Here was Kevin Garnett(notes), who spent 12 seasons going from prep phenom to NBA star without lifting the lowly Minnesota Timberwolves to a championship. And there was LeBron James(notes), seven years into the same journey with the Cleveland Cavaliers, now on the brink of free agency.
''Loyalty is something that hurts you at times because you can't get youth back,'' Garnett said after his Celtics dismissed the Cavs from the playoffs Thursday night. Garnett would know. He lost his youth in Minnesota only to finally find that elusive championship in Boston two years ago. He was telling LeBron to take care of himself, not the franchise that drafted him.
Garnett isn't wrong, but he's forgetting something in the equation, too.
As sure as you can't get youth back, you also can't get loyalty back.
LeBron James can, and will, do whatever he pleases over the next couple months in deciding his future. There are no wrong choices when you're being courted with multimillion-dollar contracts and fawning fans and various levels of power and control.
Everyone is going to offer something. The promise of a championship. A supporting cast. Perhaps LeBron's choice in coach, general manager, free-agent signings and draft picks. If LeBron's cadre of advisors can dream it up, they'll ask for it.
It's only in Cleveland, though, that the ultimate intangible remains. This is home. This is northeast Ohio. This is unfinished business, unfulfilled promise. This is where all the sporting pain and disappointment that LeBron grew up with exists – no championships in any sport since 1964. None.
''I understand the burden of the Cleveland sports fan,'' he said.
Since he developed into a high school star in Akron, LeBron spoke of pleasing his people, putting his hometown on the map. Even as a 16-year-old he reveled in national media coming to his town. After the Cavs drafted him, he spoke endlessly about delivering that long-sought championship parade. He said it would be a celebration like no other. He isn't wrong about that.
So now, with the times getting tough, with other cities batting their eyes, he's just going to walk away?
This decision will say a lot about James. And if he's off to Chicago or New York it will disappoint many who have known him the longest, in a way that goes beyond the selfishness of fandom.
If he walks, he walks on what a lot of people believe he is about – substance behind all that on-court sizzle.
There's no reason to go. The Cavs can pay him more salary. Nike and Gatorade will honor the same contracts. At 25 and in his prime (two MVP trophies), there's no need to panic.
In the short run, there may be advantages elsewhere. The Bulls offer young talents Derrick Rose(notes) and Joakim Noah(notes). Miami has Dwyane Wade(notes) and the elite coach the others lack in Pat Riley, who could immediately return to the bench.
Everything else is just smoke and mirrors and promises that may be impossible to fulfill. The Knicks and the Clippers are selling hype and stars, probably to cover the pathetic ownership records of James Dolan and Donald Sterling. The Nets have Jay-Z, a Russian billionaire and a possible new arena in Brooklyn, a lot of moving parts with no track record.
Cleveland has the heart. Cleveland has the story. Cleveland has the people. LeBron has always expressed a deep understanding of what all of that means.
The supporting cast needs to get better, but that can happen. Besides, James himself signed off on nearly every roster move of the last seven years. He's at least part to blame. If he wants coach Mike Brown gone, he'll be gone. If he wants Kentucky coach John Calipari installed on the bench, then a Brink's truck will be dispatched to Lexington.
Cavs owner Dan Gilbert knows his franchise hangs in the balance. He made part of his fortune selling subprime loans that often went bust. He knows what depreciating property is all about – especially when there's no one willing to sell a credit default swap on the Cavs.
This is high-stakes stuff. If LeBron leaves, Gilbert's investment loses tens of millions, if not a hundred million in value. Pro hoops will be decimated in Ohio. So Gilbert will spare no expense. What choice does he have?
James can try to command power from the Bulls' Jerry Reinsdorf or the Heat's Micky Arison, but he won't get it like he will from Gilbert. Having a 25-year-old run everything may not be for the best, but right now LeBron doesn't seem all that certain he realizes what the best is.
LeBron spoke Thursday night of ''his team'' and he wasn't talking about the Cavs. He meant his army of enablers who ''have a plan'' on how to handle the summer.
It's where the problem begins and ends. The Summer of LeBron is as much about them as it is him – although he's clearly thrilled at the wining and dining to come. LeBron loves being the center of attention and his free agency will overshadow even the NBA Finals. He doesn't call himself the King for nothing.
The crew of hangers-on that surround LeBron have spent the past few years living off this moment, selling power, the perception of power and even power they don't have to boost their own careers and make their own fortunes and reputations.
This is LeBron's agent. This is LeBron's cousin. This is LeBron's Nike guy. The world opens just that quickly. Next thing you know they're demanding video of LeBron getting dunked on in a pick-up game.
LeBron has let them take over his life. He wants yes men and he's got 'em. And together they've created this free-agent hysteria. It is, perhaps, why James didn't even seem himself in these playoffs – distant, detached and emotionless in defeat. When the Cavs lost to the Orlando Magic in last season's Eastern Conference finals, James stood brooding in front of his locker before walking out in anger at what had transpired. He left the court without shaking the Magic players' hands and then bolted the arena without addressing the media.
He got ripped for it. At least he looked like he cared. Thursday? Not so much. He looked like a guy who might give up on the whole project, just like that.
If it's a different LeBron James, if all the quotes and stories and loyalty to Ohio he used to display are now gone under a sea of advisors and the tantalizing emotion of being wanted, then Cleveland fans should really be nervous.
LeBron never went to college. He was so good he was never recruited. At one of his St. Vincent-St. Mary games during his sophomore year of high school I sat next to former West Virginia assistant coach Drew Catlett who had come to take a look at this young star everyone was buzzing about. After a half of LeBron domination, Catlett aware that snow was piling up outside, decided to pack up and head back to Morgantown. LeBron James, he said, was too good to waste time on.
''He's never playing college ball,'' Catlett said. By James' junior year, no college was really bothering.
So now here comes the recruitment LeBron never had. Here comes the ego gratification. If LeBron had been forced to go to college by the NBA's since-implemented age minimum, the derby to sign him would've been the wildest of all time. It never materialized until now. And this is bigger. Everything is above board: huge cities, professional fan bases and breathless media – New York, L.A., Chicago, Miami … and Cleveland.
What LeBron wants is anyone's guess. He mentions winning, which isn't saying much. He wants money; that's always been clear. He isn't going broke in any of these places.
He's also long discussed legacy and in a way that made you believe he understood what that really meant. In this case, not following Michael Jordan's path in Chicago, but blazing his own in Cleveland.
LeBron once told me that if he had gone to college he would've signed with the University of Akron, the hometown mid-major. The reasons, he said, were numerous. He loved Akron. Some of his high school teammates were going there. The clincher was that his first high school coach, Keith Dambrot, who had helped teach him the game, had become Akron's head coach.
''Why not?'' LeBron said, smiling.
It's a quaint story. To this day Dambrot thinks he would've gotten him. Of course, LeBron has also said at other times he would've gone to a half-dozen different schools, so it probably wouldn't have happened.
But that he even imagined the possibility was rare. Elite recruits aren't aware enough to know their biggest impact could be at home, not at some far-off hoops factory, that their old coach and old teammates mean more than some smooth recruiting pitch, that turning the basketball world on its ear by doing something so daring and unique can be the coolest idea of them all.
They don't get that the Dukes and UCLAs need them more than they need the Dukes and UCLAs.
The Akron story said something about LeBron James.
Or maybe it didn't.