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Steve Aschburner

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Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

While LeBron ponders, Cleveland nervously awaits its fate


Posted Jun 30 2010 2:42PM

CLEVELAND -- Lisa Tucker is a fan of LeBron James. So is her son Jayden, a 3-year-old who does more than root for the guy he sees on TV in the Cleveland Cavaliers' wine-and-gold team colors. As he and his mom sat in the atrium of Tower City, the shopping and metro-transit hub of the city's downtown, Jayden wears a pint-sized New York Yankees cap, just like the big one James so often sports.

"I don't want to see him go. A lot of people are going to be sad," Lisa Tucker said. "But a lot of people are going to be mad. Because it's a loyalty thing. He grew up here in Ohio."

Tucker, sensing the inevitable, had a guess for the details of what comes next. "He wore No. 23, of course, and now he's switching to No. 6 -- it's almost like he wants to be a second Michael Jordan," she said. "I think he's going to Chicago. I know he's leaving."

Just then, Jayden tapped a fellow on his leg so the man would look down. "I'm leaving, I'm leaving," he said. "I'm leaving on a train!"

* * *

James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Joe Johnson, Dirk Nowitzki and others in the deepest, most coveted assemblage of available talent in league history soon will be blasting off to the destinations and riches of their dreams. But for fans of certain teams that may be subtracting rather than adding, the free-agent countdown to Thursday, 12:01 a.m. EDT is something to dread.

Nowhere is that more so than in Cleveland, where one terrific and long-neglected kingdom is on the brink of losing its King.

Can an entire city -- wait, the entire region of northeast Ohio -- hold its collective breath? That's what it seems like this week in the countdown's final days. Hoping for the best while expecting the worst is a strategy Cleveland knows well. Rarely have the stakes been this high.

"It is a very sensitive and raw issue, and that comes from a couple things," said David Gilbert, head of the Greater Cleveland Sports Commission and one of the driving forces behind a Web site, www.morethanaplayer.org, dedicated to keeping James in town. He is not related to Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert.

"Stuff has always been written and played up by the national media about the disappointments of the Cleveland sports scene. But where LeBron James has even more of an effect on the community is, he's from here. That makes the situation more emotional than with another sports celebrity who just happens to play in Cleveland."

Stroll through downtown at lunch hour and you're introduced to walk-by rumorings. As in, "... there are too many options. Too many places for him to play to ...," as two men and one woman in business suits briskly cross the sidewalk. Then a guy on his cell phone: "... Not New York. New Jersey! Can you believe ..."

James' roots have been a pillar of his story, his appeal, from the start. Raised in Akron, 40 miles south. Phenom at St. Vincent-St. Mary. Drafted against most odds by the nearby Cavaliers, a glamour-free and, at the time, sputtering NBA franchise rarely considered by the league's brightest stars. Then the steady and heady rise to the game's heights -- the 2007 Finals, 127 victories the past two seasons, status as Eastern Conference favorites with their two-time Most Valuable Player.

And all of it done at home, in James' expansive "back yard." Akron and Cleveland merged and blended. Same people, same values, witnesses all. The campaigns to convince James to re-sign with the Cavaliers -- the petitions, the rallies, the "flash mobs," the videos posted by ordinary folks to the various Web sites -- are driven by it. To the locals, James is less "The Chosen One" than "One Of Us."

"There are very key words [on the site] like 'Commitment.' 'Passion.' 'Home.' 'Family,' David Gilbert said. "Those are things that this community is all about. If LeBron was to stay, part of the reason would be, he believes in them. But if Sherwin-Williams or Goodyear was recruiting employees to northeast Ohio, those are the same things they would be looking at."

Emotional blackmail? Not to Tucker, Jayden's mom. "To the kids, him being from Ohio," she said, "it's like, 'Wow, that could be me some day.' "

* * *

The Corner Alley is one of the coolest downtown byproducts of the LeBron era. It's a stylish restaurant-bar-bowling alley at the end of the E. 4th St. corridor of entertainment and dining options that sprung up a block from Quicken Loans Arena. An office worker can stop by for a beverage and a quick 10 frames before making his daily commute home. But game nights are when the pins fall and the profits soar.

"The Cavaliers are No. 1 as far as driving our business," said Scott Gotto, The Corner Alley's general manager. "You can just feel the difference, home games vs. away games. When they lost in the playoffs early this year, we felt it."

As Gotto talked, a third of the flat-screens around the room (volume down) carried more speculation on the Class of 2010's possible comings and goings. The guy in No. 23, with the headband, was in the middle of it all.

