LeBron James is a busy guy. The 31-year-old NBA star began his professional career at age 18 playing for the Cleveland Cavaliers. He has since gone on to win three championships, including one for the Cavaliers this year in arguably the most impressive comeback in NBA history.
The Cavaliers were down 3-1 in the NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors, who went 73-9 in the regular season. No NBA team had ever come back from that deficit to win the finals.
Now that the season is over, James has been pursuing a lot outside of basketball. In his hometown of Akron, Ohio, he created the LeBron James Family Foundation and has pledged to give students there four-year college scholarship. In addition to the work in his community, James is laying the groundwork to become a billionaire businessman. He is the first athlete to receive a lifetime contract with Nike and he recently signed a three-year NBA contract for about $100 million. James also cofounded a distributed media company for athletes called Uninterrupted, and made his film debut in 2015’s “Trainwreck.” He is rumoured to be exploring a role in a sequel to “Space Jam.”
I sat down with James at the Crosby Street Hotel in New York City on Thursday morning for a 25-minute interview about his life on and off the court. Here’s the interview, which has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Alyson Shontell, Business Insider US editor-in-chief: Tell me what you’ve been up to in the offseason? I saw some banana-boating in Spain?
LeBron James: I’ve been doing a little vacation, a lot of family time. During the season you’re wrapped into the whole basketball thing and how to prepare to win every night and things of that nature. The family takes a hit because you don’t get to spend as much time with them as you would like.
So, in the offseason I spend a lot of time with the family. I’ve also been doing a lot of things with my business, so it’s been going well.
Shontell: I want to talk to you about all of your business ventures. But first, we have to talk about this amazing comeback you just had. No team has come back from a 3-1 deficit in the finals, and yet, you did.
So, take me back to that night, game four. What happened between games four and five? A lot of people would have thought, “All right — that’s it.”
James: Right. It was a difficult night. The series was 2-1, and we had another opportunity to tie the series at home. And we played a great first half in that game four. We were up at the half, and then in the third quarter it just went down the drain.
We lost our defensive pressure. Golden State turned up the pressure, and they were able to steal our home-court advantage to go up 3-1.
So I’m sitting at home, recalibrating and thinking about the game. And everyone is kind of down at that point. For me as a leader, I couldn’t allow myself to get in a funk. I just started to try and recalibrate and say, “Listen, we’ve got to go to Golden State for game five. We’ve got to come home anyways. So why not come home and give our fans another game, and give them an opportunity to have a game six?”
And that was my mindset. I was very relaxed going out to Golden State for game five, and obviously we saw what happened in that game. I was extremely confident in my teammates’ abilities throughout game five, and then coming home in game six to our fans, who are ecstatic and crazy as can be.
And then, in game seven, it’s one game. It’s sudden death, and it doesn’t matter what’s going on at that point. I believe in one game, I’m going to take myself every time.
In game seven, it’s one game. It’s sudden death … I believe in one game, I’m going to take myself every time.
If you just give me one game for it all, I’m going to take it myself. And we were able to do something that’s never been done, like you mentioned, a comeback from 3-1. And to win it on their home floor — it was an amazing feat for our franchise.
Shontell: You told a great story on the Jesse Williams “Open Run” podcast you just launched about how you spent that night of game four. You sent a group text to your troops, and you said — what did you say?
James: We have a group chat throughout the season where we talk about everything, with all the guys. We talk about everything from, “Hey, this what time we’re doing dinner,” to “This what time the bus is,” or just mentally preparing for games.
I was sitting at home with my wife, and we we’re watching Eddie Murphy’s stand-up comedy [“Raw”] because I wanted to get my mind off the game and bring some more joy into the room. And then I sent a group chat text to my guys, saying: “OK, listen: It doesn’t matter what just happened. And I know we’re all down about it, but in order for us to accomplish what no one believes we can do, we have to refocus and we have to re-lock in. You guys do your part, and I promise you, as the leader of the team, I won’t let you down. Just follow my lead.”
Shontell: So game seven, the play everybody talks about is your chase-down block. ESPN clocked you going 19 miles an hour to get from half court to where you could slam that ball against the backboard in just a few seconds. Where does that play rank for you? Is that your number one LeBron play of all time?
James: I would have to say, just coming off the top of my mind, that would definitely rank number one — just because of the magnitude of the game and what was going on at that point in the game.
I had to run through a couple guys and get around a couple guys to get to that position. And it was a big moment, not only for that particular moment in the game but for Cleveland sports history now that you can look back upon it. A lot of people are saying so.
A lot of people will base a game-winning jump shot, or dunk, or something that happened offensively. But for my legacy to be a block or something defensively to help us win, that’s the ultimate for me.
