There are 40.5 million Google results for the phrase “LeBron James unrestricted free agent.” Yes, our stomachs quiver at the sound of those words, too. LeBron’s relentlessly bandied, hypothetical departure would be a nightmare scenario at best and a Cleveland sports apocalypse at worst.
It panders to our deep-seated insecurities, our feelings of abandonment and inadequacy. And why shouldn’t it? This kind of stuff has been going on for quite some time. Oil magnate John D. Rockefeller bolted Cleveland for New York. BP America packed up and left for Chicago. Hell, even Yankees owner George Steinbrenner was a Clevelander before he became the man who bankrolls our most hated baseball rivals.
This is just how things work here mocks the voice in our heads. It’s the same one that warned of Manny Ramirez’s departure to Boston and Jim Thome’s decision to forego a huge paycheck for an even fatter contract in Philadelphia. It reminds us that the two starting pitchers in this year’s World Series Game 1 were both wearing Cleveland Indians uniforms two seasons ago.
But LeBron James is different. He’s arguably the best player in the game. He leads an outstanding team with a talented supporting cast and an unrivaled owner. He is one of us.
But still, that little voice nags. To be honest, we’d worry even if speculation about LeBron’s future hadn’t bloomed into a mushroom cloud of hype long before the 2009-2010 season tipped off. The Big Apple-driven feeding frenzy has turned anything said by anyone connected to LeBron (and even those not connected to him) into a headline. Newspaper columnists have become freak-show barkers crafting overblown theories about how he could end up playing for the Bobcats or the Clippers.
So, as the NBA’s All-Star break arrives this month, it’s time to make sense of the barrage of clues, speculation and publicity as only a true Cleveland sports fan can — by reading into, translating and dissecting it to death.
Roll over the superscripts for our take.
7/3/09 | CLEVELAND, OHIO
“In a perfect world1 … he has no choice but to stay here. … Mr. Gilbert and Mr. Ferry have given him the world right here.2 If we do what we came here to do,3 everything will fall into place.” — Shaquille O’Neal at the Cavaliers press conference introducing him, reported by The Plain Dealer
ANALYSIS: We get a summer glimpse into the mind of the Big Aristotle (reliable source = +55), and we like his philosophy on why LeBron should stay (sound argument = +25), but the season is still 117 days away (pending uncertainty = -10).
LEBRON-O-METER: 70 out of 100*
“”2 — an unnamed source speaking on behalf of current Houston Rocket Trevor Ariza, one of the free agents the Cavs were trying to land, reported by ESPN.com3
ANALYSIS: Maybe we’re overly optimistic, but this sounds plausible (why-would-he-make-it-up factor = +50). Of course, the ESPN reporter (trusted authority = +45) who penned it ended up leaving Cleveland for New York (bad coincidence = -10).
LEBRON-O-METER: 85 out of 100
7/8/09 | CLEVELAND, OHIO
“” — reported by The Plain Dealer
ANALYSIS: LeBron’s camp shoots back within hours with a comment we won’t like (bad news = -20). However, it’s delivered in a very short, bewildering article (benefit of the doubt = +30).
LEBRON-O-METER: 10 out of 100
ANALYSIS: Sure, LeBron left the door wide open for either staying or leaving (deliberate vagueness = -10), but an overwhelming number of ESPN-tabbed NBA experts don’t see him going anywhere (boost of confidence = +70).
LEBRON-O-METER: 60 out of 100
“”1 — m
ANALYSIS: An inflammatory comment in enemy territory (didn’t see that coming = +60), delivered by LeBron’s mother no less (mama-bear factor = +30). Of course, she may be reminding LeBron of how good he has it, rather than speaking for him. (Remember, it’s not LeBron saying it = -15.)
LEBRON-O-METER: 75 out of 100
10/15/09 | NEW YORK, NEW YORK
“” — Larry Hughes
ANALYSIS: The Cavaliers winning percentage during the Le-Bron era certainly shows the Cavs can rack up wins (winning tradition = +58.5) and Larry Hughes did play with LeBron for two and a half seasons (expertise of source = +15). However, Hughes isn’t always the most accurate guy (just in case his shooting carries over to other parts of his life = -29.7).
LEBRON-O-METER: 43.8 out of 100
“” — NBA commissioner David Stern1 after being asked if he had an idea about where LeBron will end up after becoming a free agent, reported by the New York Post
ANALYSIS: Having a little good karma from the league commissioner can’t hurt (his signature is printed on the basketball after all = +80), but did the guy who some say rigged the 1985 NBA draft lottery so the Knicks would get Patrick Ewing just create his alibi for getting LeBron to New York (potential double agent = -30)?
LEBRON-O-METER: 50 out of 100
10/24/09 | CLEVELAND, OHIO
“” — Plain Dealer music writer John Soeder, from his review of Jay-Z’s concert, reported by The Plain Dealer
ANALYSIS: A conspiracy theorist’s dream: Jay-Z writes a rah-rah song about New York (insecurity fodder = -30) and then has LeBron perform it with him on stage in Cleveland (rubbing-it-in factor = -20). Of course, it is just a song (reality is the best defense = +35), and the New Jersey Nets won’t have a new arena by the start of the 2010 season (brick-and-mortar bummer = +30).
LEBRON-O-METER: 15 out of 100
“”1 — NBA Hall of Famer and career Boston Celtic Larry Bird2 from a Plain Dealer wire-service story previewing his new book, reported on cleveland.com
ANALYSIS: In the past 11 NBA seasons, two of the players on that list — Los Angeles Laker Kobe Bryant and San Antonio Spurs forward Tim Duncan — have won four championships each (looks like longevity with a contender is directly proportional to multiple championships — let’s call it the Bird Principle = +70). We’ll tack on a bonus because Bird is among the first tier of NBA legends (Hall of Fame credit = +5).
