LeBron James got his first endorsement check from Nike in 2003—here's what he did with the millions

LeBron James played for St. Vincent High School
Sporting News Archive | Getty Images

Basketball star LeBron James is one of the highest paid athletes today with $89 million in career earnings. The majority of his wealth, $53 million, comes from endorsements, including the shoe and apparel giant Nike.

James, who celebrated his 35th birthday on Monday, received his first paycheck from Nike in 2003, the year he was drafted No. 1 overall by the Cleveland Cavaliers. He was 18 at the time.

The endorsement check was FedExed to his former PR manager Chris Dennis' home. "After I hand delivered it to him, LeBron took that multimillion-dollar Nike check, deposited it and came out with maybe $2,000 in cash," Dennis told ESPN. "He never spent or indulged in a frivolous manner when the money came."

While he banked more than 99% of that first check, "he did take his closest friend to an amusement park," Dennis recalled.

James, who signed a four-year, $153 million contract with the Los Angeles Lakers in 2018, hasn't always had money. Before playing professional basketball, he and his mom lived in the projects of Akron, Ohio. They struggled to make ends meet, moving from one apartment to the next every few months and getting by with help from food stamps.

He grew up with so little, he told Maverick Carter on an episode of UNINTERRUPTED's "Kneading Dough," that "I had no idea what a pantry was until I was like 15 years old." Whatever food his household had was kept "on top of the refrigerator," he recalled. "Everything: chips, cereal, bread. All on top of the refrigerator."

Today, despite having earned millions over his NBA career, James still plays it safe with his money. That's not to say he never treats himself. James splurges on something that matters to him: his car collection. As he told Carter, "That's the one thing that I love. I love cars."

Still, he's careful about certain things. He turns off data roaming on his phone to avoid the extra charges, refuses to buy mobile apps and uses the free version of Pandora with commercials.

Don't miss: Ex-Navy SEAL who wakes up at 4:30 am: How to get out of bed when you don't feel like it

Like this story? Subscribe to CNBC Make It on YouTube!

How LeBron James inspired former NFL player Marques Colston to go into business