CLEVELAND – In the uneasy moments lurching toward tipoff, the neatly manicured mythology of LeBron James’ homecoming flickered on the spectacular screen suspended over the Q Arena floor. All around, the shoe company’s commercial played out with thousands upon thousands of Clevelanders surrounding the prodigal son in the Cavaliers’ huddle, thousands more reaching out, across blocks and streets, responding to the superstar’s declarations of duty about winning a championship for them.
No one does fairy tales like Nike, an unapologetic peddling of product for a summer transaction. The most conditional kind of love washed down onto James upon his Cavaliers return on Thursday night, Northeast Ohio determined to distill romance out of something that was far more a free-agent power play than the storybook journey home that it’s been framed.
For James’ genius standards, this was a flat, flawed debut – an abysmal performance born of nerves and newness. The Cavaliers lost to the New York Knicks, and James had never looked so pressed and uneasy. From eight turnovers to missing eight of nine shots to start, even the sprawling hype of this night overwhelmed a four-time MVP and two-time champion. This is a new pressure, and for a night anyway, it was palpable.
“This was great, but I’m glad it’s over,” James said.
Yes, James loves this region, but give him this too: The world’s best basketball player is testing the reach of the iconic athlete into athletic and coaching representation, pursuing power and control that no active athlete’s ever dared.
His childhood friend-turned agent, Rich Paul, oversees Klutch Sports, a Cleveland-based agency that exists out of the generosity of its financial benefactor, LeBron James. These are James’ resources and might behind the company, but he lets his buddies run it. Klutch represents Cavaliers forward Tristan Thompson, who has a decided advantage as a James underling to negotiate a better-than-market value deal with the Cavaliers.
Most agents and business associates of key Cavaliers players are on full alert to keep clients out of the tentacles of Klutch. The Klutch sales pitch has been predictable: Come with us, get paid with the Cavaliers.
As much as anything, James has set up Rich Paul with a sweet gig: Paul doesn’t negotiate the contracts for clients, nor does he do the marketing for LeBron James. Those jobs belong to Mark Termini and the Fenway Sports Group, respectively. Nevertheless, Paul is the personable frontman, the secondary recruiter behind James himself.
As the season unfolds, the Klutch Sports client most are watching closest is deposed Golden State coach Mark Jackson. He has bounced agent to agent in his brief coaching career, but landing with Paul raised the suspicions of Jackson’s motives: Does Jackson think Paul can simply wedge him into the Cavaliers’ job?
Most believe that James is too smart to ever want a coach who spends far more time retweeting Twitter praise for himself than preparing his basketball team, but Jackson shouldn’t be underestimated as one of the sport’s great self-promoters. And make no mistake: If the Cavaliers struggle, it won’t be James and Kevin Love taking the blame. It’ll be coach David Blatt, who understands – even embraces – the burden.
After the loss on Thursday, Blatt was disappointed but hardly discouraged on the walk back to his office. “I’ve been preaching patience on this team all along, but I understand that it can be hard for people to accept it,” Blatt told Yahoo Sports. “Anyway, we can play a hell of a lot better than that.” Asked if this kind of opening-night loss amid the anticipation had felt like a kick in the stomach, he said, “It was for me, for everybody – and that could be a good thing for all of us.”
Even so, Blatt stopped and smiled. All these stops in the world, Princeton to Israel to Russia, and this was the kind of night, on the kind of stage, that he had forever dreamed: “It was special,” Blatt told Yahoo. “Just incredibly special …”
When James and the Miami Heat were barely over .500 to start his Heat career, he tried to take on Erik Spoelstra – only to have management support the coach. The Cavaliers could be 0-2 by late Friday in Chicago – and still be on the way to 60 victories and a ticket to the Eastern Conference Finals. Blatt is nothing if not supremely confident, prepared and convinced he’ll find a way to get the best out of everyone on his basketball team.
In the end, James will make the ultimate call in Cleveland, but remember something: He doesn’t have the leverage with a one-year contract that people want to believe. He committed to a short contract so he could cash into that new television booty, but whatever is threatened for the sake of leverage – directly or indirectly – James can’t leave Cleveland again. His image, his brand, couldn’t survive the fallout. Once James returned, make no mistake: he signed a lifetime contract with the Cavaliers. This time, it’s in blood.
Only one thing had changed from when James had left the Cavaliers four years ago: This time, he had two championships. Once you’ve won, everything is easily explained away. His free-agent performance this summer wasn’t so much different than 2010, only seen through a new prism. James empowered Paul to drag several teams to Klutch’s offices in Cleveland for free-agent presentations without the free-agent star present. Once those meetings were over, leaked to the public, the teams sheepishly realized: We were had.
“Just used as props to get attention and publicize their business,” one league executive told Yahoo Sports. “Maybe that’s smart to some people, but you have to deal with the same people again and again in this league. Those things can come back on you eventually.”
It won’t be soon, because LeBron James is running Cleveland again, running the NBA. Everyone still wants this LeBron James story to read like a fairy tale, but it’s something else, something different. This is business, and for now, business is good.