LEBRON-O-METER: 75 out of 100
“” — LeBron James, comment following his team’s one and only game at Madison Square Garden this year, reported by ESPN.com
ANALYSIS: Because the Cavs are winners, this can’t really be bad news (nothing-to-see-here effect = +60); of course, we wish the Cavs hadn’t been underperforming at the time he said it (paranoia = -5). He also said during a pre-game interview the same day that there’s “no timetable” for the decision once July 1, 2010, arrives (an even sweatier summer = -10).
LEBRON-O-METER: 45 out of 100
11/11/09 | ORLANDO, FLORIDA
“” — LeBron James, addressing sports writers prior to the Cavaliers game against the Orlando Magic
ANALYSIS: LeBron sternly bows out of all the free agency talk (classy move = +75). Of course, this won’t actually stop anyone else from talking about it (spike in annoying chatter = -10).
LEBRON-O-METER: 65 out of 100
11/12/09 | MIAMI, FLORIDA
“” — Dwyane Wade, 4 when asked if he thought playing in Miami would appeal to LeBron, reported by The Miami Herald
ANALYSIS: Sure, Miami has balmy winter days and Dwyane Wade (weather adjustment + resident superstar = -35), but there’s something to be said for having 45 years of a city’s championship hopes riding on your able shoulders (because a 45-year title drought feels twice as bad as it is = +90). Finally, we can’t forget that Wade may actually have insight into King James’ true intentions because of the duo’s Olympic Team connection (Olympics in 2004 + Olympics in 2008: 2 + 0 + 0 + 4 + 2 + 0 + 0 + 8 = +16).
LEBRON-O-METER: 71 out of 100
11/13/09 | MIAMI, FLORIDA
“” 1 — LeBron James, talking about a petition he wants to start to retire the No. 23 from the NBA and saying he’ll probably wear No. 6 2 in 2010-11, reported by The Plain Dealer
ANALYSIS: LeBron’s quest to retire No. 23 is admirable, but what better way to sell new Cavs jerseys to all of us who already own them than changing your number (wise marketing move = +40)? We’re always superstitious, but especially when it suits us (New Age mystique = +10). The only problem is none of this has anything to do with LeBron staying in Cleveland (penalty for reading too much into this = -5).
LEBRON-O-METER: 45 out of 100
11/27/09 | CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA
“.” 1 — Charlotte Observer columnist Tom Sorensen, on why Michael Jordan’s involvement with the Charlotte Bobcats makes the team a perfect free agency destination for LeBron.2
ANALYSIS: It’s not a confirmation of LeBron staying in Cleveland as much as it is a long explanation for why he certainly shouldn’t go to Charlotte (weak argument = +30). Sorensen points out that Charlotte doesn’t even have the money to lure LeBron (MJ’s budget limits = +23). We’ll award a bonus for the fact that this scenario makes no sense in this or any other alternate universe in which LeBron James plays basketball (lateral-move factor = +5).
LEBRON-O-METER: 58 out of 100
12/9/09 | LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA
“” — Los Angeles Times columnist T.J. Simers, on why LeBron should opt to sign with the Los Angeles Clippers
ANALYSIS: Pure fantasy on par with elves and dragons. It also proves there are few free-agent destinations that make sense for LeBron (there’s-no-place-like-home effect = +50). And, really, why would LeBron want to play in Kobe’s division (avoiding playoff suicide = +15)?
LEBRON-O-METER: 65 out of 100
12/12/09 | NEW YORK, NEWYORK
“” — NBA Hall of Famer and career Los Angeles Laker Magic Johnson, 3 reported by the New York Post
ANALYSIS: How could LeBron not consider what Magic Johnson says (recommendation from an NBA legend = -25 points)? Still, the longer he talks about what it would take to lure LeBron, the more unlikely it seems to happen (thank God the Knicks stink = +50).
LEBRON-O-METER: 25 out of 100
12/25/09 | NEW YORK, NEW YORK
“” — Columnist Mike Lupica, New York Daily News
ANALYSIS: Like a dark-hearted Ebenezer Scrooge lurking through the streets of Manhattan, Lupica unleashes this ugly holiday wish based solely on the fact that “a mogul-type, who knows the NBA and knows the business side of sports even better” told him Nike wants LeBron in New York City.
Maybe Lupica was hoping to generate a little anti-Cavs mojo, conjure a little jinx before the team woke up on the other side of the country to take on the defending NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers. How many New York Christmas wishes would come true if the Cavs sputter, Mike Brown looks outmatched, and Shaq stagnates while facing off against the team with which he first claimed championship glory?
Instead, the Cavs unleash: LeBron piles up 26 points. Mo Williams racks up 28 more. Shaq adds 11 to the tally (who says No. 33 doesn’t matter? = +11), and the Cavs dominate shooting 54.3 percent (let’s call it 54 = +54) over the Lakers’ 36.5 percent (great D = +10) and win the game by a 15-point margin (Kobe’s bruised ego = +15). It’s what fuels rivalries. Ask Larry Bird and Magic Johnson about that. (Nike’s puppets commercial gets a fresh breath of relevance = +10.)
Basking in that Christmas Day buzz, it’s hard not to feel 100 percent about the Cavs’ prospects with soon-to-be unrestricted free agent LeBron James (OK, maybe the eggnog has a little something to do with that = -5). But how could LeBron not suit up in wine and gold next year — or every year after for that matter? This is how legends are born, and Cleveland’s due for one (heaping on the expectation = -5).
So, given all that, maybe even an exhilarating Christmas Day win over the NBA champs only makes us feel 90 percent positive about our chances of keeping LeBron. But find me a fan in this town that won’t take those odds. And keep in mind, tomorrow is sure to bring a new round of headlines.