LeBron loving ride on his magical free-agent tour

NEW YORK – They should get used to it in Cleveland, because LeBron James has fallen wildly, madly in love with the courtship of LeBron James. He had come to Madison Square Garden sounding like a boxing promoter pushing a fight-night pay-per-view card. The date tumbled out of his mouth over and over – July 1, 2010. He loves the intrigue, the scenarios, the endless possibilities. Ask him anything about it. He’ll go on and on.

At this rate, James is threatening to become the first free agent ever fined for tampering with himself.

“If you guys want to go to sleep right now and not wake up until July 1, 2010, then go ahead because it’s going to be a big day,” James said with a smile late Tuesday. Most of his teammates had showered and gone to the bus, a 119-101 embarrassment of the Knicks complete. But James was still talking at the Garden. He started talking about 2010 on Tuesday and had so little interest in stopping.

There was the Knicks’ backdrop on the interview-room wall and a Knicks microphone next to his hands. James inspired the huddled basketball masses with a message of hope. He talked about his beloved Yankees and the need for them to sign his buddy, the ex-Indian, CC Sabathia, because they sure do need pitching. He bowed to the Garden’s history, the fights and concerts and championship basketball seasons.

“The Mecca,” James gushed.

As for LeBron leaping to the Knicks in 2010, he insisted, “You have to stay open-minded if you are a Knicks fan.”

He’s the little girl with a curl; just such a flirt, such a tease. He can’t get enough of New York clearing cap space for him, sacrificing its two top scorers and a shot at the playoffs for the chance to sign him. The Knicks haven’t just cleared space for the next Jordan, but enough to sign a Pippen, too. James can’t do this job alone, but the Toronto RaptorsChris Bosh and Phoenix SunsAmare Stoudemire could be the package deals to make New York’s leap of faith palpable.

This 2010 obsession isn’t a media creation, but a carefully orchestrated campaign that’s part hubris and part salesmanship. This way, James keeps the jerseys and the shoes flying off the shelves. That way James isn’t just a global phenomenon, but maybe the superstar on his way to your gymnasium.

“It’s not just New York and Brooklyn,” James warned. “It’s not just a two-team race.”

Detroit? Cleveland? Toronto? San Antonio? Hey, why not? This is the magical, mystical LeBron James Free Agency Tour. Clear your space, bow to the King and take him at his word that only the chance for multiple championships will influence his decision.

This free agent class of 2010 has turned into the sport’s most suffocating story. And it won’t go away because as franchises clear salary-cap space for James and Bosh, Dwyane Wade and Stoudemire, and a host more of star players, the lynchpin of it all, James, has his own fascination with transcending the sport’s landscape. He never did go through the recruiting process out of St. Vincent-St. Mary, but he is sure determined to milk national signing day in 2010. After Kobe Bryant made the Olympics all about him, King James has used his pending free agency to take back his throne.

“July 1, 2010 is going to be a very, very big day,” James said.

He loves Mike D’Antoni’s go-go offense, but insists that championships can’t be won without intense attention to defensive detail. James insists that neither he nor the Cavaliers pay no mind to the relentless stories about 2010, but he had to be dragged out of two sessions in the Knicks’ interview room on Tuesday night.

As much as anyone, David Stern should be grateful for what LeBron James and this story has done for his sport. No one is noticing that franchises in Charlotte and Memphis are bottoming out. No one is noticing the empty seats everywhere, the arena issues that are crippling Sacramento and New Jersey, the fact that somehow the NBA allowed the Seattle SuperSonics to turn into the Oklahoma City Thunder. It’s all glossed over because the best two teams in basketball are the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics, and everyone else is angling for the class of 2010.

One of the most intriguing dramas of this circumstance plays out behind the scenes, where those teams chasing cap space are waging public and private recruiting campaigns for James and his 2010 peers. The Cavaliers have been dealing with New Jersey Nets part owner Jay-Z’s access to James, as well his penchant for publicly discussing his team’s desire to sign him. Sources say Jay-Z had been told to knock it off in the past, but he’s done it again recently.

Now, Toronto Raptors GM Bryan Colangelo has to hear everyone suggesting that his star, Bosh, is destined to join James in one of those cities – Cleveland or New York – that has room to sign two max-out players in 2010. He’s done a fantastic job surrounding Bosh with talent, but losing Bosh to the sweet siren of riding shotgun with LeBron is stiff competition. Colangelo just wants a fair fight, a chance to sell his program without tampering undermining his program.

“I think it’s incumbent upon the league to pay attention to the rules that we have and enforce them when necessary,” Colangelo said. “…There have been plainly visible examples where nothing has been done.” But make no mistake: Colangelo understands keeping Bosh begins and ends with the Raptors themselves.

“We need to make it difficult for Chris to leave,” he said. “We can only control what we can control and that’s to run a first-class organization that’s always professional and that helps to establish a winning culture.”

Colangelo has to be vigilant watching for the pre-July 1 backroom deals that will conspire to bring James and Bosh together – never mind the public proclamations out of rival owners and general managers coming across his laptop.

Colangelo had nothing to say about it, but rest assured that a passage in a New York Magazine story on Knicks GM Donnie Walsh didn’t go unnoticed. Walsh told the magazine, “You know what's interesting to me? What year do you think [Chris Bosh] is a free agent? …And that kid’s a great player. But nobody talks about him. It’s all, ‘Oh, you’ve got to get LeBron!’ Look, I understand that. But you look at that free-agent class, and there’s a lot of really good players in it.”

Around the league, there’s a belief among smaller-market owners that the league office doesn’t want to penalize the New York teams for their blatant public lusting of free agents. The NBA’s president, Joel Litvin, has a monumental task of keeping order over the next 19 months because the process will ultimately turn nasty and accusatory among front offices. With superstar package deals inevitably being orchestrated well before July 1, 2010, this free-agent courtship is ripe for rules violations.

“There are things we do to monitor salary-cap circumvention and tampering, but there’s only so much we can do,” Litvin said. “We don’t tap phones, but we do investigations that aren’t always made public.

“Teams shouldn’t be commenting publicly about their interest in a player for another team who’s becoming a free agent down the road.”

With James becoming so smitten with his courtship, there will be no limits to recruiters’ overtures between now and July 1, 2010. James does not dismiss the magnitude of his pending basketball freedom, nor the frenzy that it’s inspiring. Truth be told, he’s embracing it. Perhaps Kobe has the best team these next two years, but James is controlling the biggest story.

As LeBron James said, “No team LeBron James is on will ever be under the radar.” James doesn’t want to be under the radar, he wants to be in the middle of it all. He has a big talent and a big capacity for multitasking. No one is playing better basketball in the Eastern Conference, which is some accomplishment considering that James has one eye on a ring and one foot out the door.

Whatever Cleveland thinks will happen, LeBron James will make that city, that franchise, sweat this out. And he’ll do so gladly. He had a wonderful time at the Garden on Tuesday night, and it seemed like he never wanted to leave. The candidate just talked and talked and talked, insisting that those forlorn New York fans had reason to believe a savior could be on his way. LeBron loves this saga and leaves everyone with the idea that he almost wishes it could go on forever.

“July 1, 2010,” he would say again, “is going to be a very, very big day.”