Maverick Carter dreams of turning LeBron James into Fat Albert.
In pursuit of this farfetched fantasy, the chauffeured black Mercedes-Benz parks at 26th and Broadway, Manhattan’s historic Flatiron District, 25 minutes before the scheduled start of Carter’s meeting with the founders of Believe Entertainment Group.
Cheryl Singleton, Carter’s assistant, rides shotgun. Tall and lean, Carter rests comfortably in the back.
Dressed in charcoal blue trousers, a gray, half-zipper sweater, a navy blue, three-quarters-length trench coat and boots, Carter appears youthfully professional, appropriate for a corporate meeting and an R&B concert. Sans the $50,000 Audemars Piguet “Legacy” watch, Carter strikes a rather inconspicuous look.
As you pass him in the idling S550, you would not mistake the 29-year-old CEO for a pro athlete, an actor, a singer or an entertainer.
We kill time chatting about mostly nothing, then Carter asks an important question.
“Did I ever tell you the story about Beats by Dre?” he inquires excitedly.
“I’m in Los Angeles,” Carter says. “I’m with Jimmy Iovine. We’re in his office. It’s a couple of years ago, around 2008.”
Iovine is the chairman of Interscope Records. He produced albums for U2 and Tom Petty. Iovine discovered Eminem. Iovine sold the masters to Death Row Records for $500 million.
Iovine is music royalty. Carter, at this time, is the undistinguished childhood friend LeBron James put in charge of his global-icon aspirations.
“I got this whole thing about gift-giving and how to use it as a marketing tool,” Carter continues. “Jimmy is telling me about Beats, the headphones by Dr. Dre . . . So Jimmy has me put on a pair of Beats. I love them! The sound is great. They look hip.
“I say, ‘Jimmy, let me get 15 pair.’ He’s like, ‘Mav, these aren’t on the market yet. I don’t even know if I have 15 in my office. I say, ‘Jimmy, let me get 15 pair and watch what I do with them.’ ”
Iovine obliges. Carter gives the headphones to James, instructs the two-time NBA MVP to gift them to his 2008 Olympic teammates as they board their flight to China. As he presents the headphones, James shares a short speech that touches on the significance of their journey and how the Beats symbolize the sincerity of their commitment to put team goals ahead of individual ones.
When the Redeem Team deplaned in Beijing, the international press awaited LeBron, Kobe, D-Wade, ’Melo and D12. A paparazzi-like contingent of still and television cameras captured their arrival. Fifteen new pairs of Beats draped the heads and necks of the world’s most recognizable athletes as they conducted their initial, impromptu Olympic interviews.
Carter engineered the ultimate product placement, a genius, massive, free advertising campaign.
“Maverick gets it, and he gets it done,” Jimmy Iovine blurts out while retelling the story Carter shared in the Mercedes. “Maverick says it, and it happens. And that’s rare in any business.”
Iovine loves Maverick Carter, respects his intellect, admires his passion, listens to his ideas.
The sports world has a different take.
All we really know about Carter is The Decision, the one-hour TV show that Mark Cuban speculated cost LeBron $1 billion in brand equity, commissioner David Stern ripped as “ill conceived, badly produced and poorly executed” and the executive vice president of Q Scores labeled “one of the most detrimental acts — not related to any anti-social behavior — by a sports personality” in the 45-year history of his company.
Maverick Carter might as well have sunk the Titanic.
The sports world views him as The King’s Reach, an incompetent, in-over-his-head jock-sniffer rewarded with an undeserved position of power.
Smaller mishaps attributed to Carter — an ESPN writer given access to James at a Vegas party, a leaked November story alleging Heat players were dissatisfied with coach Erik Spoelstra — followed The Decision. The stories confirmed a narrative:
Carter is/was the second coming of John Horne and Rory Holloway, the Mike Tyson childhood friends lampooned and vilified for helping Don King fleece boxing’s last transcendent star.
The sad, comedic caricature of Maverick Carter stands in stark contrast to the confident and smooth-talking LeBron emissary deftly maneuvering around New York earlier this week.
For nearly three hours Monday, he huddled with Dan Goodman and Bill Masterson, the owners of Believe Entertainment, discussing the launch of “The LeBrons,” a 10-episode Fat Albert-like animated cartoon featuring the LeBron-played characters — Kid, Athlete, Biz and Wise — made famous in a 2006 Nike ad campaign.