For my legacy to be a block, or something defensively to help us win, that’s the ultimate for me.
Shontell: You guys won. You didn’t cry the two times you won your championships in Miami, but you did for this, so clearly it was emotional. What was the plane ride like?
James: It was pandemonium. There was definitely no crying. There was so much laughter and joking and excitement. Our franchise took us to Vegas from San Francisco. Guys partied there, and then we went home and had another celebration.
So we had a five-hour flight back to Cleveland in front of our fans, and they were there waiting at the airport. No one slept. We were so high off adrenaline and emotions and everything. I wish I could get it back. I wish I had a Go-Pro attached to my head throughout everything where I could have captured it all. But the memories are still here for sure.
Shontell: You were wearing an “Ultimate Warrior” shirt when you got off the plane. People loved that — well, or hated it. Be honest: Did you pack that before you won game seven? How’d you wind up wearing that shirt?
WATCH: The story behind the Ultimate Warrior t-shirt
James: Well, it’s funny because my wife bought [it earlier]. She asked me who my favourite wrestlers of all time were, and I told her Sting, Stone Cold Steve Austin, Ultimate Warrior, The Undertaker, and Ric Flair. Those are some of my favourite guys ever from growing up.
So, one day I get home from practice, and there are these T-shirts laying in my bedroom, and my wife purchased them from a store. I packed them all throughout the playoffs. And the shirt that I had on to come home in, I wore in Vegas, and my teammates sprayed me with Champagne. It got soaking wet, so I had to throw it in the trash, and the only other shirt I had in my bag was my Ultimate Warrior T-shirt.
Shontell: The only one?
James: That was the only one because all our bags were underneath the plane. So the only one I had was the Ultimate Warrior T-shirt that was packed in my travel luggage. And that’s what I put on. Everybody thinks it was set up that way, but it really wasn’t. It kind of worked out that way.
Shontell: But what if you had lost? That shirt would not have been on if you had lost.
James: That would have been the T-shirt I’d have had on still. Or I could have done the J.R. Smith and not worn a T-shirt.
Shontell: That might not have gone over well in Cleveland if things hadn’t worked out. Let’s talk about your business initiatives, because you’re doing a lot there. You have a great other half in Maverick Carter, who’s been a friend for decades. Tell me the story about how you two met and how you trusted him with your brand?
James: We grew up in the same hometown of Akron, Ohio, which is a very small city. And if you know one person, then that person knows one of your family members, and everyone becomes family basically.
As we became teenagers, Maverick ended up going to St. Vincent-St. Mary. When I was in seventh grade, we struck up a great friendship from being childhood friends as well. He kind of recruited me to come to his school, and I eventually went to St. Vincent-St. Mary. When I was a freshman, he was a senior. He was our senior captain of the ball club, and I looked up to him and saw the way he approached the game and school and things of that nature. He’s always been someone I was fond of.
Our friendship continued to where he graduated high school and went off to college, and then I played my prep school years. When I went off to be a pro, I knew he was someone I wanted to keep around me. And now we’re not only friends — we’re also business partners.
To add on to what you were saying, Alyson, we have done some great things so far. We have a TV show on Starz called “Survivor’s Remorse.” We have a show on CNBC coming out [on August 24] called “Cleveland Hustles.” We have “Uninterrupted,” where athletes can dig in deep on what they’re going through — giving fans even more insight into what they’re doing as well. We’re doing so many great things that it all kind of runs in together, but it’s our passion. It’s our passion from when we were kids to now, and it’s great to be able to put those things into real life.
Shontell: Tell me a little bit more about “Uninterrupted.” Sports people know what it is, but it just launched last year. You guys raised a little bit of money for it, and it’s distributed media, right?
James: Right. So, we’re not journalism, and we don’t want to get in the way of that. But our platform gives fans an even more in-depth look into what we do on a day-to-day basis. It could be about anything. It could be: “Hey, I just woke up. I just want to let you guys know that I’m off to my workout.” Or it could be, “I’m taking my kids to school.”
It gives our fans the [feeling] they’re actually with you. It gives them even more in-depth conversation, because sometimes, when you’re in the locker room and you do an interview, once it comes on television it’s just a small sample of what you were saying. With “Uninterrupted,” it gives our fans even more insight and there are no breaks. It’s completely naturally. There’s no cut or edit. It’s just raw, and our fans have gravitated towards it, and I’m happy to a part of it and to be a founder as well.
Shontell: One part you just mentioned was your CNBC show that’s launching, “Cleveland Hustles.” It seems like a lot of the things you do are to help where you’re from. Obviously, you’ve got your foundation there that gives back a lot, but tell me a little bit about “Cleveland Hustles.”
