Everyone seems to be searching for last-minute clues as to where LeBron James will decide to continue what he intends to be an immortal, international and quite lucrative basketball career in a few short days. What most people have failed to notice is that the clues have been out there for months, if not years.
There is a rule in the NBA, and in sports, that the best predictor of future performance and behavior is past performance and behavior. So what do James' past actions and words suggest about the transformative decision he's about to make?
Brian Windhorst of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, who has covered James since high school, laid out a coherent and informative case Sunday -- not about the "what" of James' free-agent decision, but the "how." Despite his cadre of handlers, advisors, marketing people, business mavens, childhood buddies, agents, confidants, and superstar friends (including fellow free agents), James' history and words suggest that he, and he alone, will be making the decision.
Windhorst referred to what I agree was the only salient exchange in his much-criticized interview with CNN's Larry King during the NBA Finals. As King flailed aimlessly in his attempt to extract any pertinent clue about James' intentions, LeBron made it clear that the one person he listens to is himself.
"Even with the discussion with the rest of the free agents, with my friends, those free agents, with my supporting cast, ultimately, it's going to -- it's going to be me," James said. "I'm going to have to sit down and say, 'Where do you want to play? How [are] you going to -- what's going to be your future?' "
As Windhorst correctly pointed out, James was just getting started on this potentially revealing ramble, but King interrupted him and used the opportunity to suck up for an invitation to the overplayed free-agent summit, which never happened in its original form, anyway. The point of the exchange was simply that whichever team is successful in luring (or in the Cavs' case, keeping) LeBron, the key people who will be entrusted with his ambitious career goals are going to have to seriously connect with him.
In light of this, LeBron's decision this past week to put the brakes on an elaborate, coast-to-coast free agency tour was hardly surprising. And it leads us to another clue: For insight into how LeBron will conduct his free-agent business, look no farther than the manner in which he and his advisors have handled other aspects of the burgeoning basketball corporation known in sports business circles as LeBron Inc.
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Funny, that sounds an awful lot like what is going to transpire this week as James and his team begin to wrestle with by far the most important decision of his seven-year career. Which brings us to the teams in the hunt for LeBron and what they better do -- and not do -- if they hope to have a snowball's chance in Akron.
If any franchise among the Knicks, Nets, Bulls, Heat, Clippers or Cavs plan on showing up for their audience with LeBron lacking a coherent, dynamic, long-range plan for helping James achieve his two-pronged goal of becoming a champion and world-wide sports icon, they should save their time, money, breath and jet fuel and not even bother showing up. The importance of this recruiting trip, presentation, genuflection or whatever else you want to call it cannot be overstated.
People ask me every day what LeBron is going to do, and I respond that it is an unanswerable question. I believe that what James hears from the coaches, executives, marketing whizzes and whoever else will descend on Northeast Ohio this week ultimately will tip the scales.
We know James wants to win championships, and that he must win several in order to fulfill the Michael Jordan-like icon part of the equation. We know he wants to be a billionaire and a force in sports business that transcends points, assists, rebounds and even titles. We know these things because he's stated them, over and over.
We know he will conduct the recruiting visits with his six teams of choice in an all-encompassing way. Some teams (the Bulls) will have a better current collection of complementary players to offer. Others (Knicks and Nets) will have access to corporate America, media opportunities, finance and fashion moguls and advertising exposure that dwarfs the competition. LeBron will weigh all of it, but that's not all he has in mind.
At 25, James views himself -- and rightfully so -- as uniquely qualified to orchestrate a revival of the NBA that could match, or even surpass, the game's popularity at the zenith of Jordan's career in the 1990s. He can't do it all by himself, and if the success of the recent NBA Finals was any indication, he won't have to. Game 7 of the epic Celtics-Lakers series was the most-viewed NBA game since Jordan's final championship shot in Game 6 of the Jazz-Bulls Finals in 1998. The gold-medal achievement of Team USA in Beijing gave a jump start to LeBron's international aspirations -- for the game and for himself.
But he understands that the decision of where to play the next five or six years -- the heart of his prime as an athlete -- is far more important than who's the first guy off the bench in Cleveland or who's rebounding or blocking shots in New York. Those things matter, but they're not all that matters.
"For me as a competitor," James said in the 2007 Forbes article, "I do take the responsibility to bring the game of basketball back."
