Hours after the Cleveland Cavaliers believed they were on the cusp of a commitment out of LeBron James, the superstar free agent jetted 30,000 feet over America with Dwyane Wade on his way back to Miami.
The fight for the generation's biggest free agent raged out of the desert and back to the shores of Biscayne Bay on Thursday night, with James tempering a brimming belief within the Cavaliers into a trepidation that Wade could be playing the part of Pat Riley's closer for the Miami Heat.
Cleveland had been carefully listening to the direction of James' agent Rich Paul, who has been privately telling people for weeks – even months and years – that he has been determined to deliver the prodigal son of Northeast Ohio back home.
The Cavaliers were told to clear max salary-cap space for James, and they did so at an extreme price – a starting center and a 2016 lottery pick to the Boston Celtics. When paperwork was slow to be filed to finalize the three-way deal on Thursday morning, Cavaliers officials were imploring Boston and Brooklyn executives to speed up the process, that it was imperative the deal be finalized and Cleveland officials could be prepared to present James with a max contract with a starting salary of $20.7 million, sources said.
Calls were going to agents, searching for the kind of experienced, winning players who would make sense in a supporting cast for James, league sources said. Some agents postponed potential deals elsewhere, believing Cleveland's exuberance to be an assurance James was on his way back.
In the late morning, the Cavaliers operated with a belief James would soon commit to them, that it was only a matter of time. They had word out of everyone, except as one high-ranking source said, "It still hasn't been confirmed by the only man whose confirmation counts."
If James had left the free-agent process to his agent in the days after July 1, leaving him to meetings described as "a tremendous waste of time," by one executive pitching the Cavaliers, James had returned and taken over the process himself. For all Paul's leveraging and positioning with teams, James was back and he was running things again. Suddenly, there was no commitment on Thursday.
James played in games in his skills camp in Las Vegas and found himself photographed throughout the day with Wade. Twenty-four hours earlier on Wednesday, Heat president Pat Riley and assistant general manager Andy Elisburg met with Wade and Paul for an hour, discussing the possibilities of a Heat extension and roster overhaul. James left unconvinced, and Riley stayed with the franchise's cool, nonplussed disposition over the James' free agency. Riley hasn't been bombarding James with text messages and calls, but ultimately left Wade as a most intriguing, last-gasp suitor in the desert. As much as anything, Wade's bad knees could be chasing him out of Miami, and suddenly he had been cast back into the recruiter's role.
Four years later the city of Cleveland and its front office took a deep breath and waited on James again. For weeks, James' inner-circle had predicted he'd release his free-agent choice and board quickly for a flight to Brazil for the World Cup final, sources said. James would leave the outrage and adulation behind, leave it for someone else to clean up.
Only there was no contract signed on late Thursday night, sources said. Chris Bosh remained committed to staying if James commits to Miami, or moving onto the Houston Rockets should James leave for the Cavaliers, sources said.
For a fleeting few hours on Thursday, Cleveland awaited a telephone call that never had come out of LeBron James four years ago. The Cavaliers believed they had James again, and perhaps maybe they still do. James did one more victory lap with Wade in Vegas, flew back to Miami and his next call might be the hardest of all.