Monday May 3rd, 2010

AKRON, Ohio -- "Akron, Ohio, is my home,'' said LeBron James as he accepted his second successive MVP award Sunday in the University of Akron gym where he played for St. Vincent-St. Mary High School seven years ago.

"Akron, Ohio, will always be my home,'' he said as thousands of fans who filled the gym cheered.

"Akron, Ohio is my life,'' he said Sunday. "I love this city, so thank you.''

How many of these trophies will James win over the next decade? I imagine he will finish with at least a half-dozen, health and other circumstances permitting. "Every time I step on the court, I try to be the MVP and the best player on the court,'' he said. "So I know the sky's the limit.''

The underlying theme of this ceremony was one of leverage, of how James at 25 has so quickly grown adept at inviting and including larger audiences to be involved in his career. By returning to his hometown of Akron, a 45-minute drive south of Cleveland, he was celebrating his day in terms that were especially meaningful to him. By inviting his teammates onto the stage with him he was sharing the award with the players who helped him win it. By reminding the people of Akron that he was and always will be one of them, he was letting the country know how he wishes to be seen -- as a player who hasn't forgotten where he came from.

"I'm wondering what LeBron James is going to do next,'' Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert told the crowd. He would repeat those words several times as if confident that James will lead Cleveland to its first championship and then re-sign with the Cavaliers as a free agent this summer. "I'm sure we'll be here next year with MV-3,'' said Gilbert in predicting a third MVP to come.

The more I'm around James to realize his innate sense for marketing, the more I believe he will sign a short-term deal of two to three years, whether it's to remain in Cleveland (the favorite) or to move to a franchise he views as more likely to win championships.

Consider all of the buzz and speculation that has been created about James' upcoming decision as a free agent. That exposure carries an expensive dollar value, and it will go away -- vanish -- should LeBron sign a deal of five or six years this summer.

Every other player in the league would automatically seek the long-term agreement as protection against the next collective bargaining agreement, when contracts are expected to be cheaper and shorter. But James clearly has his own view and his own rules. If he signs a three-year deal this summer with an opt-out after two, then the clock will start ticking on 2012 when he can become a free agent again. The speculation will never go away. Every city he visits will court him and the fans will dream about recruiting him and he will encourage them to dream. In so doing, he will control the social networks and news media for as long as he plays.

Other players seek the comfort of a guaranteed salary, but LeBron is already rich and growing richer. If he wins the championship this year with Cleveland his popularity will multiply. Why not leverage it to be on the verge of free agency for the rest of his career?

"To be looked at as the No. 1 player in the world at age 25 is awesome,'' he said. He is loving every bit of this -- the success, the adulation, the questions about his future that he refuses to answer, because why should he answer them? And why should he want them ever to stop?

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