakers.

One Lakers employee said the courtside seats are always filled with billionaires and power brokers in the entertainment capital of the world. Yes, Nicholson, boxing legend Floyd Mayweather Jr., singer Adam Levine and famed actor Denzel Washington are regulars at Lakers games. But some of the faces you might not recognize paying $4,000 per ticket have the real money and can open doors to the world much more than any courtside-sitting fans in Cleveland, Houston or Philadelphia could. Keep in mind that James is also heavily involved in the movie and television world as a producer and occasional actor.

Los Angeles Rams running back Todd Gurley, left, poses with former NBA player Lamar Odom during the second half of a basketball game between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Cleveland Cavaliers on Sunday in Los Angeles.

AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill

The business and networking magic taking place courtside during pregame, timeouts, halftime and postgame can be as interesting to watch as the game itself. Gurley and Insecure actor Sarunas J. Jackson, who sat in the second row near all the power brokers, were in awe of the environment and the city of Los Angeles.

“It changed my life,” said Gurley, who played with the St. Louis Rams before they moved back to Los Angeles in 2016. “It definitely helped me out. Just the opportunity to meet people right here and do this interview, I would never be able to do that in another city. It’s fantastic. The weather here is great. The people here are great. Just the whole. It’s like a dream come true.”

Jackson said Lakers games are one of the best places for networking because the people here “love hoop.”

“When you come to a Lakers game, it’s different because everyone wants to be there to watch the team,” Jackson said. “You run into almost anybody, and you don’t know what could come of it. I ran into some people tonight who I will probably meet with on certain stuff.

“You know when you come here you’re going to always run into somebody about something that is going. You don’t plan it; it’s just organic. That’s what this town brings, friendship and networking.”

Lakers president and Hall of Famer Magic Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka also took advantage of the environment on this night. It’s no secret the Lakers would love to sign James. Lakers fans certainly let the 2018 NBA All-Star Game MVP know that by cheering for him during introductions and during the game. Johnson and Pelinka also legally visited with Carter and Paul during downtimes in the Cavs-Lakers game to exchange pleasantries.

Considering it was the NBA’s most dominant and popular player, the Lakers players themselves had no reason to be jealous either as their bosses rubbed elbows with his people.

LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers shoots the ball during the game against the Lakers at Staples Center on Sunday in Los Angeles.

Josh Lefkowitz/Getty Images

“You saw the crowd. Everyone came to see him,” Lakers rookie guard Lonzo Ball said. “It’s a lot of fun, especially when he is in the building.”

The mammoth challenge for Johnson, Pelinka and the Lakers is whether the Lakers offer a championship-winning product to attract James to Los Angeles.

While Los Angeles has some exciting young players with Ball, Kyle Kuzma and Brandon Ingram, they are on pace to miss the postseason for the fifth year in a row in the mighty Western Conference. Even if the young Lakers added James and All-Star free agent-to-be Paul George, as they could potentially do with some roster moves, would that be enough to challenge Golden State and Houston next season? James may already have three NBA championships and seven straight Finals appearances, but after a 127-113 blowout loss to the Lakers, he made clear that winning is important.

“I will never accept a loss. That is not in my DNA,” James said.

Who knows how many lunch meetings were set up or business cards Paul and Carter received on this night while James was playing? Who knows how many more money moves Paul and Carter could make nightly if James were a Laker? According to Forbes magazine, only Real Madrid soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo made more money among professional athletes than James did last year. But if you’re playing for the renowned Lakers, in the No. 2 market in the United States with the movers and shakers sitting around the court ready to do business, Ronaldo and every other sports icon could be looking up financially to the NBA star nicknamed “King James” quickly.

Paul and Carter, who both live in Los Angeles, are already doing big business in L.A., but it certainly would be enhanced with James playing here. Perhaps the bigger question is how much money does a billionaire-to-be really need? Regardless of whether James opts to go with the purple and gold, he will still see a lot of green.

“For him it is different because he is already LeBron,” Gurley said. “I don’t know, man. With him, he is such a big name and accomplished so much. Obviously, the Lakers are one of the best franchises of all time. LeBron’s name speaks for itself. He doesn’t need a city or a team to speak for him.

“That is what makes him so special. He’s LeBron.”

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.