They turned that downtown office building into a public parade of billionaires and builders of dynasties, entertainment icons and what-are-they-doing-here Clippers. The big, wide world took turns marching into the heart of Cleveland to make dramatic presentations to a hometown hero in a T-shirt, shorts and sneakers.
Here was Team LeBron making the headquarters of James’ fledgling marketing company LRMR into the Grand Central Station of a city’s hope and heartbreak. And perhaps the Cavaliers showed why they best know the biggest free agent in sports history when they delivered a presentation designed as much to steal a 14-year-old away from a traveling baseball team than woo a self-proclaimed disciple of Warren Buffett.
Through it all, James’ old team probably played it perfectly. The Cavs understood their audience the best: LeBron James(notes) and his high school buddies, 25-year-olds trying to play the part of a global corporation but ultimately still reached at a meaningful level with cartoons and locker-room humor.
A week ago, most teams believed they were chasing the Chicago Bulls for James, but that’s flipped in the past days and hours. “My gut tells me Cleveland,” an executive in the James chase told Yahoo! Sports on Sunday. “From what I hear now, it's his decision alone. No outside influences.”
Officials from teams who made these presentations went along with the charade, but some questioned the legitimacy of the process based on the kinds of questions that were thrown back to them. “It didn’t take long to realize you’re dealing with 25-year-old kids,” one source said.
Cleveland executives are still on edge, but privately feeling far more confident now than they did weeks ago. As much as anything, William Wesley has been muscled out of the process in the past week or so, with teams insisting that communication to James goes directly through his business manager Maverick Carter. So unnerved over World Wide Wes’ ubiquitous presence in the process, Carter had to go public to undermine Wesley’s credibility and proclaim his own power.
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The wresting back of power into James’ Akron-based camp goes a long way to securing the Cavs’ chances for re-signing James. This could preserve James’ future with the Cavaliers, because those surrounding him will eagerly validate his decision to take more money, stay home and keep them all relevant in his career and life.
Team LeBron turned this courtship of presentations into a marketing tool for the breadth of his brand, into a visual of the heavy-hitter suitors ultimately being rebuffed out of James’ loyalty and love for Cleveland. This entire episode made for around-the-clock news and Twitter frenzy. From the offices of LRMR, James has delivered a relentless reminder that’s he’s the world’s most wanted man in high tops. He needed the threat of leaving, even if there was never truly the intent.
What’s more, James and his guys have ramped up the launch of a new personal website and foreshadowed it as the place to find out first the big news on his free-agent choice – one that possibly won’t be made until he’s done marketing the LeBron James Skills Camp in Akron through Wednesday.
In the end, the Cavs can still offer James the most money, and no city will celebrate his arrival more than Cleveland will rejoice his refusing to leave. Cleveland fans felt like they had lost him, like he was going to get swept away into the world beyond Northeast Ohio. Something changed in the playoffs. Always, there was a sense that if he left there, the onus would be on the organization; that it didn’t do enough, that it didn’t surround him with the proper talent. Only this time, the Cavs did. James’ no-show performance in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against Boston scarred him everywhere. He hadn’t delivered on the burden of an MVP, and suddenly the narrative of the story had dramatically changed.
Coach Mike Brown was fired, general manager Danny Ferry was pushed out and an awkward pursuit of Tom Izzo ensued under owner Dan Gilbert’s watch. Everything about James’ future in Cleveland felt so flimsy. In the end, Gilbert did get right the hiring of Byron Scott as coach, a man with an ability to make people feel confident about situations, to feel confidence in his presence.
Despite sources saying Scott’s old New Jersey point guard Jason Kidd(notes) didn’t back down from past criticisms when called by Cleveland officials, the unwavering praise of Chris Paul(notes) went a long way with the Cavs. Scott is a smart coach for James, a balance of old-school sensibility with a willingness to give his superstars complete freedom to dictate terms on the floor.
For all the New Jersey Nets’ promises of world treasures, the flashing of Pat Riley’s rings, the young talent of the Bulls and the calling of Madison Square Garden, this process has made some suitors skeptical of James’ seriousness. Even so, all the teams have to tell their fans that they had a great shot and wowed him and his buddies in the presentations.
Armed with a commitment from Amar'e Stoudemire(notes), the Knicks sent two executives to Cleveland on Saturday to run some cap numbers past James' agent Leon Rose. James' people have privately described the Knicks as a long shot, but New York has wisely tried to stay aggressive selling itself. For now, the Knicks are the one team with an All-Star caliber forward on the way.
The Knicks are willing to pay Stoudemire $100 million, something no one else with cap space is willing to do. New Jersey would take Stoudemire if James also promises to sign, a source said, but won't meet his demands for a maximum contract as a solitary commitment.
Still, mostly this may turn out to be an exercise in lavishing LeBron James with what he craves the most: a lustful longing for his greatness. Deep down, LeBron had to walk out of those offices with an understanding that no one can make him a billionaire and no one can promise a circumstance much better than what he’s had in Cleveland these past seven seasons. For him to leave, there would be so much pressure to deliver a championship upon arrival, to honor the biggest free-agency score in history. And it leaves to you wonder whether he truly wants any of that.
LeBron James has always sold his hopes of wanting to conquer the world, of turning into a historically transcendent athlete and icon. All that sounds wonderful, but here’s what everyone does know: He’s going to be a wildly successful basketball player, maybe a five- or six-time MVP and, barring misfortune, an NBA champion.
And maybe most of all now, you get the idea that James is an overgrown teenager getting a few laughs with his buddies, driving home to Akron from this cattle call in Cleveland to watch cartoons, play video games and kill some time until he gives the nod to post the big news that maybe the rest of us should’ve known all along: He’s home.
- LeBron James