BOSTON – The clock struck midnight, the locker-room door swung open and LeBron James(notes) marched out a liberated man. Out of the playoffs, off the Garden floor, and barely out the tunnel before he ripped off that No. 23 Cleveland Cavaliers jersey on Thursday. As James marched his way toward the interview room, his stable of agents, middlemen and childhood chums had to walk fast to keep up with him. They never do like letting King James out of their sights.
Together, they have big ideas, bigger plans and the biggest agenda this sport's ever seen. The playoffs move on without LBJ, but deep down it reassures him that the Boston Celtics and Orlando Magic will never be as big of a story as the suspense he and his hangers-on will spin together.
"Me and my team, we have a game plan that we're going to execute," James said.
Yes, his team. That's where James' loyalties lie, where together they'll chase the one title he's forever chased: the biggest free agent of his generation.
Together, they're going to hold the NBA hostage. They're going to flush out a thousand scenarios, manipulate front-office decisions in Cleveland, New York, Chicago and beyond. Kentucky's John Calipari is along for the ride, working with agent Leon Rose and middleman William Wesley, and all hell promises to break out now.
The plan they're talking about includes Calipari coming to Cleveland as James' hand-picked coach. "He's got to listen if they come calling," a source close to Calipari told Yahoo! Sports on Thursday night. He was talking about the Cavaliers and Bulls, and Calipari's camp is determined to open bidding to multiple teams.
Together, these narcissists will manufacture a drama that will undermine the conference and NBA Finals, the NBA draft and Fourth of July parades in small towns and big cities across America. James and the Cavs lost Game 6 of the conference semifinals to the Boston Celtics, 94-85, but he hardly seemed devastated in the losing locker room. James had a triple-double that was devalued with nine turnovers. He shot 44 percent for the series, turned the ball over 27 times and behaved like a lousy leader.
Truth be told, James did something no champion would've ever dared: He quit on his teammates in Game 5 and that made it easy for the rest of them – and James – to quit in the final minutes of Game 6. This has been an indictment of the coaching staff and organization, but James, too. Mostly, James. The Cavs have turned out to be a great regular season team unfit for the playoffs, but James was the most responsible for this collapse in the conference semifinals. There was no culprit even a close second.
Still, James will get over it fast because he engages in so little self-examination. In his mind, and that of his cast of sycophants, blame belongs on his coach, Mike Brown, for his lousy adjustments and game plans. It belongs to general manager Danny Ferry for the unworthy teammates. James was no MVP in this series, but no one stays in his employ with impure thoughts of accountability.
The next time you hear James, as the franchise star, say, "This was on me," will be the first. All around James, his yes men never require him to deal in the currency of truth. Aaron Goodwin, his old agent, tried to be honest with him and his high school buddies, and it got him fired five years ago.
James is on the market, a free agent for the ages, and maybe now the kid out of small-town Akron gets to live out his big-city, bright-light dreams. Where next? Oh, James isn't worried about that now. He wants the guessing to continue through July 1 and beyond. He backed over Brown one more time on Thursday night, and Brown's as good as gone as the Cavs' coach. Ferry has been fiercely loyal to Brown, but his mismanagement of matchups and in-game adjustments compounded an earlier playoff exit with a larger payroll and deeper roster.
Brown goes now, and Calipari moves into the forefront of the discussion. James is forever seeking leverage, and hand-picking his own coach with the Cavs could be the most appealing part of staying with them. What James' crew will do is force an NBA market for Calipari that exists in only two scenarios: The promise of keeping James or the promise of luring James away.
For Rose and Wesley to attach the prime years of James' career to Calipari would speak more to an economic power play and monopoly than a functional, workable and winning NBA environment. For some college coaches, talk of them going to the NBA hurts their recruiting. It's just the opposite for Calipari: It isn't those stiff owners and GMs who want Calipari, but King James himself. Calipari tells the kids it's all rumor, except for the part about James, the MVP, wanting him. The Bulls deliver the bonus of Derrick Rose(notes) as the star point guard, and Rose does love his old college coach at Memphis.
Yet, the desperation of Cleveland owner Dan Gilbert makes Calipari's hiring at $5 million-$6 million a genuine possibility, should James simply say the word. Nevertheless, one Eastern Conference executive close to Ferry told Yahoo! Sports this week: "I think Danny would resign before he'd hire Cal."
Ferry understands that it would be a hollow, joyless existence, and he doesn't need the job that badly. He has too much money and too much sense to sign on for more years of being held hostage. Nevertheless, his contract is up, too, and maybe he just walks once James makes his decision. There's a reason Calipari sat courtside with Rose at Tuesday's Game 5 in Cleveland, and it had everything to do with thrusting himself into the Class of 2010 conversation. As narcissists go, Calipari and James probably belong together. It would be a partnership constructed for all the wrong reasons and doomed to spectacular failure.
When it comes to free agency criteria, James insisted late Thursday, "I want to win. … That's my only thing … my only concern."
Winning is nice and all, and James will eventually get himself a title or two. He's too talented. At the end of his seventh NBA season, James lost one more chance at it Thursday, and it hardly felt like the end of the world for him. He'll get over it fast because that enormous ego will be nourished with the courtship of his lifetime, his free agency, and perhaps the hardest part will come sometime in July when James has to make a choice, pick a team and play there. Only then, the wooing of LeBron James will be complete and you have to wonder: How will King James ever live without that?
- John Calipari