James: Like you just mentioned, I have an opportunity to give back to my community. There’s my foundation and what we do for the kids, but also I have an opportunity to produce a show, “Cleveland Hustles,” that debuts on the 24th of August on CNBC. It gives the common person with a dream an opportunity to make that dream come to life.
We have entrepreneurs who have startup companies, and we have some great investors who are putting their time and their money behind them. We’ve given the normal person with a dream the opportunity to make that dream become a successful reality.
For me to be part of that, and for me to create jobs and insight into what goes on in Cleveland as well … Hopefully, if that becomes successful, we can go to other cities. We can have “Detroit Hustles.” We can have “Chicago Hustles.” We can have “Louisville Hustles.” Because every city in America has that hustle mentality, and sometimes they just need someone to recognise that. So hopefully, we can jump off of that once we have this Cleveland one going.
Shontell: Your foundation has a lot of different components, but you focus on third-graders, and also their parents, and high-school kids as well. So there are a lot of different moving parts, but why third-graders?
James: Statistics show that if kids fall behind in the third grade, then the chances of them graduating are a lot less than any other grade. That let us know: “OK, this is the grade that we need to start with. We need to get these kids in the third grade.” And we’ve been fortunate enough to be in our sixth year now. Our third graders who started the first year of the program are now in eighth grade. And now we have a new group of kids coming in, and it’s been warming for me to see kids really accept this.
Shontell: One thing that just went viral is the news that you’re now suddenly going to help these kids get four-year scholarships to college when they become of age.
James: I worked very closely with the University of Akron, and I wanted to do something even more special. We started off mentoring these kids, the third-graders, all the way up through high school and get them to a point where they can eventually graduate high school. But I didn’t think that was enough. I wanted to take it a step further than that.
So, we partnered with the University of Akron and started another program where, if the kids sustain a 3.0 grade-point average — something we feel like our kids can meet under the circumstances and supervision we’ve given them — then at the end of that road there’s a college scholarship. And then they can take that from there. So that’s what we’re hoping our kids can do. We know our kids can do that, and we’re going to keep the infrastructure around them to make sure that they can accomplish that.
Shontell: That’s not a cheap thing you’re offering here. It’s about $41 million worth of commitments. Which, by the way, is in total contrast to the role you played in the movie “Trainwreck.” Why were you so cheap in that movie? You played yourself, but that doesn’t seem true to character.
James: You know, I was actually going to pay for this interview, but I left my wallet downstairs in the car …
Shontell: I’ll get an I.O.U. But it was hilarious — in the movie you were making people split every bill. Do you do that in real life?
James: Yeah, sometimes! Sometimes. It was fun to be a part of that cast, with the great Amy Schumer, the great Bill Hader and Judd Apatow. Unbelievable. Vanessa Bryant, who’s also a Cleveland girl too. We had a lot of fun on set, but some of those instances in that movie, is actually some actuality about me.
WATCH: LeBron on the possibility of “Space Jam 2”
Shontell: While we’re on the subject of movies, “Space Jam 2”?
James: Would love to, would love to. And there have been a lot of talks about it, but, obviously, I have a great partnership with Warner Brothers, and they definitely were the ones who brought “Space Jam” one, which was incredible. Michael Jordan and the Looney Tunes — they did an unbelievable thing not only for my childhood but for so many kids and so many people that followed the franchise.
So, obviously we want to make sure that it’s right. We don’t want to rush it. We don’t want to do something that’s not authentic to the “Space Jam” brand. So hopefully we can get it right. But right now, where it stands, the “Space Jam” franchise is in a great place.
Shontell: On a more serious note, you and your friends did an amazing thing at the ESPYs, talking a lot about some very serious issues that many people, quite frankly, with huge endorsements on the line just don’t feel comfortable talking about. Why weren’t you kind of afraid to speak out about that?
James: It’s just in me. It’s who I am, and it’s something I’m passionate about. And it feels right. If it feels right to me, then I believe it should be spoke upon, and I have so many different avenues where I can do that — through “Uninterrupted,” through my social platform, and also the ESPYs were a perfect platform, because they’re the one day of the year where all our fellow athletes get together in the same venue.
And to have a brotherhood like I have with Chris Paul, and Dwyane Wade, and Carmelo Anthony — we use that platform to voice our opinions about the state of America and the state of how we see it today. My particular point was about, it’s OK to lend money, and it’s fine to make an appearance, but I think it’s more impactful to actually get into our communities and get these kids — kid by kid, brick by brick, and street by street, family by family — and actually use our infrastructure we’ve built over our careers to actually make an impact. Because these kids look up to us as role models and superheroes and father figures and things of that nature. So, that was my message.