Along those lines, I refer you to a comment James made after the Cavs and Celtics engaged in a heated regular-season game in April at TD Garden. There were six technical fouls and an ejection in the Celtics' 117-113 victory, and afterward, James said this kind of rivalry -- this kind of hatred -- is what the NBA has been lacking since Jordan retired.
"That's what the game has lost," he said. "It's lost what it had in the '80s and the early '90s, when teams really didn't like each other."
It just so happens that James and fellow free agents Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh have the power to restore the NBA landscape to angrier, more compelling times. James and Wade could team up in New York or Miami, but all that would do is fill their personal trophy cases and give us a slightly different variation of the haves dominating the have-nots -- a structure that has awarded 33 of the 64 NBA titles to the Lakers or Celtics. There is a bigger, more ambitious and potentially more rewarding opportunity here, and James knows it.
What James, Wade and Bosh -- all represented by the same agency, Creative Artists -- have the power to do is lay the groundwork for competitive, super-star laden teams in multiple markets for years to come. James and Wade, in particular, have the ability to turn their personal rivalry up a notch and make it the defining personal struggle of their era -- much the way Magic and Bird owned the '80s. With so many other free agents potentially on the market -- Joe Johnson, Dirk Nowitzki, Amar'e Stoudemire, Yao Ming, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, Carlos Boozer, to name a few -- teams that strike out on LeBron and Wade will have plenty of opportunities to improve or keep up.
If the capped-out Lakers, Celtics, Spurs, Magic and Mavericks can reload through sign-and-trades, if the Suns can keep the momentum of their conference finals breakthrough alive, and if up-and-coming teams like Oklahoma City continue surging, the NBA has the opportunity to achieve something it has never had: stars and championship contenders in landmark cities like New York, Chicago and L.A. and also in secondary markets, where the fan bases are smaller but louder and more loyal. The NBA would own everyone from Jamie Dimon to Joe Fan. For David Stern, still searching for the right buttons on the cash register after Jordan, it would be as close to nirvana as you could get.
Don't underestimate LeBron's understanding of this, or his grasp on the opportunity before him. He's a lot of things, and one of them is knowledgeable when it comes to what's good for him. An NBA with strong teams and star players in big cities, plus the likes of Dwight Howard, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, Deron Williams and Brandon Roy in (for lack of a better team) flyover country would be good for business. And good business for the NBA will be exponentially good for LeBron -- not to mention LeBron Inc.
So what will James do? That's the billion-dollar question. I believe it depends a lot on what he hears from the pitchmen coming to see him this week. He has been waiting three years for this moment to define his career and reshape the NBA at the same time; he's not going to rely on emotion, sentimentality, instincts or advisors now.
I don't believe he's re-signing with Cleveland, because I think he'll conclude that the path from basketball to billions will be more challenging there. As for the chance to alter the NBA landscape and grow the pie -- well, he's been there seven years, and it is what it is.
The safe play, if he isn't sure what to do, would be to sign a short-term extension with the Cavs and do this all over again in a couple of years -- when his buddy Jay-Z's Nets have set up shop in Brooklyn.
But at some point, James has to stop being a full-time free agent and start achieving his goals. Given all the thought and preparation that has gone into this, and the uniqueness of the opportunity he has to effect change, this is no time to be timid.
The moment is now, and with labor uncertainty on the NBA's horizon, James might never be able to seize it again.
I would bet any amount of money he won't team with Wade in Miami or anywhere else. Such a move would be good for them, but bad for the rest of the NBA -- and LeBron, for all his faults, seems to see the big picture. Wade in Miami and LeBron in New York or Chicago -- or one of them at Madison Square Garden and the other one in Brooklyn -- would create the kind of rivalry James and the NBA so desperately need to max out their potential. Depending on where Bosh and the others wind up, it also would serve as the catalyst for growing the sport, and of course, revenues. The more compelling and financially viable the NBA is -- in the United States and around the world -- the better chance LeBron will have to be the kind of icon he wants to be.
So what's the answer? Only James knows.
All I know is that he'll listen intently to the people coming to see him this week and consider everything: potential teammates, training staff and facilities, the coach and his philosophy, the owner and his track record as far as spending whatever it takes to win, the team's ability to market him globally, and the opportunity to conspire with his free-agent buddies to create the kind of NBA that can help him become the icon he wants to be.
He'll ask himself, "What's going to be your future?" And then it will be time to stop talking about it and start achieving it.