Later, Carter met with Harvey Spevak, an owner in the Equinox Fitness Club chain. Spevak and his partners fancy James as an ideal collaborator on plans to take their working-class fitness-club concept, Blink, overseas.
Tuesday, Carter represented himself and LeBron in meetings with Suite 850, a New York-based group of creative entrepreneurs and brand marketers. Suite 850 partnered with James and Carter on a tongue-dissolvable, athlete-friendly energy strip, Sheets, they hope competes with 5-hour Energy.
By making the captain of his first high school basketball team the CEO of his marketing firm LRMR, LeBron James placed Carter in what Carter describes as the “deal flow,” the sphere of influence where the rich conceive and execute ideas designed to impact culture and create new wealth.
Tuesday night, the “deal flow” had Carter, Singleton and former Arnold Schwarzenegger political adviser Adam Mendelsohn, a media strategist for LRMR, on a train from Manhattan to Boston.
James and Carter are going into business with the owners of the Red Sox, John W. Henry and Thomas Werner, a billionaire hedge-fund manager and millionaire Hollywood producer, respectively.
LRMR is partnering with Fenway Sports Management, the marketing arm of Fenway Sports Group, the owners of the Red Sox, the English Premier League soccer club Liverpool FC and New England Sports Network.
The deal is potentially groundbreaking. James and Carter, black boys from Akron’s hood, are aligned with Henry and Werner, old, white money. This isn’t a shoe company raining millions on a great athlete. Or a sports agency arranging movie cameos and commercial endorsements for a superstar.
It’s “Trading Places.” It’s Randolph and Mortimer Duke welcoming Billy Ray Valentine into their private country club.
More important, it’s a sports icon multitasking as full-fledged businessman in the prime of his career. LeBron James yearns to be Magic Johnson/Earvin Johnson, basketball legend/business tycoon. Now.
King James can’t accomplish this alone. He needs the assistance of a royal consigliere. FSM has no experience representing and marketing individual athletes.
Maverick Carter — the alleged jester, the man yours truly referred to as the head of LeBrontourage — remains the key to making this new alliance work for King James.
Perhaps it’s time to reflect, reevaluate and learn.
In exchange for the right to partner with LRMR in leveraging and marketing LeBron James’ brand, James and Carter receive a small stake in Liverpool, one of the biggest names in European soccer, and FSM’s expertise, experience, credibility and international reach.
“This deal turns me into an octopus,” Carter explains. “I’ve got more arms and legs and longer reach.”
If things go right, the deal turns Maverick into a shark, ready to hunt in an ocean that just eight months ago we assumed would drown him.
Which begs an obvious question: Just who is Maverick Carter?
The shark who now swims in an ocean of doubt started out a boy blessed with an inquisitive mind and athletic gifts, raised in a neighborhood where he says only his mother left home each morning for a 9-to-5 job and he was scarred from idolizing a drug-dealing father.
Otis “Oldie” Carter and Katherine Powers, Maverick’s parents, were an odd pairing.
Otis, born with a hole in his heart, a survivor of heart surgery at age 5, was never an ideal job applicant. His lack of a high school diploma didn’t help. He hustled. When he impregnated his 21-year-old girlfriend, Katherine, he hustled even harder.
“I was out in the streets taking care of my home,” Otis informs me during a phone conversation Wednesday. “I always made sure there was food on the table.”
But there was rarely a daddy in Maverick’s house. Two incarceration stints marred Maverick’s childhood.
While Otis languished in federal penitentiaries in Texas, Michigan and West Virginia, Katherine landed a job as a social worker at the Welfare Department. She attended the University of Akron on her lunch breaks and at night, earning a bachelor’s degree in communications. Twenty-four years later, and after a name change to the Department of Jobs and Family Services, Katherine still works the same job.
Two vastly different role models shaped Maverick’s world view.
His father’s flamboyant lifestyle and a grandmother who employed Maverick sweeping floors at her gambling and fence house seemed to have the strongest hold on Maverick.
At 16, he decided to try his hand at selling weed.
“I wasn’t doing it because I needed the money,” Maverick says. “When you grow up where I did, it’s just not a big deal at all. It’s just the normal thing to do. You see weed and drugs being sold. It was the summer time. I’m hanging out in the neighborhood at the park. I was like, ‘Why not?’ ”
Because your mother might find out.
