As you can tell, from the live TV standups outside LeBron James' mansion to the banners outside his manager's office in Cleveland imploring him to stay, this is a pretty big day in the life of LeBron, in the alternative universe of NBA free agency and in the changing landscape of basketball.
It's every bit as big as LeBron said it would be during one of his trips to Madison Square Garden last season, when he said, "If you all want to go to sleep and not wake up till July 1, 2010, go ahead. Because it's going to be a big day."
|Basketball's biggest star in the game's most famous arena seems like a perfect match. (Getty Images)|
The Nets, and then the Knicks, were leading off Thursday as the first of at least six teams making presentations to LeBron at the downtown Cleveland offices of his marketing company, LRMR. Those are the two most significant wild cards in the mix, because they can offer James things no other team can.
If LeBron is an asset, and the rule "location, location, location" applies, then no one can make a better presentation than the Knicks, who live in the most famous building in basketball -- the last of the original theaters for the sport. The lead pitchman is Mike D'Antoni, who stood outside the Garden's sun-splashed Seventh Avenue entrance two years ago after his introduction as the coach who would help team president Donnie Walsh rescue the Knicks from the depths of irrelevance. On Thursday, D'Antoni was scheduled to stand eye-to-eye with James, tipoff at 1:30 p.m. D-Day for LBJ.
Scott O'Neil, president of MSG Sports, presumably will be on hand to sell LeBron on the ambitious, state-of-the-art renovation of the arena, which will cost the deep-pocketed parent company, Cablevision, upwards of $850 million. James Dolan, standing smack dab in his defining moment as the overlord of MSG, will be there to tell James: There's more where that came from, and I will spend whatever it takes.
The Nets have moved in on the Knicks' turf, both by stealing their thunder in scoring the first meeting with James on Thursday and also by putting up a bigger-than-life mural of billionaire owner Mikhail Prokhorov and James' buddy, rap mogul Jay-Z, on the corner of 34th Street and Eighth Avenue -- a chase-down block from the Garden. Prokhorov is as big a wild card as anybody in this chase, because only Dolan and Mark Cuban have as much money to spend and not even Cuban can match his international intrigue. Jay-Z is a man about town; Prokhorov is a man of the world.
Why is this so important? Because the Knicks and Nets have a chance to push James in a direction as he begins weighing the most important decision of his career. Once the playing field tilts and James begins sliding, there might be no bringing him back. The question of the day is, which way will he slide? In the direction of a unique opportunity to build his brand and carry the NBA to heights never before attained by assuring that the best player of his era will play in the sport's biggest market? To another city, like Chicago, with better talent to offer in the short term? To Miami with Dwyane Wade? (Please, no.) Or back toward the welcoming embrace of home, with James deciding that he doesn't need all the glitz and glamour to achieve his goals?
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If the Nets' ambitious move to Brooklyn were happening next season, they would be the clear favorite in this race. But politics and money and all the things that make New York a challenge got in the way, and Prokhorov will have to sell James on two years in Newark, N.J., in the prime of his career. No matter what other continents Prokhorov has conquered, that's a tough -- if not impossible -- sell.
So in my opinion, if James is going to be sold on leaving his hometown, the Knicks have the best chance of doing it Thursday. The argument that he wouldn't have enough talent around him would become irrelevant if the Knicks sold him on the place first. Every other free agent is waiting to see what James does, and if he is ready to commit to the Knicks, all of them will be clamoring to join him. He'll have his pick of running mates, this summer and next; the Knicks will have salary-cap space next summer, too, and Carmelo Anthony could very well be the recipient if he continues to balk at the Nuggets' three-year, $65 million extension offer.
Then there is the naïve nattering about how no intrinsic value would be gained -- for James or for the NBA as a whole -- by putting the biggest star of the next decade in the sport's biggest market. No, the NBA, the TV networks and everyone else generating worldwide commerce from pro basketball wouldn't want the most famous address in the sport to be buzzing 41 nights a year, and potentially more. Former Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy said it best Wednesday in a radio interview: When the Knicks are relevant, a regular-season game in the Garden is like a playoff game in most other NBA cities.
This is the best chance for James to accomplish two of his three primary goals: become a billionaire and, as he said in 2007, "bring the game of basketball back." As former Blazers assistant GM Tom Penn, now a cap analyst for ESPN, said on the phone the other day: "Everybody thinks this is about the next 10 months. It's not. It's about the next 10 years."
The other goal, to become a champion, will be D'Antoni's job to sell. If James comes to New York, the success or failure of the decision will rest with D'Antoni more than anyone else -- which is why the coach's presentation might be the most important of the day. All the off-the-court pluses won't mean anything if James doesn't believe D'Antoni's system would bring him not only triple-doubles, but multiple titles.
If he decides on the Knicks, James will have his pick among Chris Bosh, Amar'e Stoudemire, Joe Johnson, whomever. If he doesn't, the Knicks run a great risk of being nearly shut out. Thursday's events in Ohio are that important. Sources familiar with the thinking of several second-tier free agents say that none of them wants to be the guy to join the Knicks without a bona-fide superstar.
So in a few days, the Knicks and pro basketball will learn James' decision. If he says no to the Knicks, it's essentially business as usual, just another reshuffling of the deck in the NBA. James stays in Cleveland or goes to another team -- Chicago, Miami, doesn't matter -- and Wade gets an All-Star or two to join him. Johnson re-signs with the Hawks, and the other top free agents say, "If New York is too big for LeBron, then it's definitely too big for me." I say, yawn. And basketball continues on its merry way, still searching for an era like Bird vs. Magic, still thirsting for an icon equal to Michael.
Another guy we're on a first-name basis with can change that this weekend if he wants to.