SAO PAULO – The grounds of the training facility at Sao Paulo Football Club, where the United States soccer team has set up camp, are pristine. There's a canopy of trees, lush fields, clean modern facilities and even peacocks roaming about.
The tranquility – particularly here in a sprawling, teeming metropolitan area of some 21 million – is partly why U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann chose it as the Americans' home base. There is not just physical recovery for his players here but also mental.
Then suddenly Tuesday morning, as the U.S. team went through the start of practice for Thursday's game with Germany (noon ET) under a bright, beautiful sky, hushed tones and calm conversations were overcome by shock, excitement and even professional panic. At least that was the case among the large international media throng gathered on a side field.
"LeBron James has opted out of his contract with the Miami Heat," came the news bulletins over Twitter and text message in about the only bit of sports news that could upset the bubble of the World Cup as teams fight to reach the knockout round.
Employees of all sports television outlets back in the States hung their heads, knowing full well that little of what was planned on coverage of the U.S. national team would make it on the air. Now it's nearly all-LeBron, all the time.
"Well, there goes all of that," said one reporter.
News holes shrunk at major newspapers (this might be big news in, say, the Miami Herald) and radio time was gobbled up. Soon, nearly all but the most soccer-obsessed reporters were speculating on where James would end up: Chicago? New York? Cleveland? Just stay in Miami?
And considering LeBron was technically unemployed at that moment – Does he get COBRA? – jokes flew about whether Klinsmann could find a loophole in FIFA rules to get him on the U.S. team.
It went so far that the U.S. Soccer Twitter account got in on the fun.
Have President Obama scramble a jet, find a coach to offer some basic pointers on the way down and maybe America has its late-game substitute X-factor. Any Germans want to try to stop 6-foot-8, 265-pound, 40-inch-vertical LeBron crashing into the penalty area on corner kicks?
If Klinsmann and a couple players, including NBA-mad midfielder Jermaine Jones, hadn't already completed their media duties, they would've assuredly been asked about where James should go.
Soccer may be the world's most popular sport but basketball is second and perhaps even gaining. So this wasn't just a U.S. phenomenon. This was a practice camp that featured a large German media contingent due to the upcoming opponent and Klinsmann's star factor back in his homeland. Klinsmann even did a German-language question-and-answer session. Plus there were outlets from Brazil, Argentina, Israel and elsewhere.
LeBron is a big deal everywhere, including here in Sao Paulo where sightings of his Miami Heat jersey are common. Maybe not the equal of Brazilian soccer star Neymar, but LeBron jerseys are here. Even Brazilian media outlets quickly carved a small section of their websites for the latest on LeBron.
Kobe Bryant is the bigger soccer fan – he's here attending matches and calls Argentine star Lionel Messi a friend – but James has a minority interest in Liverpool. And LeBron has a history of inserting himself into this event.
Four years ago, James upstaged part of the World Cup in South Africa when he announced he was leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Heat. Now history repeats itself.
It's still soccer-first here in Brazil. This is still the World Cup in a country obsessed with the sport. But being able to puncture that soccer-obsessed balloon even a little bit, even for a day or two, says plenty about the power of LeBron James and the NBA.
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