LeBron James, the hero of Ohio and three-time NBA champion, is no stranger to Hollywood, having launched SpringHill Entertainment with his childhood friend Maverick Carter in 2008. From the company’s first project, the documentary More Than a Game, which followed James’ rise to stardom as a high school basketball star, to James’ role as an executive producer on the 2014 Starz comedy Survivor’s Remorse and being the absolute best thing about the Amy Schumer movie Trainwreck, James had a foot in the door long before he left Cleveland for Los Angeles this summer. But in 2018, he truly conquered Hollywood.
This year, James debuted two high-profile projects on different pay cable networks, voiced a role in an animated film, was a producer on a number of other new series and signed on to star in or produce a staggering number of upcoming TV and film projects, including a highly anticipated Space Jam film that will probably only further complicate the discussion of who the GOAT is.
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Between his busy schedule off the court, his continued dominance on it and finding time to make the rest of the world tear up with his parenting skills or the inspiring work he does through his foundation, one has to wonder when the man finds time to sleep. In fact, it might be time to consider he is actually a robot. It honestly would explain a lot. But before we get to that, let’s simply take a look at what King James has accomplished in Hollywood this year.
In August, not even two months after announcing his intention to sign with the Lakers, James debuted The Shop, a talk show of sorts produced by HBO Sports in collaboration with Uninterrupted, James’ award-winning digital sports programming network. Each half-hour edition of the series features different guests and is set in a different barbershop. Episodes find James and different celebrities — past guests have included Draymond Green, Snoop Dogg, Elena Delle Donne and Jon Stewart — candidly discussing a wide variety of topics.
The first two episodes — the third airs Friday at 10/9c and features Chris Bosh, Lena Waithe and Jimmy Kimmel among others — discussed everything from race relations and politics to the benefits of meditation and seeing sports psychologists for quieting the voice inside one’s head. None of these discussions are terribly groundbreaking or even all that controversial (James has been an outspoken voice in America for nearly as long as he’s been a star) but never forget that it was also on the first episode of The Shop that comedian Jerrod Carmichael came in with the hottest of hot takes, revealing he thinks Hamilton is “the best community center performance” he’s ever seen.
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Still, some viewers have taken issue with the unfiltered style of the series; some don’t like the cursing (you’ve heard worse on Deadwood, trust me), while others believe it’s not nearly as candid as it purports to be. But there’s no denying The Shop is worth your while. Even if you’re a cynic and believe the series isn’t here to provide thoughtful discourse about, say, the changing roles of professional athletes and only exists, as Deadspin’s Billy Haisley says, “to make LeBron James money,” it’s still a series that allows men and women to have a voice and speak openly and without judgment on a number of topics they rarely get to address. Yes, The Shop is helping to push James further into the spotlight off the basketball court while allowing him to say and do the things he’s always done. And yes, the voices are being given to people who also live firmly in that spotlight instead of the people who usually sit in those barbershop chairs. But it’s hopefully giving those very same people someone they can look up to in the process. It’s also hopefully opening up necessary dialogues, something James’ other major TV venture of 2018, the Showtime documentary Shut Up and Dribble, aimed to do.
Produced by SpringHill, the three-part documentary, which pointedly debuted in the lead-up to November’s midterm elections, traced the evolution of political activism in basketball, from Bill Russell in the ’50s to LeBron James in the modern day. Directed by Gotham Chopra, the documentary, which opens with James’ infamous “u bum” tweet, takes its title from conservative commentator Laura Ingraham’s comment that James should “shut up and dribble” instead of weighing in on political matters. The backlash was predictably swift, and James’ response merely reemphasized why he, a member of Time‘s 100 Most Influential People list in 2017, continues to speak out.
“It lets me know that everything I’ve been saying is correct, for her to have that type of reaction,” he said. “But we definitely will not shut up and dribble. I definitely will not do that. I mean too much to society, too much to the youth, too much to so many kids who feel like they don’t have a way out.”
