LeBron James–18-time NBA all-star, 4-time NBA champion, 2-time Olympic gold medalist–has hit yet another milestone, this time doing something no other NBA player has ever done.
After another monster year of earnings–totaling $121.2 million last year–Forbes estimates that James has officially become a billionaire, while still playing hoops.
The 37-year-old superstar has a net worth of $1 billion, by Forbes’ count. James, who’s missing the playoffs for just the fourth time in 19 seasons, is the first active NBA player to make the billionaires list. (Michael Jordan, the only other basketball billionaire, didn’t hit ten figures until 2014, more than a decade after he retired, thanks to a well-timed investment in the Charlotte Hornets basketball team.)
“It’s my biggest milestone,” James told GQ in a prophetic 2014 interview. “Obviously. I want to maximize my business. And if I happen to get it, if I happen to be a billion-dollar athlete, ho. Hip hip hooray! Oh, my God, I’m gonna be excited.”
James has done just that–maximized his business, to the tune of more than $1.2 billion in pretax earnings. He has commanded more than $385 million in salary from the Cleveland Cavaliers, Miami Heat and Los Angeles Lakers as the NBA’s highest-paid active player. Off the court, he has raked in upwards of $900 million in income from endorsements and other business ventures.
Born to a struggling, 16-year-old single mother in Akron, Ohio, James lived with an assortment of family members, friends, neighbors and his peewee football coach–moving a dozen times in three years–before becoming the most hyped high school basketball prospect of all time. He inked his first deal with Nike in 2003, at age 18, famously rejecting offers from Reebok and Adidas in favor of what he saw as the better long-term partner. Good call. After more than a decade of success, he struck a lifetime agreement with Nike in late 2015 that pays him tens of millions annually. Last year, thanks to Nike, plus deals with brands like AT&T, PepsiCo and Walmart, he was the second-highest-earning athlete in the world.
But the real key to James’ billion-dollar fortune: He’s been more than just a pitchman. James has long structured deals to give him equity in brands he partners with, giving him a cut of the upside instead of a quick paycheck. In 2015, James walked away from an endorsement agreement with McDonald’s, worth an estimated $15 million over four years, to instead gamble on the fast-growing Blaze Pizza chain, where he’s an investor. He’s taken equity in brands like smart gym-maker Tonal and rideshare giant Lyft as well.
Then there’s SpringHill, the TV and movie production outfit built by James and business partner Maverick Carter. Last October, outside investors including Boston Red Sox owner Fenway Sports Group and Epic Games bought into the venture–which helped produce the $163 million (worldwide box office gross) Space Jam: A New Legacy and HBO documentary What’s My Name: Muhammad Ali–at a $725 million valuation. James, of course, remains the biggest shareholder.