It’s not just that NBA teams are throwing money at basketball superstar Lebron James. Celebrity chefs are promising to feed him for free if he’ll come to their city (Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Mario Batali in New York) or stay in town (Michael Symon for Cleveland). Will a culinary component be enough to tip the scales in favor of New York, Cleveland or one of the other NBA destinations hoping to lure mega-free agent King James to their team?
The Cleveland Cavaliers are able to pay James $3 million more per year than any other NBA team. But James’ nonstop media tour has made it clear that his decision involves many factors other than straight salary.
Which may be why celebrity chefs have gotten into the picture. Vongerichten fired the first salvo. When New York magazine asked high-profile Manhattanites who claimed to be big fans of James what they would contribute to help convince him to sign with the New York Knicks, the three-Michelin star winner said this: “Free dinners as long as he wants. I’ll feed him whatever he likes—double chickens.”
Then Mario Batali upped the ante with an offer of dinner every two weeks, “wherever you want, up to 20 people.”
Next came a well-reasoned plea from Iron Chef Michael Symon, a Cleveland native whose flagship Lola is located just steps away from Quicken Loans Arena, where the Cleveland Cavaliers play. Symon also operates two eating spots inside the arena. Here’s how Symon spelled out the situation for James in a Facebook page posting:
“I first off would like to thank you for what you have done for the fine city of Cleveland. You have created an energy downtown that has not been seen in years and have allowed businesses to thrive beyond their wildest dreams. I know the decisions you have to make in the upcoming weeks will be difficult and I hope you follow your heart. I truly believe regardless of where you go championships will follow because you are just that damn good and that each city will embrace you (although not as much as Ctown…lol!). As a fan of all sports I truly believe the greatest legends have built their status with one team (Emmit, Troy, Jeter, Magic, Bird, Brown, Russell…hell, even MJ will only be remembered as a Bull).
“Regardless of what you decide I will always be a fan mainly because I know firsthand what a class act you are and would never fault someone who feels they are doing the best for their career and family. That being said, I hope you choose to stay in Ctown with the Cavs so I can watch you finish what you started, which is something not many people got to do.
Best of luck,
PS…I’ve never really been one to beg or bribe but if you do choose to stay, I’ll come over once a month to cook up an Iron Chef-style dinner for your family or friends.”
Still to be heard from chefs in Chicago or Los Angeles, two other cities whose teams are strongly rumored (it’s the Clippers in L.A., not the Lakers) to be making a hard push for James.
Does food matter to Lebron? Well, how many other people do you know who have had their own personal chef since age 20? For James, that chef was grilling and barbecue specialist Glenn Lyman, who held the post for five years before recently relocating to Charlotte, NC. So perhaps James may well be concerned with who’ll be doing the cooking wherever he winds up.
(And if you’re wondering what NBA players pay a personal chef, we can give you an idea. The number comes from New York Knicks center Eddy Curry’s bankruptcy filing. It reveals that even though Curry was letting $1.2 million in debts go unpaid, he was paying his personal chef $6,000 per month. Nice work if you can get it, no?)
The lone false restaurant-related note in the pursuit of James has come from New York City’s legendary Carnegie Deli. GM Sandy Levine told New York he would name a sandwich after Lebron James and put it on the menu for $19.95. That would definitely earn a visit from James or one of his marketing entourage—only they’d be bearing a cease-and-desist order that would bar Carnegie Deli from using the Lebron James name to make money. Sad to say, when Vongerichten and Symon promise endless freebies, the sandwich-named-after-you offer seems a little old school.