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The LeBron James Chamber of Commerce

How the Cavs star gives a boost to rappers, students, and the rest of Ohio

AP Images
AP Images

Cleveland is demanding our attention. From the Republican National Convention to the Cavaliers’ NBA championship, the Indians’ recent dominance to a surprising tech scene, we’re thinking about the city more than ever. This week, The Ringer is exploring why Cleveland matters.

Nike signed LeBron James to the company’s first lifetime endorsement deal last winter. If we are to believe his business partner Maverick Carter’s intimations, the contract is worth more than $1 billion. Yet when the Cavs touched down in Cleveland the day after Game 7, there was no swoosh in sight. James emerged from the team plane wearing a vintage pro wrestling T-shirt that had nothing to do with Nike.

The Ultimate Warrior logo on James’s chest was clearly meant to zing his vanquished foes from Golden State. But LeBron’s choice of attire doubled as free advertising for Homage, an apparel company based in Columbus, Ohio, specializing in reprinted retro T-shirts. It wasn’t the first time James threw Homage some shine — he drew headlines earlier in the Finals for wearing the company’s Undertaker shirt (another psychological message to Steph Curry and friends) — nor would it be the last. The company partnered with LeBron’s Akron-based nonprofit, the LeBron James Family Foundation, last week on a series of limited edition T-shirts celebrating the Cavs’ championship.

Despite the recent global exposure, Homage is, and always has been, a Buckeye State company. It began in an Ohio University dorm room, operating as an eBay account that resold thrift store T-shirts. Six years ago, after LeBron broke up with Cleveland on national television, this lovefest with local businesses was unthinkable. The Decision turned national public opinion against LeBron, but in Ohio he was Public Enemy No. 1. He was Bo Schembechler giving Woody Hayes a swirly.

The state’s Comic Sans wrath was hastily deleted in anticipation of his return in 2014. No sooner had he re-signed with the team that July than local politicians were trumpeting his economic impact on the region. James was hailed as a hero in 2015 when he pledged to send 1,100 inner-city Akron kids to college for free. And when the Cavs completed their improbable comeback, thwarting the Warriors’ bid for the greatest season in NBA history and delivering Cleveland’s first pro sports championship in 52 years, LeBron’s arc from Ohio’s favorite son to second coming of Art Modell and back was complete.

The truth is, even during his four-year Miami sabbatical, James never stopped helping out Ohio. In 2011, he expanded his annual charity bike ride to include reading and technology classes for Akron grade-school kids. He maintained close ties to Ohio State University, where he has assisted football coach Urban Meyer with recruiting, even facing down boos to speak at one of the team’s pregame “Skull Session” pep rallies in 2013. He’s also been a patron of the arts, offering up his continual support to Fly Union, a talented Columbus rap group that seemed to be always ascending, yet never quite arriving.

The three members of Fly Union struck up a friendship with LeBron at a private event at the now-closed Columbus fashion boutique Milk Bar after a Cavs preseason game, back in 2008. In the ensuing months, some mutual friends from the Cleveland events firm Eighty81 kept Fly U’s music in LeBron’s ears, and eventually he fell hard for the group. By phone last week, former Fly Union rapper Jerreau Smith detailed the moment he realized James had become one of his biggest fans: “My homey Duck, who is one of the founding members of Eighty81, he texted me and he was like, ‘We at Bron’s house playing cards and he won’t let anybody change your song.’ So he had us on repeat the whole card game.”

While playing for the Heat, LeBron continued to promote Fly Union from Miami. He praised their music on social media. He placed their songs on his official underground rap mixtape and on the NBA 2K14 soundtrack, giving them a slot among the likes of Drake, Daft Punk, and Jay Z. Perhaps most importantly, he welcomed them into his social circle. “There’s a lot of individuals who are fans of artists or fans of something that an artist does, but it’s not often that you get to build a rapport with them,” Jerreau said. “A lot of it was really just being accepted, because it’s not like they’re just letting anybody in. And they are some of the most important people in basketball, from LeBron to Maverick Carter to Rich Paul.”

The close proximity to James meant an inside look at how he and his team manage their many affairs. “It’s cool because you get to oversee some high-level discussions that are going on. So for me, it’s more so what they don’t say, and how they go about their business, and how professional they carry themselves … than necessarily what our individual conversations [were].”

And those conversations are still happening. Now based in Los Angeles, Jerreau stays in regular contact with Carter, LeBron’s lifelong friend and business partner. He’s preparing to tour behind his debut solo album Never How You Plan, which James boosted with Instagram hype and a music video appearance. And when LeBron’s latest Beats by Dre ad dropped on the day of Cleveland’s Game 7 victory, Jerreau’s triumphally brassy, “Trophies”-esque “Really Got It” was the soundtrack.

As an Ohioan, LeBron lending his cachet to his home state means a lot. Ohio culture tends to be a closed system, one that generates local legends but rarely launches them into the mass consciousness. Ohio State football is one rare exception, but even those guys either move on to bigger things (the NFL), or are subsumed into the local celebrity ecosystem.

In many fields, there’s a prevailing sense that you have to leave to succeed on a national or international level. It’s one of many reasons LeBron was such a badge of pride for people who stay put in Ohio, and why it cut so deep when he left. It’s also why his homecoming felt like a resurrection. LeBron commands the entire world’s attention. His mere presence in Ohio reminds the rest of the world that it exists. And when he uses his platform to actively nudge his neighbors into the spotlight … well, it doesn’t match the feeling of winning Game 7, but it’s pretty dope nonetheless.

Next up on LeBron’s Ohio benevolence tour is Cleveland Hustles, an unscripted CNBC series that sounds like a Cleveland-only version of Shark Tank. Like the Starz series Survivor’s Remorse, Cleveland Hustles is executive produced by James and Carter through their company SpringHill Entertainment, along with Magical Elves. The competition matches upstart businesses with successful local investors, the businesses competing for the prize of a storefront in Cleveland’s resurgent Gordon Square Arts District.

“We felt it was important to find a neighborhood that was sufficiently developed that our four businesses would have a good shot at success, but where investment is still desperately needed,” executive producer and Magical Elves cofounder Dan Cutforth wrote via email. “The Detroit Shoreway area of Cleveland, of which Gordon Square is the heart, seemed like the perfect balance.”

Cleveland Hustles is set almost entirely in Cleveland. The businesses spotlighted are all based in Cleveland. The mentors are all local to Cleveland. Even some of the crew was hired from Cleveland. It amounts to one big, nationally televised ad for the city’s economy — not unlike that whole NBA Finals dealio, only this time the plucky upstarts are slinging soda, bagels, and handbags instead of basketballs. LeBron will appear on the show a few times, but his role is primarily behind the scenes, using his influence to make big things happen for his fellow Ohioans. It’s a job he has become accustomed to.