Tuesday May 18th, 2010

LeBron James is not my kid, which is a good thing because I already have two, and they eat. A lot. Were he my kid, however, and were I living in the vicinity of Cleveland, Ohio, and were he open to my advice, I would say one thing:

"Son, go to New York."

Because we are sports fans, and sports fans are often knuckleheads (myself included), we tend to overlook (or ignore) everything that's actually developmentally important in a person's life. When we debate whether LeBron should stay in Cleveland or bolt, we talk about wins and losses; about coaching styles; about Q-ratings and marketing opportunities and the willingness of an organization to bring in the proper teammates to take a franchise to the proverbial promised land.

I, on the other hand, would like to talk about bagels.

New York has great bagels. Absolutely amazing bagels. They say it's the tap water here, that it has a certain hardness other places lack. Whatever. All I know is that, between Hot & Crusty and H&H and Absolute Bagels, I can spend my days blissfully schmearing whitefish salad across a warm cinnamon raisin bagel.

Oh, and the pizza! There's this place down by Union Square, Mariella Pizza, where the cheese and sauce ooze together into one magnificent explosion of taste. Seriously, seriously amazing. Makes Nunzios taste like cardboard.

I know ... I know -- How will LeBron co-exist with Danilo Gallinari? Can he and Wilson Chandler form a bond? Is Mike D'Antoni's system the right one for his talents? Answer: Who cares? LeBron James is a 25-year-old kid. Because of basketball, he has seen the world. Yet because of basketball, he has seen nothing. Spending your days inside a Beijing gymnasium isn't the same thing as spending yours days in Beijing. Taking a trip to Los Angeles to play the Lakers and Clippers isn't the same thing as taking a trip to Los Angeles to rent a convertible and drive up the coast to San Francisco.

Over the course of my sportswriting career, I've known too many athletes who fail to see the opportunities in front of them. They stay in the nicest hotels, fly luxury jets, eat expensive meals, yet know nothing of what it is to explore, to embrace, to live. Back in the late 1970s and '80s, the St. Louis Cardinals had a first baseman named Keith Hernandez. When the team came to New York, he would hide out in his hotel, petrified of the craziness below. Upon being traded to the Mets in 1983, Hernandez was urged by a teammate to give the city a chance. So he did. He hit the bars and restaurant and began attending shows and concerts. Twenty-seven years later, Hernandez is still here. The Big Apple is his Big Apple.

The same can go for the NBA's MVP. Cleveland is a nice city, in the same way beige is a nice color and strawberry is a tasty flavor and Yanni makes some passable music. I've spent a good chunk of time there. They have the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. They have a strong zoo. They have the Great Lakes Science Center. They ... zzzzz .... have ... zzzzzz .... uh ... zzz ... what was .... Zzzzz ... I .... saying?

LeBron James should come to New York, not because the Knicks are serious title contenders (they're not, with or without him) or because Madison Square Garden is the world's greatest arena (in 2010, that's merely an honorary title) or because James Dolan is the patron saint of team owners (I wouldn't trust the man to shovel my driveway). He should come because to live in New York City is to live. To really, really live. It's to decide, at the last minute, that you'd like to see a Broadway show -- then sit enraptured by Billy Elliott or Wicked. It's to stroll through Central Park on a crisp fall afternoon, with the leaves changing colors and the smell of pretzels calling from the nearby pushcarts. It's to dine at Per Se and have the most unbelievable meal of your life.

Basketball is important. To James, it's clearly very important. But let's not confuse the game with life. One day, when he is old and gray, when the scrapbooks have yellowed and the tributes are increasingly sporadic and people speak of him in the distant way they now do men like Bob Cousy and Dolph Schayes, LeBron James will look back and take stock of his heyday.

He'll ask himself a simple question: Did I settle -- or did I live?

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