Here's USA Today: "LeBron James: 'I can't' imagine leaving Miami."
Yahoo: "James says I 'can't imagine' leaving Miami."
On and on it goes, websites and news organization getting the facts correct but missing the larger point, overlooking the three most important words in LeBron James' comments during All-Star Weekend to NBATV. That's when he said "I can't imagine" leaving Miami. Those are the three words most folks seem to have heard.
I heard three others:
At this point.
Here are the first three sentences of what LeBron said to NBATV. He said a few more sentences, and they're in the links above, but here are the first three sentences he said when asked if he could imagine leaving the Heat after this season as a free agent:
"At this point, I can't," James said. "At this point, I can't. We don't know what can happen from now to July, so ..."
So ... he said some other stuff, some more encouraging stuff for Heat fans about winning another NBA title, but concluding by saying "and then I will assess what I have to do with my future after that."
Does any of that sound like LeBron "can't imagine" leaving the Heat? It sounds to me like he could imagine the hell out of it, but doesn't want to talk about it right now.
Which is what he should do: He should not talk about it right now. But this is LeBron, and he's been talking about it since September, suggesting he'll stay in Miami while dropping hints he won't. Because this is another game to him, another competition, where the goal is to answer every question asked of him by making Heat fans happy while leaving himself an out, months from now, that he never actually said what Heat fans want to believe he said.
So here is where I stop writing about LeBron and start writing about what he's doing, what so many athletes and (more often) coaches do in his position -- try to talk their way out of an impossible situation.
The situation: Answer questions about a murky future by convincing the home folks they're staying while creating enough wiggle room to leave without being called -- after the fact -- a liar.
That's what LeBron is doing. It's what all coaches do when they have options. They have a good job but are being linked to an even better one. So the coach says what he has to say to make his current fans, players, bosses -- and recruiting targets, if he's a college coach -- believe he's staying. While not saying so much that he can't actually leave.
Nick Saban most famously tried to dance this dance in 2006 with the Miami Dolphins when he spent weeks trying to make everyone happy -- before concluding nobody was happy, so he needed to end the noise. He ended it like this: "I guess I have to say it: I'm not going to be the Alabama coach."
Two weeks later, he was the Alabama coach.
And just like I'm not here to rip LeBron for trying to get his answer right, I'm not bringing up Saban to rip him for trying to get his answer right. There is no right answer, because the question is wrong. The timing of the question is unfair, like asking the athletics director of an embattled college coach for a "vote of confidence." Well, hypothetically speaking, if USC is in the middle of its 2013 football season, does it do athletics director Pat Haden any good to admit the truth, that he very much is considering firing Lane Kiffin? Of course not. But the media asks, so Haden answers that his coach has his support, and then the media hammers Haden when he fires Kiffin a few weeks later.
Hey, dummies, you're the ones who asked the right question at the wrong time. And if anyone knows about asking the right question at the wrong time, whether it's to a coach or even to LeBron James, it's me. I'm a genius at it, which makes me someone who can see it when it happens, and it's happening right now with LeBron. Stop asking him, media people, about his plans after the season. He pretty obviously doesn't know, can't know. So why ask a question where his best option is to avoid, even mislead?
The only way to answer the question and make everybody happy is if the answer is: "I'm staying." Say that -- and mean it -- and everyone wins. The home folks are happy their star coach or player is staying. The media is happy to be done with the story. The subject of the question is happy to put the speculation to rest. Fans of other teams are happy to have an answer and move onto the next candidate.
But that answer only works if it's the truth. You know what answer doesn't work, at least not for people who are paying attention to the actual words? This one.
At this point, I can't [imagine leaving]. At this point, I can't. We don't know what can happen from now to July, so ..."