In a rush to run an errand, Katherine grabbed the wrong jacket as she left her home. The coat belonged to Maverick, her only child. She smelled the stench of marijuana. She discovered six tiny baggies in an inside pocket.
“I don’t think I made it to the store,” she remembers. “I ran back in the house and was flying off the handle. No way was he going to stand out on that corner and sell weed. No way that was going to happen. I’ve seen what drugs do. I saw what it did to his father. I saw what it did to my sister, his aunt.”
After an argument and a fleeting move to his grandmother’s house across town, it was settled. Maverick would escape his North Hill neighborhood using his athletic ability and smarts.
A solid student and talented shooting guard at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School, a private college preparatory, Carter was a senior LeBron’s freshman season. As the leader of a team that would go undefeated, Carter mentored LeBron.
Their friendship began long before SVSM. Their bond predates LeBron’s ascension to “Chosen One” status, which didn’t arrive until James’ sophomore season. A four-year-old LeBron attended Maverick’s seventh birthday party. Otis knew Gloria James, LeBron’s mother. Otis often drove LeBron and a classmate to school in eighth and ninth grades.
When James enrolled at SVSM he was barely 6 feet tall. He was a gifted prospect. He was not King James. Maverick saw a talented, poor ghetto kid trying to acclimate himself to a foreign environment.
He saw himself.
“LeBron had never interacted with white people before St. Vincent,” Maverick says during the Boston train ride.
Carter received a scholarship from Western Michigan. The school fired coach Bob Donewald before Carter arrived on campus. He lasted a year in Kalamazoo and then transferred to Akron. NCAA rules required he sit for a season. His love of playing the game waned. By this time, LeBron and Nike representatives were in Carter’s ear about preparing for a career working alongside LeBron.
Carter interned at Nike while James wrapped up his high school career. Carter quit college and took an entry-level job as a Nike field rep in 2003, LeBron’s rookie season in Cleveland.
“What I remember at the very beginning is that Maverick was a young African-American who seemed bright and intelligent and who was looking for an opportunity,” says Lynn Merritt, a Nike vice president. “As I started to come to Cleveland and get to know him as a young man, I saw more of the promise in him so I offered him an internship.”
Maverick swooshed from Nike intern to low-six-figures-salaried Nike field rep/liaison to high-priced CEO of LRMR in a little less than five years.
With the creation of LRMR, a partnership of Akron friends — LeBron, Maverick, Richard Paul and Randy Mims — James dumped veteran agent Aaron Goodwin and set off rumblings across the league and throughout the sports media.
Three young black men with no experience, led by a 23-year-old kid (Maverick), were going to manage the career of the most important basketball player since Michael Jordan. How? Why?
Part of the answer is in getting to know the man himself. In getting past the caricature of Maverick Carter and seeing its inspiration up close. It’s not easy. Carter avoids the media.
We met by chance years ago when we spoke at Harvard together.
At dinner this week, squeezed into the back corner of his friend’s tiny restaurant, Torrisi, in Little Italy, he makes a point to inform me and LeBron fashion stylist Rachel Johnson that Harvard’s business school invited him back each year since our original engagement.
“A professor there says I can get into their business school,” he says. “There are so many things I should do.”
At Torrisi, he wants to eat. Maverick is a foodie. He’s picked the perfect spot.
You rest your brain and work your palate at Torrisi. You eat what the chef prepares. We “ooh” and “ah” in delight sampling the unending wave of delicacies delivered to our table.
Our gluttonous bliss is interrupted by a problem in Ohio. Otis is on the phone. He doesn’t want to loan his 2011 Infiniti Q45 to his great nephew, Maverick’s second cousin. The boy needs a truck to move his belongings to a junior college in southern Indiana. Maverick had suggested the boy ask Otis.
“We get into it at least once a day,” Carter jokes as he ends his conversation with his father. “We can’t go one day without something. We talk four or five times a day and there’s always going to be something.
“Oldie will spend the next two days trying to figure this out.”
Otis says he’s responsible for Maverick’s quick instincts and Katherine is credited for their son’s book smarts.
“You can put my dad in any situation and he’s going to figure it out,” Maverick says. “He’s going to figure the people out and how to get along, how to make everyone comfortable.”
Apples and trees.
