By Michael Rosenberg
July 07, 2010

LeBron James' free agency has been the ultimate sports story for the Twitter age: constant updates, very little new information. The league thinks he's going to Chicago! Pat Riley is angling for him! The Nets want him to have his own Russian province! The Knicks heard he loves pretzels that taste like soot!

The closer you get to the story, the harder it is to see: you focus on all the nuggets and whispers, the seeds that William "Worldwide" Wesley is planting in people's heads, and you lose sight of what really matters. But the big picture has never changed. LeBron James is desperate for adoration. It sounds like dime-store psychoanalysis, but how else can you explain a man holding a one-hour nationally televised special just so he can tell people where he will be?

As you try to figure out James' next piece of real estate, remember the three most important things: adoration, adoration, adoration.

And this is why I believe he will stay in Cleveland.

He did not need to become a free agent to stay in Cleveland, of course. He could have signed an extension a year ago. But, paradoxically, I think James will stay in Cleveland for the same reason he was determined to become a free agent: he needs that adoration.

James says his first priority is winning, but he isn't stupid -- he knows that is what he is supposed to say. He has talked about New York being his favorite city, and Brooklyn his favorite borough, but that mostly accomplished two things:

1. It got New York excited about him, and let's face it: New York was not going to get excited about him signing an extension with Cleveland a year before he became a free agent.

2. It made Cleveland scared to lose him, and let's face it: Cleveland was not going to create a frenzy around getting him to sign an extension a year before he became a free agent. Cleveland is a wonderful city, but it is also the city most likely to worry about losing its savior to New York or L.A. James, a native son, knows this as well as anybody. And he has used it to pump more adoration out of a city that has already given him plenty.

Does he really have the guts to dump his home team on national television? Even James must realize what a public relations disaster that would be.

If he joins Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami, he will never be the hero there that he is in Cleveland. If he goes to Chicago, he'll never be the hero that Michael Jordan was.

If James goes to New York, most of the country will never adore him; imagine the backlash if Jordan had gotten tired of Bill Cartwright and Stacey King and ditched Chicago to play with Patrick Ewing on the Knicks.

If James goes to New Jersey, he'll be building from scratch again, and the whole country will laugh. The man said winning was his first priority. How can he ditch a team that won 61 games for one that won 12?

In the end, James will do the right thing in the wrong way. He should have committed to Cleveland a year ago. He would have avoided the backlash that has already come his way, and he might have played that Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against Boston this spring with a clear mind and taken his team to the Finals.

But free agency was never a means to an end for James. It was an end unto itself. James, or the people around him, was convinced that he needed the whole world to hang on his future. He needed to let you know on Twitter, that "the Real King James is in the Building." But the real king was Michael Jordan, and he never needed to call himself king. As best as I can remember, Jordan never said he wanted to become a billionaire. He never hinted about getting out of Chicago so he could play with more talent. That's not to say that Jordan did not think of himself as the king -- he most certainly did. And his business aspirations were well-documented.

But Jordan had a different kind of ego. LeBron needs the adoration. Jordan needed to dominate. When Jordan ended his baseball career and returned to the NBA, he did not go on Larry King or feed speculation for months. He put out a two-word press release: "I'm back." He knew that was enough. He knew that what the world really wanted was Jordan on a basketball court, not Jordan in an hour-long TV special.

In so many ways, LeBron James should be a better player than Michael Jordan -- he is two inches taller and 35 pounds heavier, just about as explosive, a better shooter at this age and with better court vision. But if you could somehow suspend the laws of time and space and get the 25-year-old Jordan and the 25-year-old James on the same court, you would have to go with M.J., because he wouldn't worry about pregame theatrics or postgame speculation. He would spend every minute trying to rip James' heart out.

LeBron James got what he wanted: adoration, adoration, adoration. And maybe I'm wrong, but I really think Cleveland will get what it wants: another half-dozen years of LeBron James. It should be the perfect marriage. It's just too bad that James is such a shameless flirt.

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