More than two decades after Mars Blackmon hustled America into buying Air Jordans and the "Be Like Mike" jingle had us reaching for the Gatorade, the model for how to turn a gifted basketball player into a worldwide icon remains largely unchanged. LeBron James, the latest and most worthy heir to Michael Jordan's throne, is trying to be like Mike. Some very smart people think that's a huge mistake.
Though Kobe Bryant's hang-gliding game has born the closest resemblance to Jordan's on the court, Bryant never fully captured the imagination as a marketer, spokesman or pitchman. So the vacuum left by Jordan, the first international basketball icon, has yet to be filled. James intends to fill it.
"I think it's really unfair to compare people to Michael," said David Falk, the super-agent who created the Air Jordan paradigm that James is trying to replicate. "There'll never be another Michael."
No, there won't. And there will never be anyone better as long as the next challenger falls into the same trap of trying to imitate Jordan instead of trying to surpass him.
In sheer dollars and market share, LeBron's off-court accomplishments through the first six seasons of his NBA career are "staggering," said Paul Swangard, director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon. 60 Minutes, in a profile of James on Sunday night, placed his annual income from basketball and other sources at $40 million last year. The Harvard Business School said James is now the third-biggest name in the sports world behind Tiger Woods and David Beckham.
"I think the challenge for LeBron is to do what Michael did 25 years ago -- to raise the bar, to create a new paradigm, a different way of looking at how an athlete is marketed," Falk said. "That's what he needs to take advantage of. He's got to create his own comparison. He's got to do it differently."
"I get paid a lot of money to answer that question," Falk said.
Since he didn't attend college, James, 24, is two years younger than Jordan was at this stage of his career. Jordan won his first NBA championship in his seventh season, a mark that James could eclipse in a couple of months with the Cavaliers, who are vying with the Lakers for the best record in the NBA. Due to inflation and the economic expansion of the NBA -- in which Jordan was complicit if not primarily responsible -- the dollars are incomparable. Jordan's basketball salary in his sixth NBA season was about $2.3 million. James is paid $14.4 million this season, which is nearly $5 million more than the entire NBA salary cap in 1989-90, Jordan's sixth season.
Jordan's first endorsement deal with Nike was for $2.5 million over five years, plus royalties. James, riding those coattails, signed a seven-year, $90 million contract with Nike - when he was still in high school.
With his engaging smile, the swoosh on his shoes, the No. 23 on his jersey, and the deep voice and speech patterns -- listen to James talk about "the game of basketball" with your eyes closed, and you'd swear it's Jordan talking -- he has modeled himself after the master. If he's happy spending his entire basketball career being "the next Michael," then James would only need to keep doing what he's doing. No need to take risks or try anything different. The problem with trying to separate yourself from the best, of course, is that you might fail.
"Well, you know, I suppose averaging 35 points a game and being defensive player of the year and the MVP is probably a start," said Lakers coach Phil Jackson, who coached Jordan to six championships with the Bulls -- or was it the other way around? "But winning seven championships will probably be the one that'll make a difference between what Michael did in his career and some other player."
And off the court?
"Maybe changing sports and being MVP in baseball," Jackson said, "something Michael couldn't do."
He doesn't have to do anything that drastic, but if he wants to eclipse Jordan, LeBron is going to have to take chances.
One frontier Jordan didn't fully explore is ready and willing for the King to claim as his own: China. Swangard re-tells an old story about NBA commissioner David Stern's first trip to China, when he tried to persuade the government to allow NBA games to be shown on TV. Stern was informed that tapes of Jordan's games had already been smuggled into the country, because, "The people always loved watching Mr. Jordan from the Red Oxen," Swangard said.
If he seizes the opportunity, James could become as popular in China as Yao Ming by the end of the decade. Coinciding with Team USA's gold-medal performance at the Beijing Olympics last year, the NBA opened its first two merchandise stores in China with many more to come. It's by far the global market with the most potential for growth, and the millions of eyeballs and billions of dollars could provide the boost LeBron needs to separate himself from Jordan.
"You walk down Wangfujing [shopping district] in Beijing and you get why these guys get the millions they do," Swangard said. "It's certainly true that much of their value remains tied to their domestic notoriety. But it's a whole different world over there. It is probably the single greatest opportunity for LeBron to be a global icon in a way that Jordan just didn't have the platform. ... When the number of basketball fans in a country outpaces the number of people in the country where the league is played, you can just sort of do the simple math."
But with opportunity comes responsibility, which brings us to the next -- and perhaps even more important -- area in which James could separate himself from Jordan. To this point, LeBron and Tiger have followed the Jordan Plan: Play your sport at the highest level, endorse the products that make you the most money, and keep your nose clean. Jordan's infamous explanation for why he refused to endorse a black Democratic candidate running for the U.S. Senate in his home state of North Carolina -- "Republicans buy sneakers, too," he said -- has been the template for the two iconic athletes who have most closely followed in his footsteps.
Unlike Jim Brown -- or Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the Olympic runners who raised their firsts in the black power salute during the 200-meter medal ceremony at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics -- Jordan chose the path of most money and least resistance. So far, Tiger and LeBron have done the same. During the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Games, James avoided any involvement in protests over China's complicity in the genocide in Darfur. Even when James' teammate, Ira Newble, circulated a petition protesting China's policy, James refused to sign it, saying he needed more information. It was a page right out of Jordan's book.
"Mike paved the way for all of us to open up the endorsement door," said Celtics star Ray Allen, another Jordan Brand athlete. "But the one thing that Mike never was is political. I think in today's era, the NBA player has an even greater podium if he chooses to use it. And with Barack Obama being the first black president, it's a great forum. I think that would separate him from anybody who's done this. ... It's great to be a basketball player, but to transcend sports is a big responsibility. If he were able to pull that off -- if he wants to pull that off -- I think that would set him apart."
Can he? Does he want to? That's the next frontier for LeBron James.
Watch Steve Kroft's report:
Written by CBSSports.com NBA Columnist Ken Berger