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LeBron James Uses Street Smarts off the Court


For LeBron James and a handful of talented colleagues, the NBA has done a lot more than an MBA could ever do.

LeBron — we'll use his first name since formality and sports stardom are usually mutually exclusive — has one of the most impressive rosters of endorsements in all of sports.

There's LeBron in action on the Sprite can. LeBron smiling from the wrapper of Bubblicious Lightning Lemonade bubble gum. LeBron promoting Cub Cadet's new outdoor power equipment. LeBron selling Windows Vista for Microsoft. This year, it will add up to more than $20 million.

Lebron James in Shanghai

It didn't hurt that LeBron led the Cleveland Cavaliers to the NBA finals earlier this year, though he doesn't consider the endorsement ramifications of his on-court success.

"I think things are going to fall into place if they want to," he tells CNBC, "but I don't go out and play basketball and say hopefully I can get an endorsement deal out of this; it's not what it's about."

Still, the endorsements keep coming, a business all their own, and this year, LeBron's biggest endorsement test will beNike, which has put his name on the new Air Zoom LeBron V. The shoe arrives on store shelves Nov. 15, and retails for $140, 10 dollars cheaper than last year's version.

Sales of the Air Zoom LeBron V could depend partly on the kind of season the Cavaliers are about to have. Asked how confident he was about another title run, LeBron sounded a little like a senior corporate executive: "Well," he answered, "we are missing two key guys right now."

The Cavs are owned by Dan Gilbert, who is also the owner of Quicken Loans and the team plays at Quicken Loans Arena.

Quicken Loans has frozen hiring to avoid layoffs in the turbulent mortgage market, but spokesmen have denied a recent Chicago Tribune report that the sub-prime mortgage crisis is playing a part in the failure of the Cavaliers so far to sign stars Anderson Varejao and Sasha Pavlovic, and that LeBron "is not pleased with the situation."

Regardless, LeBron is likely to have an active year from a business sense.

This extremely wealthy, extremely famous young man knows how to make acquaintances. One of them is Warren Buffett, and he shrewdly remembers what Buffett told him: "He basically told me to follow my gut if I decide to make an investment on anything ... and for the most part, your first decision is always going to be the best decision."

LeBron doesn't own any of Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway shares yet, but he has bought a stake in Cannondale, a privately held bicycle company.

At 22, most people, even those headed for success, would be challenged just getting a thousand dollars together to buy one of those Cannondale bicycles.

Not LeBron, not now, with a full career of success on and off the court on the horizon.

Reported by Darren Rovell, Written by Andrew Fisher