NEW YORK – Had LeBron James been so intoxicated with the possibility of Broadway, had the style and address of Madison Square Garden been what he had desperately wanted over the substance of a hometown championship chase, he never would have let that stuffed nose and sniffles stop him on Monday. For there was King James suddenly rising over 34th Street and 7th Avenue, 80 feet high, framed in neon, a Nike monument to his penchant for pushing product.
"I've heard about it," James said, but he hadn't bothered to leave his midtown Manhattan hotel to see for himself.
James shrugged his shoulders. Magic and Michael would have left the hotel to see themselves here, but LeBron never bothered. He never bothered to play the New York bargaining chip game, never bothered raising the possibility that maybe this would be the one city, the one building, big enough to blast his brand to the ends of the earth.
He didn't need a business school degree to understand the NBA's new world market. In the information age, LeBron could be King James anywhere, including the shadows of his hometown of Akron.
Before he signed a three-year extension this summer, James had figured out that New York needed LeBron far more than LeBron needed New York.
Or Los Angeles.
As James was lofting three-pointers just over the reach of those overpaid, underachieving Knick hands on his way to 29 points and a 102-96 Cleveland Cavaliers victory, as the arc of his ball threatened to pop the dust out of those three-decade-old title banners, there would be no longing within James.
He never needed the World's Most Famous Arena the way Magic Johnson did the Fabulous Forum and the way Larry Bird needed Boston Garden.
"I never thought about that," James said. "Me being from Ohio, playing high school basketball in Ohio and now being a professional athlete in Ohio, playing in this arena as a home court never crossed my mind."
Somehow, this all had been an obsession of Isiah Thomas, who had hatched a plan to create salary-cap space and goodwill for an eventual free-agent courtship of James. After all, you had to believe there was something else besides sound basketball thinking that would give washout Vin Baker a $7 million halfway house and give Jamal Crawford a $55 million contract. They were Aaron Goodwin clients, believed to be down payments on getting Goodwin's colossal client, LeBron.
As it turned out, Goodwin didn't have the pull to keep James a client – never mind influence New York as his free-agent destination. Before James fired Goodwin last year, there were whispers of escalator clauses in James' Nike deal for wearing the shoe in a major market, more than enough to compensate for the mere hit he'd take on salary with an unfriendly cap.
In the end, it was a load of garbage. James didn't need a day in college to figure that out for himself.
"When I parted ways with my agent, I think that's when the business side of me really tried to take over," James said.
So James solicited a meeting with Warren Buffett over the summer, listening to him talk all about how he can catch Michael Jordan on one side of the ledger. "He says when he goes to sleep, he's still making money," James said. His eyes lit up for a moment talking about that on Monday night. Yes, he liked the sound of it. Make it work for you, Buffett told him, and James listened to every word.
Only, none of that would matter much for him unless he’s part of the championship chase, unless he’s surrounded by front office and coaching competence. Cavaliers general manager Danny Ferry had one season to sell James on staying the course and signing a contract, and he hired Mike Brown to coach, bringing with them the San Antonio blueprint of stability and professionalism.
"What a player needs to be in is a winning environment, a chance to compete for a championship," Ferry said. "That will drive a player's decision on where he goes more than anything. For a marketable guy, being in the playoffs and having a stage in the playoffs and championship, it's then an international media event no matter where you're playing.
"He had a year to get to know us and see what we were about, see our basketball philosophies and thoughts. And him signing was reflective that he did have trust. We'll have to continually do that as [the Spurs] did with Tim [Duncan]. As soon as you get to know LeBron, you get to understand that's he's about winning. He loves to play basketball and he loves to win.
"And ultimately that means championships."
Cleveland can construct a championship contender without ever finding a Pippen for its Jordan, a truth fleshed out between Shaquille O'Neal's championship seasons with little brothers Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade. "I don't think there's an exact formula," Ferry said. "What did Detroit have? I don't know if San Antonio had a Pippen when [the Spurs] won their championships. They had really good players. That's what we'll try to continue to build with."
James still is a player or two away from catching his buddy, Wade, with a ring, but he isn't far from the NBA Finals. He thinks these Cavaliers are championship contenders now, but that would be more about his readiness than that of his teammates.
Between now and the championship stage, James can talk to the masses through his Nike commercials, talk to the billion people in China wearing red, white and blue in Beijing in 2008. Yes, the world can belong to LeBron James without him ever climbing down out of that Times Square billboard and bouncing his ball in the big city.
Different time, different order.
Everything comes to him now.