What this says, essentially, is that LeBron James is going to keep doing what he’s been doing all along — speak out — and as the documentary attests, he’s now in a rare position in Hollywood to be able to amplify that voice that much more.
But it’s also not just his voice that James has amplified this year. The Shop and Shut Up and Dribble were just two projects that the basketball star produced in 2018. There were a number of lower profile series he produced alongside Carter via SpringHill as well. In September, Starz aired Warriors of Liberty City, a docuseries that explored a crime-ridden neighborhood of Miami that has produced a number of professional football players. Best Shot, which debuted in July on YouTube Premium, chronicled Newark Central High School’s basketball team as they were mentored by former NBA player and ESPN analyst Jay Williams. In October, the documentary Student Athlete, produced with HBO Sports, looked at the exploitation of student athletes by the NCAA.
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It’s important to note that James didn’t limit himself to just the small screen this year; he also had a role in the animated movie Smallfoot voicing Gwangi. Although the film might actually be best known for producing the year’s most memorable and catchy song, “Zendaya Is Meechee,” it’s yet another thing to add to James’ constantly growing list of accomplishments. The number of projects he was involved with in 2018, however big or small his role may have been, reveal that he didn’t leave the Cavaliers for the Lakers in order to launch his media empire. It already existed. As James told The Hollywood Reporter in September, “This stuff has been in the works.” And he’s only looking to do more in the years that follow.
In addition to his role in the upcoming Space Jam film, which will be produced by Creed and Black Panther director Ryan Coogler, James is developing and producing a number of projects that are currently in various stages of development. At Netflix, a limited series about the social activist and entrepreneur Madam C.J. Walker is in the works, as is a reboot of the British series Top Boy. At NBC, for which he already produces The Wall, James is developing Hoops, a female-driven basketball comedy. The potential series will follow a WNBA player and coach who jumps at the chance to become the first female head coach of a men’s basketball team at her alma mater. He’s also producing Brotherly Love, a series inspired by the life of Ben Simmons. Over at The CW, he’s developing Lean on Me, a series inspired by the 1989 movie. Another female-led project, the potential drama would follow a young black teacher who transforms a failing public high school in the king’s hometown of Akron, Ohio. Meanwhile, What’s My Name, a documentary about Muhammad Ali directed by Antoine Fuqua recently completed production. And this isn’t even the full list of SpringHill’s development slate; James’ media empire is growing steadily even as he’s on the court notching yet another triple double.
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Of course, not all of James’ ventures have been as great as they could have been or even deemed successful; Shut Up and Dribble probably could have done even more in its exploration of political activism among professional basketball players, while Student Athlete was never going to change anyone’s mind about paying student athletes. Obviously, his future projects remain untested. But he is still out here producing on and off the court, and he’s doing it so well that other NBA superstars, like Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors, are also getting into the producing game.
In 2017, Durant launched Thirty Five Media, which has a number of projects currently lined up, including the Apple TV series Swagger, inspired by Durant’s experience as a youth playing basketball, and the documentary Q Ball, which chronicles the lives of the San Quentin Warriors, teammates and inmates at California’s San Quentin State Prison. Earlier this year, Curry launched Unanimous Media, named as such because he was the first NBA player in league history to sweep the MVP votes. In April, he closed a development deal with Sony; some of Curry’s projects will be sports-themed, naturally, but others will be geared toward family and dovetail with his faith. For instance, he’s producing Breakthrough, a faith-based film that tells the true story of a 14-year-old who fell through ice, was legally dead and then was revived through the power of prayer.
In speaking with Variety this summer, Curry said he formed his media company because he was “intrigued” by what he saw James and other athletes doing in the entertainment space. And it’s easy to see why; just look back at everything James accomplished this year and imagine what he might be able to accomplish when he doesn’t spend nine months out of the year focused on basketball. If 2018 was the year LeBron James conquered Hollywood, it’s going to be really exciting to see what he does in the years that follow.