Shontell: We only have a few minutes left, and I wanted to ask you: I’m sure you’ve heard that Kevin Durant is joining the Golden State Warriors. How did you learn about that news, and what did you think?
James: I learned just like everyone else, through social media. I think it was on the Fourth of July when it actually happened, and I was in my home in Los Angeles, preparing for a Fourth of July barbecue. When I saw the news I was like, “Wow.”
I think everyone had the “wow” thing. My [reaction] was no different from the average person who doesn’t know basketball to the person who watches it or covers it every day. So, I think it’s all great for our league. Our league is very competitive. It’s continued to grow, and Adam Silver has done a great job of picking up where David Stern started, so it’s pretty cool.
Shontell: A lot of people didn’t react as calmly as you might have to that news. Fans had opinions about it and thought: “It’s not right. He’s joining a super-stacked team.” Do you better understand now the reaction fans had towards you when you joined the Heat?
James: Well, I think every decision is different. My decision to leave Cleveland to go to Miami and then go back is different from Kevin Durant leaving OKC and going to the Warriors. It’s different from Shaq leaving Orlando and going to the Lakers. It’s different from Michael retiring, coming back, retiring, coming back, and then going to the Wizards. So I think every decision is different, and how much you have invested in that player, I guess, or how much you feel for that player is how you’re going to react. So everyone is different.
Shontell: Did any other teams have a chance of getting you back then, or was it just Cleveland or Miami?
James: No, there were a few teams. I’ve mentioned it before that I looked strongly at Chicago at the time. And I gave some thought to the Knicks and the Nets at the time as well. I met with those two teams. I also met with the Clippers back then, but it ultimately came down to me staying home or going to Miami once I knew that I needed to partner with some great players to get past Boston.
Boston was the team with Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen, and Paul Pierce, and Rajon Rondo. I knew that I had to get better with talent. And Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh fit that mould.
Shontell: Switching gears a little bit, I don’t know if you’ve read this or not, but Michael Phelps was apparently eating something like 12,000 calories before the Beijing Olympics. The guy, I’m not kidding, he would eat a fully stacked egg sandwich, omelets …
James: Yeah, I heard about that. Pancakes, and pizzas …
Shontell: … to the point where I would not want to eat anymore. Do you do that?
James: No. I do not do that. Before competition for me would be like a chicken breast and maybe a little pasta. The carbs help because you’re going to out and playing a lot of minutes. But a salad and some veggies will have me perfectly fine. And before the game I might have a protein shake and some fruit, and I’ll be ready to go.
But as far as pies or pizza and sandwiches and french fries — I can’t. I’ll wait for that after the game. I can’t do that before the game.
Shontell: And how about your workout schedule? I know you said you’re waking up at 5 a.m. still, even though you’re supposed to be resting.
James: Right. I know — I can’t rest. I try, but my workout regimen is pretty much five times a week, every day. And it varies. Sometimes I stay at home and work out. Sometimes I’ll go to an actual class. I’ve been to like versaclimber classes, or spinning classes. I do pilates as well. So, it kind of varies depending on how I’m feeling.
Shontell: And is that the same throughout the season? I would assume you do three-a-day workouts sometimes.
James: During the season, we’re playing basketball every single day, and we’re working on our bodies every day. So I don’t get the opportunity to do the classes as much because we’re doing a lot of travelling. But my workout regimen is pretty consistent then as well. It’s mostly seven days a week during the season because we play games on the weekend.
Shontell: Finally, a leadership question: You’re a great leader both on and off the court, for the people of Akron, for all of Cleveland, and for your team, picking them up from that 3-1 deficit. How do you do it? How can someone be a leader like you?
James: I think you have to accept it. Some people were born with it, but some people learn it as well. For me, as the leader of our franchise and the leader of my household and the leader of so many different things, I think it’s about confidence but also practicing what you preach.
I’m not a guy who just talks about it. I actually go out and do it as well, from a basketball perspective, or from a leadership perspective, or my kids at my foundation. We have a promise initiative [at my foundation], where the kids promise me they will go to school, that they will listen to their teachers, that they will be great to their classmates. And I promise them that I will continue to be a great role model, a father figure for them, and not let those guys down. So I take that responsibility, and I don’t just talk about it — I actually do it as well.
When you’re able to come through on your word, it allows the guys that you’re leading, male or female, to be able to say, “OK. We can follow this person because he won’t let us down. No matter if it’s going good or bad.”
Every day is not a bed of roses. We understand that. And you have to be able to handle adversity as well.
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