LeBron placed Maverick in a high-risk, high-reward, high-visibility situation surrounded by people who, for the most part, didn’t look, think or act anything like Maverick Carter. LeBron saw past the media-generated caricature of his friend. He saw someone he trusts, a problem solver, a quick thinker, someone unafraid to adapt to new surroundings.
He saw himself.
“A sportswriter wrote that it was the equivalent of LeBron hurting his knee and letting his plumber do the surgery,” Maverick says, recalling the formation of LRMR. “That’s actually a great line.”
Merritt adds: “Everybody thought that it would be the biggest mistake ever. EVER.”
Does everybody include Phil Knight and Nike?
“No,” Merritt clarifies. “Well, not the folks that were close to the situation. We didn’t think that. We knew (Maverick) was never going to do too many things completely on his own without seeing counseling from experienced people.”
Merritt acknowledges there was a steep learning curve for Carter, Mims and Paul. They had to be taught basic things about consistent professional habits such as returning phone calls and disciplined structure.
NBA insiders complained that Carter, Mims and Paul focused too much energy on chasing easy dollars earned by attaching LeBron’s name to parties thrown in cities the Cavaliers visited. The knock was LRMR followed a rap model, not the Michael Jordan model. Some of those same NBA insiders worry the Fenway Sports deal, particularly the equity in Liverpool, is more of the same. Jay Z owns a tiny, promotional piece of the New Jersey Nets. Jordan, a billionaire, owns the majority of the Charlotte Bobcats.
“The transition that Maverick made from ordinary guy in Akron to marketing professional representing LeBron is extremely difficult,” says Merritt, an early mentor for Carter who still talks with him three times a week. “There are not a lot of people who can do what Maverick has done. Once we got him on track, you could see that he was special. I thought he would be successful but I’m not sure if I saw what he’s doing now.
“Some of the business deals he’s doing for LeBron now are pretty unique.”
Turning a 6-foot-8, 250-pound sculpted forward into Fat Albert certainly qualifies as unique.
“The LeBrons,” which launched online Wednesday, is Maverick’s brainchild, the tool LeBron can use to teach kids moral values through cartoon characters, much the way Bill Cosby’s “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids” did a generation ago.
Each 5-minute episode conveys a simple message. The pilot is a lesson about two wrongs not making a right. LeBron opens each new show speaking directly to the camera, foreshadowing the episode’s message and then throwing a hat to the lead character, Kid.
The premiere season is a $2 million investment. Goodman and Masterson say, thanks to strong advertising support, the show will turn a nice profit. Believe Entertainment Group and LRMR say they’ve resisted offers from television networks interested in expanding and broadcasting the show.
“Our plan from the beginning was to make this a digital show,” says Goodman. “We’re a digital media company. Our view of the world is that the way great entertainment is to be consumed going forward is through computers, phones, the iPad, Facebook, etc. All of that is the next TV platform. We want to hit young people where they consume entertainment.”
Parlaying a relationship with entrepreneur Jesse Itzler into co-founding a dissolvable energy strip qualifies as unique.
Sheets is LeBron’s and Maverick’s bid to do what 50 Cent did with Vitamin Water. The rapper received a 10 percent ownership stake in the drink for pushing the brand. LRMR owns a third of Sheets. Suite 850, Itzler’s company, and business whiz Warren Struhl own the other two-thirds.
The trio raised $7.5 million in investors, including Knicks forward Amar’e Stoudemire and rapper Drake, and started an umbrella company, Purebrands LLC.
“If it hits, I’ll have buy-a-boat-and-retire money,” Maverick says.
We’ve established the uniqueness of partnering with Fenway Sports Group and getting a small piece of Liverpool soccer club. Who knows if anything will become of Maverick’s friendship with Harvey Spevak, the fitness club CEO?
What matters is Maverick is in the deal flow.
It’s already paid some dividends. On the advice of Maverick mentor and influential asset manager Paul Wachter, James and Carter invested in the reshaping of Cannondale Bicycle. When the company sold for $200 million in 2008, Carter netted several hundred thousand dollars and James several million.
“That’s when I was like, ‘Oh sh**, I can really do this,’ ” Maverick says.
But can he do it on a scale his boss requires?
LeBron James desires billionaire status, global-icon recognition and Dr. Seuss clout among kids.
What is the likelihood that two black boys from Akron’s ghettos were born possessing the necessary talent, intellect, charisma, drive, courage, maturity and loyalty to ignore media skepticism, remain committed through adversity and accomplish the impossible?
