Thursday October 29th, 2009

LeBron James is going to the Knicks. He's staying in Cleveland. He's going to the Nets, to play for that Russian billionaire, or maybe he'll find a way to play with his buddy Dwyane Wade somewhere, or he'll go to Europe or China and make $9 million per game for some team named after a cell-phone manufacturer. Then he'll buy the cell-phone manufacturer.

This is the story that won't go away this NBA season -- it is, at once, extremely tiresome and oddly fascinating. It's tiresome because we are destined for eight months of rumors and no actual news, and now that Cleveland has started the season 0-2, talking heads will inevitably ask if LeBron's impending free agency is a distraction.

But it is fascinating because it's not just about where an incredible athlete plays basketball for the next few years. It is about this question:

Who is LeBron James?

We know that he has the basketball skills to lead a franchise to a half-dozen championships; that he wants to be the richest man in the world; and that he is the rare superstar who could play his entire career down the road from where he grew up.

But which of those qualities defines him? Answer that, and you'll know what he'll do next summer.

If playing in Cleveland means so much to the Akron native, then of course he'll stay there. But this is the same guy who not only pulls for the Yankees but also cheered them on at a playoff game in Cleveland, and that gives us at least one insight into James: He knows he can do whatever he wants, and he wants you to know it.

That may explain why James did not sign a contract extension with the Cavaliers over the summer, even if he plans to stay there. He likes holding the cards. As long as James remains unsigned, the Cavaliers are scared to death of him, and he likes it that way. Every major personnel move has to go through him. He wants Shaquille O'Neal, the Cavs get Shaquille O'Neal. It remains to be seen whether this please-the-King approach leads to a championship.

Cavs management has been eager to satisfy James, and it has led to short-term moves that didn't make the most financial sense. If James had signed a 10-year deal starting in 2005 (yes, I know that's not even legal in the NBA -- I'm being hypothetical here), I wonder if Cleveland would have overpaid Larry Hughes, acquired Ben Wallace and traded for Shaquille O'Neal. In every case, Cleveland seemed desperate to empty its wallet, to show LeBron that the Cavs would spend like a big-market team.

Even if he stays in Cleveland, James is clearly not the kind of guy who takes over a lousy franchise and decides he is married to it, in good times and bad, till retirement do they part.

But what drives him? Is it fame? If so, he'll leave for New York. Even Wayne Gretzky has said there is nothing like playing in New York --- and he was the idol of his home nation, then a star in Los Angeles before playing for the Rangers.

Is LeBron driven by the desire for championships? If so, he can't possibly leave a 60-team win in Cleveland for the rebuilding Knicks, can he? Yes, LeBron instantly makes New York substantially better, but right now his best shot at winning a title is in Cleveland. This year's Knicks may win 30 games if they're lucky, and the franchise is pinning a lot of its hopes on next summer's free-agent market.

Maybe LeBron James will decide that winning championships is his business. Maybe he has wanted to go to New York all along. Maybe he is bluffing and wants to stay in Cleveland. Whatever the case, when James announces his plans next summer, we will learn more than just where he is going. We will find out who he is.

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