“The Unmasked Story Behind LeBron James’ 2003 Sneaker Deal: A Regal Bargain”

After two decades, we revisit one of the wildest races in the footwear industry that involved sports giants Nike, Adidas, and Reebok.


LeBron James, also known as “King James,” made a decision just after midnight in Akron, Ohio the night before the 2003 NBA draft lottery. He signed his rookie endorsement contract with Nike, which was worth a whopping $87 million fully guaranteed over seven years. This remains the richest rookie shoe deal ever signed by any basketball player in history. The following day, May 22, 2003, at 7:54 a.m., dozens of Nike employees received an email stating that they had signed James. The message emphasized that the deal was more about what James saw and felt rather than what he received. The news was reported by the Associated Press five hours later, stating that James had chosen Nike over Reebok and Adidas after years of being courted by all three global footwear companies.

LeBron James, a talented high school basketball player, held a press conference in Akron, Ohio, after the Cleveland Cavaliers won the NBA draft lottery on May 22, 2003. James’ first agent, Aaron Goodwin, organized a bidding process that reached unprecedented heights. Three brands, including Adidas and Reebok, believed they had a good chance of signing James. However, two weeks before his graduation from St. Vincent-St. Mary’s High School, James rejected an offer from Adidas that only partially guaranteed payment, despite expecting $100 million over ten years. He also declined a six-year offer from Reebok that included additional perks and a bonus check presented by CEO Paul Fireman to him and his mother. The final offer from Reebok was well over $100 million, but James turned it down.

LeBron James revolutionized the concept of player empowerment, but in a way that might surprise you. In the lead-up to the draft lottery, Reebok executive Tom Shine and Fireman met with James at an Akron hotel to secure a deal. They stepped out of the room at one point, and James expressed his comfort with Reebok. However, three hours later, he unexpectedly chose Nike. James had smartly signed the deal before he or any of the sneaker companies knew where he would begin his NBA career.

The Cleveland Cavaliers clinched the first selection at the NBA draft lottery on May 22, 2003, with a 22.5% probability of winning. The owner at that time, Gordon Gund, was well-prepared and had a wine and gold No. 23 LeBron James jersey at hand to celebrate. In a post-lottery news conference, James expressed his preference for Nike, and within three months, the company delivered nine pairs of Air Zoom Generation shoes, eventually becoming James’ first signature sneaker. This event is considered one of the most remarkable pursuits in the history of the sneaker industry, where Nike outperformed Reebok, which only had drawings of James’ shoe.

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