LeBron James’s recent decision to join the Los Angeles Lakers for a four-year, roughly $154 million deal has sparked much debate in the basketball world. But it’s clear to those familiar with James’s moves off the court that the superstar has always been Hollywood-bound.
On screen, James has appeared in the Judd Appatow-directed 2015 romantic comedy, “Trainwreck,” starring comedians Amy Schumer and Bill Hader, and is reportedly in the running for a role in “Space Jam 2,” the long-awaited sequel to the 1996 film starring NBA icon Michael Jordan. But his biggest Hollywood impact may prove to be behind the scenes.
In 2015, James’ production shingle SpringHill Entertainment, named for the housing complex he and his mother moved into when he was in sixth grade, set up shop at Warner Bros. Later that same year, James purchased his first L.A. home in the posh Brentwood neighborhood.
It’s clear to those familiar with James’s moves off the court that the superstar has always been Hollywood-bound.
Prior to James' Hollywood house-hunting, however, SpringHill was already enjoying early success. “Survivor’s Remorse,” the scripted comedy series about a young, newly minted basketball multi-millionaire and his family, began airing on Starz on October 4, 2014. “More Than a Game,” the documentary following the eventual superstar and four of his teammates through adolescence, was released way back in 2008.
James is far from the first basketball player to try and make his mark on the silver screen. And he certainly wouldn’t be the first Laker. Lakers great and one-time rival Kobe Bryant’s Oscar win for his animated short, “Dear Basketball,” earlier this year may have even sweetened the pot for James.
Then there’s Magic Johnson, the Lakers icon who is the team’s president of operations. The two NBA superstars have a lot in common. In addition to being one of the greatest basketball players ever with five rings to James’s three, Johnson is also Midwest-born and raised. Their native states, Ohio and Michigan, even border each other. Having produced several films, including the 2009 thriller “Obsessed,” starring Idris Elba and Beyoncé, and the 2002 hip-hop romance “Brown Sugar” with Sanaa Lathan and Taye Diggs, Johnson is well positioned to help James achieve his Hollywood ambitions. Johnson even owns his own cable network, Aspire, which is geared towards African Americans.
James is far from the first basketball player to try and make his mark on the silver screen. And he certainly wouldn’t be the first Laker.
James, thanks to a huge assist from his childhood friend and SpringHill co-founder and CEO Maverick Carter, already boasts an impressive list of projects in development. There is the limited series on black female haircare mogul Madam C.J. Walker, and the third season of “Top Boy,” a gritty series following drug dealers in East London, both for Netflix. There’s also a Muhammed Ali doc helmed by “Training Day” director Antoine Fuqua slated for HBO, as well as an untitled sneaker store comedy. Two game shows — “The Wall” and “Do or Dare” — carry the SpringHill banner. James also marked the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination by executive producing the one-hour History Channel special, “Rise Up: The Movement That Changed America,” with Emmy-winning filmmaker Stanley Nelson, known for “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution” and “Freedom Riders.”
Featuring interviews with King comrades Andrew Young and Jesse Jackson, as well as pivotal supporter Harry Belafonte, former President Bill Clinton and others, “Rise Up” focuses on how key Civil Rights protests resulted in radical legislative change.
Just before “Rise Up” aired on April 4, James shared that he and Carter “started SpringHill to tell the stories we wanted in our community.” That community, as evidenced by SpringHill’s many sports projects, doesn’t just refer to African Americans. Through James’s multimedia digital platform, Uninterrupted, he and peers such as Serena Williams, Ronda Rousey, black NHL player P.K. Subban and Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir — who played Division I basketball wearing a hijab — use video to tell their own stories. Uninterrupted, which counts Warner Bros. and Turner Sports among its investors, proves that “there are so many creative opportunities for athletes to tell their stories," James said.
Some of those Uninterrupted stories are now being picked up by other platforms. “The Carter Effect,” a documentary exploring the lasting cultural impact of first Toronto Raptors superstar Vince Carter on NBA basketball and pop culture in Canada, is available on Netflix. Then there’s the Starz docuseries “The Warriors of Liberty City,” about the youth football program led by the notorious Luther Campbell of raunchy rap group 2 Live Crew. In many ways, “The Warriors of Liberty City” serves as a prequel to the superstar athletes we see today in that it highlights how hard athletes have to work — starting as kids — to beat the odds and make it to the pros.
James’s SpringHill partner Carter told The Hollywood Reporter that “SpringHill will thrive regardless of where LeBron plays basketball” and also pointed out that the company “was built while [James] played in Cleveland.” But that doesn’t mean James’ Los Angeles presence won’t help the brand. The networking opportunities alone are invaluable. Lakers games have long been must-attend events for Hollywood powerbrokers. Not surprisingly, celebrities ranging from Arnold Schwarzenegger and Ice Cube to Ryan Seacrest and Ava DuVernay were quick to welcome the Lakers’ new king on social media.
James clearly likes to win, whether in athletics or business. While his last big move was about collecting championships, it seems pursuing Hollywood moguldom is now as important to him as more rings. And in that context, joining the Lakers isn’t just a smart choice — it’s a slam dunk.
Ronda Racha Penrice is a freelance writer and cultural critic. Her work has appeared on The Root, NBC BLK and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.