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LeBron: The next Buffett?

Whether LeBron James can ever become the next Michael Jordan, he's aiming for even greater off-court success: becoming the first billionaire athlete.

A weekly column by Chris Isidore, senior writer

NEW YORK ( -- Forget whether LeBron James is the next Michael Jordan. The more interesting question is whether he can be the next Warren Buffett.

James, the 22-year old star of the Cleveland Cavaliers, has been hyped as the game's next superstar since he was in high school. And his own ambitions are no less grand - he has stated a desire to be the first billionaire athlete.

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LeBron James is shooting for more than on-court and endorsement success as he tries to become the first billionaire athlete.
LeBron James is shooting for more than on-court and endorsement success as he tries to become the first billionaire athlete.

James was drafted right out of high school, a $90 million shoe contract with Nike (Charts, Fortune 500) in tow. He has since picked up endorsement contracts with Coca-Cola's (Charts, Fortune 500) Sprite and Powerade has even appeared in a spot for the rollout of Vista, the new operating system for Microsoft (Charts, Fortune 500).

Last summer he signed an $80 million contract extension with the Cavaliers.

This year he almost single handedly took his team to the NBA Finals, and while his play, and that of his team, left many fans unimpressed (at least those few who were watching anyway), the playoffs have still been a notable accomplishment for a player both younger, and with a much weaker supporting cast, than Jordan had during his championship years.

Even with Cleveland getting swept in the NBA Finals, it wouldn't be surprising to see his endorsements pick up.

Still, James' NBA paychecks and his sponsors' largess aren't going to be enough to get him to the billion-dollar threshold. But despite not attending a day of college, James is good enough at math to understand that. That's why he's taking a different approach to wealth management.

Last year he sought out Buffett, the Oracle of Omaha and the world's second richest man.

James traveled to Omaha in September, just before the start of the NBA season, to have lunch with Buffett and his daughter. Buffett came to Cleveland in March to sit courtside as a guest of James at a Cavaliers-Nuggets game.

James also appeared in a video shown to Berkshire Hathaway (Charts) shareholders in May, with the two of them playing a mock one-on-one basketball game (with Buffett winning).

Exactly what the two have talked about, no one is saying.

"Mr. Buffett is a huge fan of LeBron. He said LeBron is as classy a human being as he is a basketball player; very smart and with a great sense of humor," said Buffett's assistant Debbie Bosanek when asked about the relationship the two have developed.

Maverick Carter, James' manager and partner in LRMR Marketing, the sports marketing firm James and he started, also is guarded. He simply said that James has appreciated what he learned about business from Buffett.

Carter also said James' goal of being a billionaire has been taken somewhat out of context. What he wants is his total business interests to top the $1 billion mark, but that would include the value of Nike's line of LeBron-branded shoes and apparel, or other products associated with his name, even if the business is owned by someone else.

Beyond that qualification, Carter said James is very interested in putting his money to work for him, rather than just look to income from pay and endorsements to build his net worth.

In March he announced that he had bought a stake of undisclosed size in privately-held, high-end bicycle maker Cannondale. Carter says James also has lower profile investments in a number of business start ups and in real estate.

"It's impossible to get to a billion dollars by endorsement deals," said Carter. "The biggest deals only take you so far. It's how you make money when you're asleep that's going to get you there."

I'm sure everyone who talks about sports being too much about money can point to James' billion-dollar target as Exhibit A of that concern. But frankly that's more about the critics' envy than anything else.

No one objects when NBA owners use their investments to become rich at a young age, as Mavericks' owner Mark Cuban or Microsoft co-founder and Portland Trail Blazers owner Paul Allen did. And I doubt there was much criticism when Ty Cobb used a savvy investment in Coke early in the 20th century to become very rich after his playing days.

The fact that James is looking to follow the same course to success while he works to make money for his team, his league and his sponsors shows that he's a pretty smart 22-year old, someone to be admired, not scorned.

Even if he's got a long way to go to be either the next Jordan or the next Buffett, don't bet against him reaching either distinction before he's done. Top of page