And so, we reach the endgame. With any luck, the last act of this seemingly interminable play will be the shortest. The prelude to the Great Free-Agent Summer of 2010, starring LeBron James, has been playing longer than most of the Broadway shows in the city that the Knicks are hoping will be James' new home. It began two years ago, when New York began casting off players with heavy contracts like ballast from a balloon, clearing salary-cap space for a run at the King. But lately it seems that half the league has entered the chase.
Ever since the Celtics eliminated the Cavaliers in the second round of the playoffs and ended James' season, the buzz has grown to a crescendo, the NBA version of the vuvuzelas' drone, with endless chatter about what uniform LBJ will be wearing next fall. It seems everyone has anonymous sources from whom they get daily rumors, each one seeming to contradict the last. LeBron and Chris Bosh to the Bulls is a done deal. No, they're both going to join Dwyane Wade in Miami. No, the Nets' new Russian billionaire owner has James leaning toward New Jersey. No, it's going to be New York because of the outside business opportunities. No, he's been planning to stay in Cleveland all along. On and on it goes. Everyone claims to know something, which means no one knows anything.
Some of the commotion is understandable. After all, when was the last time a player of James' stature made himself so available? But the guessing game, which James has encouraged with his coy answers, his winking "Wouldn't-you-like-to-know?" demeanor, has become like The Blob, swallowing up everything in its path. The playoffs became almost an afterthought to the James mystery. During one game of the Cavs-Celtics series, we had one eye on the court and one eye on the courtside seats, where one of James' advisors, William Wesley, sat with Kentucky coach John Calipari. Was this the beginning of a palace coup, a package deal that would keep LBJ in Cleveland? And, oh by the way, who won the game?
Even the draft last week had the shadow of James looming over it. Not every draft-day move was made with James and salary-cap relief in mind; it just seemed like it. No one is bigger than the game -- isn't that what they say? For the last several weeks, and for at least a few days more, that isn't true. Until he finally signs somewhere and puts all of this to rest, LeBron is bigger than the league.
The troubling part about that is, you get sense that he likes it that way. All the attention, all the celebrities, politicians, business people almost begging him to grace their city with his presence -- it seems as though this is what he's wanted all along. The interviews with Larry King and Nightline during the playoffs seemed timed to do nothing except keep the level of interest up, keep James on our TV screens since he'd made an unexpectedly early postseason exit.
If the King and his "team," as he calls his group of friends and advisors, haven't orchestrated this frenzy, they have at least fed it. But you wonder if James, who has always been so concerned with extending his brand and achieving MichaelJordan-like global popularity, realized that the entire scenario could backfire on him. He is putting his popularity at risk, not just by being at the center of what is becoming a tiresome chase, but by lifting the hopes of so many teams when he can satisfy only one.
Until now he has been almost universally loved. Like Jordan, fans in oppponents' arenas often cheered James even when he was eviscerating their team. But don't be surprised if that changes next season, regardless of where he signs. He will never be beloved again in Cleveland if he leaves his hometown team, of course. But even if he stays with the Cavs, he will never be greeted as warmly in Chicago or New York or Miami, because those fans will know he spurned them. Will fans be as quick to buy the products he endorses after he has teased them with the possibility of playing for their favorite team, and then dashed their hopes? James can only hope so.
There is so much about this free-agent summer that just doesn't feel quite right, including the way that James and other stars seem to be all in this together. The talk of a free-agent summit with James, Bosh, Amar'e Stoudemire and Wade was quickly quashed when the possibility was leaked prematurely. But James, Wade and Bosh reportedly did meet in Miami last weekend and discussed the possibility of joining forces with the Heat.
The stars are free to team up any way they choose, of course, but it seems almost non-competitive for such elite players to want to form some kind of super team. Instead of three players of that stature wanting to stack a team, shouldn't they be trying to beat each other? Are these guys athletic rivals or business partners?
Go back a generation. Would, say, Jordan, Karl Malone and Patrick Ewing have conspired to play together, or did they get greater satisfaction out of competing against each other? Would Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, as much as they respected each other, have wanted to be teammates? Weren't both of them elevated by being rivals? Wanting to join a team with a strong supporting cast is one thing. Trying to put together an All-Star team through free agency seems much less admirable.
We will find out a great deal about James in the coming days -- about what's important to him, about his real desire to win a championship, about whether he cares how that championship is won. It will be fascinating to get those answers, and to see how he and the other stars will change the face of the NBA with their free-agent decisions.
Maybe, in the end, it will have been worth it to go through all the speculating, analyzing and downright guessing. But we won't know that until LBJ and the others finally sign on someone's dotted line.
For everyone's sake, let's hope they don't drag it out. We ask only one thing of LeBron: Sign somewhere. Anywhere. Soon.