LeBron James’ off-court moves are making him a Hollywood player
When LeBron James and his mother moved into the Spring Hill apartments in Akron, Ohio, it was the first time he had a room of his own. He was in sixth grade.
James and his mother had lived with his grandmother until she died of a heart attack at 42 and then with a series of friends, family members and generous neighbors, including a woman who noticed their heat wasn’t working and two football coaches, one of whom introduced him to basketball. When he was in fourth grade, James and his mom moved so many times that he missed more than 80 days of school.
At Spring Hill, though, James found stability. In his sixth-floor bedroom, he found a place to dream.
“I always wanted something that I could look back and see where it all started from,” James says after a practice with the Lakers this winter.
And so in 2008 he pushed the two words of that apartment complex together and created a company that served as a production vehicle for a documentary about his high school years, “More Than a Game.” SpringHill Entertainment was a safeguard against James losing ownership of his story. He didn’t know at the time that it would also become the vehicle for the NBA four-time MVP to become a major player in Hollywood.
Just over 10 years later, SpringHill Entertainment is not only behind the upcoming “Space Jam 2,” with James as its star and “Black Panther” director Ryan Coogler on board as a producer, it’s premiering the documentary “What’s My Name: Muhammad Ali,” directed by Antoine Fuqua (“Training Day,” “The Equalizer”) for HBO at the Tribeca Film Festival and has a full slate of scripted and unscripted series, as well as a remake of “House Party.” Last month saw the debut of the SpringHill-backed “Million Dollar Mile,” a new competition series for CBS hosted by Tim Tebow.
It’s a production company that’s caught the eye of Hollywood like none other led by an active athlete. Kobe Bryant won his Oscar for the animated short “Dear Basketball” after his retirement. Warriors star Stephen Curry’s production company, Unanimous Media, signed a deal with Sony Pictures in April but is in its early stages. Kevin Durant’s Thirty5 Media serves as its own platform for digital projects, the way James’ own digital platform Uninterrupted does. None matches the reach of SpringHill Entertainment.
Studios, networks and production companies all over town want to be in the LeBron James business. And not only for his screen presence — even though his performance in Amy Schumer’s “Trainwreck” was considered a revelation. He and his SpringHill team are good for business.
“They’re whip-smart, cool people who have great taste,” says Mike O’Malley, the actor and director who was the showrunner for “Survivor’s Remorse,” SpringHill’s basketball-centered sitcom, which ran four seasons on Starz. “That’s why people want to work with them. It’s as simple as that.”
That success has been a long time coming. For six years the company was essentially dormant after James started SpringHill and “More Than a Game” was produced. “Survivor’s Remorse” pulled it from hibernation.
Now SpringHill Entertainment lives its young adolescence in a two-story house on the Warner Bros. lot, complete with a kitchen, den and full bar. “Gilmore Girls” was filmed in this “neighborhood.” Tour groups on elongated golf carts and see parking spaces out front that say “L. James” and “M. Carter.” Carter is Maverick Carter, who co-founded SpringHill with James. He’s on the lot once or twice a week, James far less, mostly after basketball season.
“LeBron and I had a vision,” says Carter, who handles SpringHill’s daily operations. “That was it. There was no staff.”
Raised by a drug dealer father and a social worker mother, Carter met James in grade school, and the two grew close in high school. Carter was a senior and James a freshman. They became business partners early in James’ career, and eventually Carter negotiated James’ billion-dollar contract with Nike. “I never dreamed of being in Hollywood,” Carter says.
As for James, every time he sees the SpringHill logo — two white, midrise, rectangular apartment buildings against a black backdrop — he thinks back to his Akron days.
“For me to be able to look at my Spring Hill buildings every time there’s a production going on, and just think about 1180 Rentar Lane, Apartment 602. It’s pretty wild to be honest,” James says, his enthusiasm growing with each word as it does when he talks about anything that matters to him.
“It reminds me of where I come from, and how far I still want to go, and how many kids are living in those buildings right now and how far they want to go. So it’s my responsibility to try to make those buildings as tall as the sky.”
What James cares about seeps from the pores of SpringHill Entertainment’s stories.
As an adult, he’s tried to learn as much as he can about black history, especially America’s civil rights period. Looking back, he says not nearly enough attention was paid to the subject in his classes when he was growing up.
“You hear about Martin Luther King, you hear about Booker T. Washington, Sojourner Truth and Rosa Parks, you hear about Malcolm X a little bit,” James says, stressing the word “little.” “But other than that they didn’t really preach it too much in school.”
Activism is part of James’ ethos. He brings it onto the court — while playing in Miami he wore a hoodie to protest the shooting death of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin and wrote a message to Martin on his game shoes. He speaks about issues that matter to him, like racism and inequality, and his LeBron James Family Foundation does tangible work to help change his hometown.
“LeBron’s voice as an activist is clearly mirrored in the documentary stories SpringHill looks to engage,” says Peter Nelson, an executive vice president of HBO sports.
Shortly after Fox News’ Laura Ingraham suggested he “shut up and dribble” instead of criticizing President Trump, SpringHill announced the Showtime documentary series “Shut Up and Dribble.” “Student Athlete,” which aired on HBO, sought to expose hypocrisies in college sports. And “Rise Up,” a civil rights documentary, aired on the History Channel. “Warriors of Liberty City” on Showtime explored a crime-filled neighborhood that’s a favorite for NFL recruiters. SpringHill is even trying to add a cultural element to “Space Jam 2,” leaning on Coogler’s “Black Panther” example.
The company has also teamed with Oscar winner Octavia Spencer to make a scripted limited series, “Madam C.J. Walker,” about Sarah Breedlove — a laundrywoman who rose to become a black hair-care entrepreneur with a company valued at more than $1 million by the time she died in 1919.
“It’s been the work he’s done off the court that’s been even more important to help build this business,” says SpringHill President Jamal Henderson, “because we are able to do things like ‘Madam C.J. Walker’ with Netflix. … They know where he stands on social issues.”
On court in Atlanta recently, hours before the Lakers played the Atlanta Hawks, James enthusiastically recounts the story of Madam C.J. Walker, saying, “No one even knows about that story. To be able to have a production company, to be able to put that together is pretty cool. We believe not only is it important for the African American community, it’s important for American history as well.”
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