Stringer and Avon couldn’t do it.
“What’s really impressed me is the strength of their relationship,” says Itzler, referencing LeBron and Maverick’s collective resolve in the aftermath of The Decision.
Carter doesn’t know this, but, in the days leading to The Decision, John Horne, the former Tyson emissary, desperately tried to contact Carter. Horne emailed. He called LRMR’s Cleveland office.
Horne could see the noble intentions, the money raised for the Boys and Girls Club and the elevation of LeBron’s profile. Horne could envision the train wreck, too, the tsunami-like backlash against the narcissism, the vilification of Carter for giving birth to it.
“I just wanted to say, ‘Hey, brother, be careful what you doing,’ ” Horne tells me. “I didn’t want to say stop. Just be careful. What LeBron and Maverick are doing, they’re threats to the whole industry. The white lawyers, the agents and the executives involved in the business end of sports, if black athletes were represented and managed by other blacks, all that’s doing is taking money out of their part of the pie.”
It’s worth noting that Goodwin, LeBron’s former agent, is black and quite accomplished.
Horne realized Carter wouldn’t return his messages even if he received them. Horne and Rory Holloway represent what the sports media believe to be true about Carter:
LeBron’s heart talked his head into a foolish decision. Carter can’t comprehend the weight and magnitude of his opportunity because he didn’t earn it. LeBron anointed a friend, crippling Carter’s self-awareness the way recruiting letters, sycophant fans, fawning adults and shoe contracts obliterate intellectual evolution in a young athlete.
Please don’t be true. Let this be a miracle, a story of uplift, a magnificent symbol that opportunity visited on the willing-to-prepare can be just as lucky as opportunity greeting the prepared.
“Despite the bumps in the road, what Maverick and LeBron are doing, should be looked at as showing where athletes are going in terms of how their business is handled,” says Steve Stoute, CEO of Translation, a New York-based marketing company that works with Fortune 500 companies such as McDonald’s, State Farm and Target. “Maverick is putting footprints in the ground for everyone to follow.”
Tuesday night, the Amtrak Acela motors toward Boston and the announcement of the marriage between old, rich and white and young, hungry and black.
Maverick is on his fourth glass of white wine. He’s struggling to stay awake. He’s fidgety. He repeatedly reclines his chair. But the young CEO his critics believe is drunk on power is thirsty for information.
“Cheryl, did you order fish for me?” he asks his assistant.
“I got you tuna for lunch,” she replies.
Maverick smiles. “I’m talking about the book,” he says.
The six full-time employees at LRMR formed a book club. They read two books a month. “Fish,” a management parable that suggests ways to improve workplace morale, is next. They recently finished “Who Moved My Cheese,” a story illustrating the importance of accepting and embracing change.
“I’m always reading books,” Maverick says. “I love to learn about people.”
This is how you catch up when you drop out of college, when your best friend asks for help navigating a new, exciting journey. You devour information. You let books and mentors take your mind places your incarcerated father and overworked mother couldn’t afford.
You read “Outliers: The Story of Success” and “Swoosh: The Unauthorized Story of Nike and the Men Who Played There” and “The Operator” and “Decoded.” You type a note in your Blackberry to read “The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop.”
“If I wasn’t talking to you,” says Maverick, his eyes opening from a brief respite, “I’d be reading or listening to music or sleeping. That’s what I do when I travel, and I travel a lot. I’m trying to soak up as much as I can. I never turn my phone off.”
Good. Consigliere to the King is not a job for the easily wearied.
“You got a small window,” Horne says. “He has to keep his eyes open 24/7. You can’t really sleep. You always have to be thinking.”
LeBron and Maverick never imagined The Decision backfiring in such dramatic fashion. They saw the kids, the money raised for the Boys and Girls Club. The Decision, the TV show, was formulated before LeBron had made a concrete decision to leave Cleveland.
“There was not going to be an easy way once (LeBron) made up his mind to leave,” Merritt, the Nike executive, says. “But I think there could’ve been a better way to leave. Let’s leave it at that.”
That’s a good idea. Let’s leave it there, in the rearview mirror, an object dwindling in size and importance the more you know Maverick Carter, the more he learns of himself and his place in the world.
The train grinds to a halt just short of Boston. I disembark feeling much better about the young man guarding the King’s ear, hopeful he’s humble, daring and diligent enough to learn from his mistakes and pursue real change.