Tim Noonan

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 April, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 April, 2007, 12:00am

You're a 22-year-old multi-millionaire who yearns to become a billionaire. Your salary and endorsements add up to nearly US$33 million a year. While I'm not a business major, a quick calculation says this 22-year-old would need to work 30 more years at his current rate of pay to earn a billion dollars. The problem is, this 22-year-old knows that due to the nature of his business he will only be able to earn a top salary for perhaps 15 more years. He has to make hay while the sun shines.

Now what would you do if you were him? Me, I would try to get by on my multi-millions, find a deserving charity, stock up the wine cellar and head out to the golf course for the rest of my life, thank you. But many of you big-moneyed boys and girls have a different idea of what to do with your time. Despite having enough money for 20 lifetimes, most of you like to 'stay in play'.

So you keep grinding away and you grind everybody around you and you stay in play and so do your ulcers. One day they get the best of you and all your money can't do a thing about it. But hey, you were a player.

It's called ambition. Some of us have it while some of us most certainly don't.

LeBron James definitely has it. His stated ambition is to become the first US billion-dollar athlete. At 22, he is one of the top players in the NBA and he has a new contract that will earn him US$20 million annually playing for the Cleveland Cavaliers. He has a number of endorsement deals as well, most notably with Nike, which helps to supplement his income even more.

Depending on whose numbers you believe, recently retired Formula One champion Michael Schumacher is already a billionaire and Tiger Woods should be soon. Regardless, James is so steadfast in becoming a billionaire that he sought out the advice of Warren Buffet, venture capitalist supreme and the second richest man in the world.

'He said to be patient and let the money grow,' James revealed after his lunch with Buffet. James also realised that billion-dollar aspirations need global perspective, most notably the populous climes of Asia and China. 'I say all the time, and I tell my friends and teammates, that you have to go global,' James said recently. 'In basketball and business.'

When news emerged that James was learning to speak Putonghua, it seemed to cast him in a different light from most of his contemporaries, who are insulated and unenlightened millionaires who seem to care little about the world beyond knowing that their latest Mercedes came from Germany and their Ferrari from Italy.

So is the scholarly James really the honourable schoolboy? Does he yearn to exist on a deeper level by learning the language of China in the hope of gaining an intimate portal into their everyday life, while also engaging the good folks of Chongqing and Xian in a spirited discussion on whether the brutality of the Cultural Revolution was a necessary by-product for the growth of the country?

Ah no, probably not. LeBron looks at China and sees dollar signs. The truth is he's no different than the rest of you fat cats in Hong Kong. China gold, baby! We're all panning for it and LeBron isn't shy about admitting it. He's not looking for cultural enlightenment; he's looking for critical consumer mass. There's a reason James has been in Hong Kong and China the past two summers and will be here again this autumn when his Cavaliers play exhibitions in both Macau and Shanghai, as well as in 2008 for the Beijing Olympics.

'We're looking to make the LeBron brand as global as possible,' said Maverick Carter, James' childhood friend and chief executive of his marketing company. With his size and skill, James is one of the most uniquely talented basketball players in the world. But 'basketball LeBron' now seems secondary to 'brand LeBron'.

And according to the guy who is running the US basketball team at the 2008 Olympics, that will need to change. Jerry Colangelo has presided over Team USA like Vito presided over the Corleone family. It's his way or the highway and part of his way was to select Duke University head coach Mike Krzyzewski to coach the assembled team of NBA all-stars.

James, along with Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony, was the focal point of a team who surprisingly lost to Greece in the semi-finals of the world championship in Japan last summer. The US were unable to stop Greece and struggled against inferior opposition because of Krzyzewski's failure to acknowledge or even scout the opposition.

They had the best players so they would simply roll them out and shock and awe their opposition. Because they finished out of the money, they now need to qualify for the Olympics at the Fiba Americas Championship tournament this summer in Las Vegas. It's the price they are paying for their hubris and James said recently he was '50-50' to show up to help the boys punch their ticket for Beijing.

James apparently has a number of nagging injuries and personal issues to take care of that may preclude his pitching in. 'If someone chooses not to participate just because they'd rather not play, that person would put himself at risk as far as who ultimately represents us at the Olympics,' an obviously irked Colangelo said.

But once again, super-patriot and US basketball czar Colangelo fails to grasp the bigger picture. You see Jerry, LeBron is going global. He wants to be a billionaire and what he is looking for is someone to do the heavy lifting for him this summer so he can come in and own Beijing next summer. This is also how you become a billionaire, by letting others do the heavy lifting for you. Man, this kid is a quick study.