BOSTON – They gave Paul Pierce the microphone at center court to do the brief, obligatory opening night welcome to the fans and the Celtics captain turned it into an Academy Award acceptance speech. There wasn't much about Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, about the Celtics repeating as champions, yet rather a personal walk down memory lane, a self-indulging tribute to friends and family and business associates responsible for his championship journey.
It was oddly out of place, and out of context for a night that wasn't about Pierce, but a 17th championship banner rising to the rafters. Yes, LeBron James had to wish he stayed in the locker room a little longer. For him, this was dreadful vision. He has rapidly become tired of Celtics history and Celtics pride and, maybe most of all, the Celtics standing in the way of his championship ambitions.
James left Pierce in the Garden five months ago, left on the losing end of a Game 7 when LeBron's 45 points couldn't beat Pierce's 41 and the Celtics in the Eastern Conference semifinals. They had a Larry Bird-Dominique Wilkins duel, and rest assured that James loathes playing the part of the foil. 'Bron's no 'Nique.
"I let it go quickly," James said Tuesday night.
James wants to challenge Kobe Bryant as the best player on the planet, but he can't do it until he meets him in the NBA Finals. Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen will make it hard for LeBron to get there as a Cavalier. There's no Big 3 in Cleveland. Just a restless LeBron and solid, if unspectacular, cast of co-stars. He returns with an upgraded point guard, Mo Williams, and an urgency that is palpable for the Cavs.
The months passed, but nothing has changed on opening night. James missed a driving layup in the final minute and two free throws in the final 10.6 seconds of a 90-85 loss to the Celtics. Pierce had his way with 27 points, and James 22 points on 21 shots, with a start of a new season for the Cavs that felt too much like the end of the old one.
With James, the Cavaliers are running out of time. It's two seasons and counting until he can become a free agent. To listen to Cleveland owner Dan Gilbert dismiss the possibility of James leaving in the summer of 2010 for a bigger market as a product of "bored sportswriters" is beyond laughable. These aren't bored sportswriters, but a restless superstar and a stable of handlers seemingly sold on his exit.
Gilbert knows better, and so does everyone else inside and outside the Cavaliers. James has one foot out the door in Cleveland. From NBA executives, to Team USA staff and players, to sneak reps: They all believe James has one foot out of the hometown.
Privately, James' circle had been telling people that they don't just expect him to leave in the summer of 2010, but in the words of one James associate to a high-ranking league official: He's gone.
This isn't an indictment of Cavaliers GM Danny Ferry and the roster he's constructed around his superstar. He's done a good, creative job without chips to trade, without high draft picks. This won't be a basketball decision as much as it will be James believing he needs the platform of a major market to transport himself into a bigger global entity.
Here's the good news for Cavaliers fans: Things can change in two years, and James' preferred destination, the Nets, is a franchise falling apart. Over the summer, James publicly declared Brooklyn his favorite borough in New York, but the prospects of joining his kindred spirit, rapping mogul Jay-Z, is fading fast.
For James, two things had to happen for him to make the move to the Nets. First, they had to have a nucleus of players minimally comparable to the cast he'd be leaving in Cleveland. Between now and 2010, the Nets desperately need Yi Jianlian and Brook Lopez to develop into frontline players.
But the biggest issue is this: James is never going to play for the New Jersey Nets. Brooklyn, yes. New Jersey? He doesn't love Jay-Z that much. James needs to be walking into the Brooklyn palace that owner Bruce Ratner has been desperately trying to get financed and constructed for the 2011-2012 season.
Yet now, the Nets are such a vulnerable franchise, the $3.5 billion Atlantic Yards arena project in such doubt, ownership groups from Russia and Dubai have expressed interest in buying out Ratner and taking over the team, Yahoo! Sports has learned. So far, he has resisted, but he's losing an estimated $30 million a year as court cases and a decaying economy have pushed the project to the brink of collapse.
Where would this leave James? Well, it was no accident that William Wesley – the ubiquitous World Wide Wes – happened to travel to upstate New York to check on the Knicks' training camp. Leon Rose is officially James' agent, but everyone knows that his advisor, Wesley, is the powerbroker of that alliance.
Donnie Walsh, the Knicks GM, had heard for years about Wesley's influence, but never met him. The two didn't talk about James, sources say, but it was a chance for the Knicks president to be around one of the most influential people in James' decision-making process. The Knicks are working hard to get under the salary cap in 2010.
For now, the Cavaliers are working furiously to make it hard for James to leave in 2010. They'll have significant cap space that summer too, and sources say they've targeted the Toronto Raptors' Chris Bosh to play with him.
Odds are long that the Cavaliers will ever see that duo, but things can change in two years. All they can do now is pray that it will be James holding the trophy in the next two years. If that happens, there will be no Cavaliers legends to bring back that night, no championship banners hanging besides the one that James raises there.
He is the history and the present of that franchise. The future? Whatever Cleveland's indignant owner keeps saying, just understand: It's two seasons and counting. Jay-Z and Brooklyn are fading fast, but that doesn't change the truth that Cleveland is still holding onto LeBron James by a thread, still hanging by a prayer.