"If LeBron leaves, it's going to sting, it's going to hurt," Gotto said. "But I believe in the product Dan Gilbert is putting on the floor. He has too much passion for the Cavs to go back to what they were."

Over at City Leather, an apparel store in Tower City with a vast array of high-end sports coats and shirts, there was a split in the sales ranks over James' possible departure. "I don't think it'll hurt too long," one employee said. "The Browns left town, people said, 'I'm never watching football again.' The Browns come back and it's 'Yea, Browns!' Short memories."

His cohort, who also asked not to be named, disagreed. "There's a certain segment of the population that will be devasted," he said. "They will disown the team and hang things in effigy. The Tribe [Major League Baseball's Indians] has its fire sales of everybody who's any good, but this would be the worst."

City Leather currently is sold out of LeBron-specific clothing, but there was a lonely blue T-shirt on a rack up front, size XL, featuring the Cavs logo, a graphic of the NBA's Larry O'Brien trophy and the words, "One Goal."

A special keepsake? Said the pessimistic salesperson: "That's the one they'll burn first."

* * *

Financially, it makes the most sense for James and almost all top free agents to stay right where they are. Because of the rules in the NBA's collective bargaining agreement on contract length and annual raises, the difference in a "max" contract from a guy's current club vs. a new team is about $30 million, though that includes an extra year with the home team.

James staying put makes the most sense for Cleveland, too. A lot of cents and a mountain of dollars.

The economic impact if James decides to leave would be staggering, hitting millionaires and working-folks alike. Jobs would be lost. Businesses would be shuttered. There are discrepancies in the numbers from various sources -- how to measure trickle-down effect, for instance -- but all of the numbers are huge.

• Positively Cleveland, a convention-and-tourism group, did a study last season that estimated the economic impact of home games at $153 million. It did not account for a full year of operation or for the Cavs' two playoff rounds.

• Approximations in a Cleveland Plain-Dealer story Tuesday put the figures at $48 million lost by local businesses, per season, if James goes. Plus another $150 million annually not reaped from long Cavaliers playoff runs (based on $15 million per home postseason game), according to economists and academicians.

Forbes magazine recently estimated the franchise's value at $476 million. But if it lost its superstar, Cleveland could fall back to the $375 million range that Gilbert paid for the franchise in 2005. Heck, it could fall well below that, too, depending on the W-L results and the NBA's uncertain collective bargaining agreeemnt negotiations with the players union. Wrote Forbes: "If Mr. Gilbert wants to maximize his long-term wealth position, the numbers suggest that he better retain his King."

A number of Cleveland residents who commented for this story said they never went to a Cavaliers game until James arrived. Most doubted they would go anytime soon if he leaves. So that's economic impact right there. But it also is psychic impact.

"I'm not going to say we'd suck, but we wouldn't be as good," a downtown parking lot attendant, wearing her day-glo lime green vest said. "It probably would be so-many-odd years before it ever got good again."

* * *

The enormous, black-and-white graphic that covers the side of an office building near The Q remains. "We are all witnesses" it reads, above a photo of James gloriously throwing his pre-game rosin into the air. For the playoffs, the words were changed to "One for all," but the original slogan is back.

The message seems a little different, though. Rather than the upbeat, gospel-like, "Can I getta" type of witness, the ticking clock on James' tenure in Cleveland makes it feel like a scene-of-the-crime version of witness.

A couple blocks away, there is another huge banner. In vivid colors, featuring cartoon portrayals of James as a boy, an adolescent, a high school player and in current Cavs form. The words read: "Born here. Raised here. Plays here. STAYS HERE." Featured this week with a USA Today sports centerpiece story, the banner was paid for by "members of the realcavsfans.com" group, in a campaign organized by "LeBron2010.com."

Inside the building it adorns, though, there's not much modern or high-tech. "Nick's Sports Corner" is an old-school tavern, with a lottery-ticket dispenser in the corner and a Keno game above the long bar. On a lazy afternoon this week, bartender Les Flake sounded sure James would re-sign.

"Based on it's Cleveland. Based on it's Akron. Based on he's comfortable," Flake said. "Based on New York's too big. You don't produce, the media's all over you. We don't have that kind of media in Cleveland."

Harold Davis, on a barstool, agreed: "He'll be loyal the way people have been loyal to him."

A Cleveland lifer, currently unemployed, Davis nursed a beer and handed Flake one of his lottery tickets. Not a winner.

"I think he's staying," Davis said. He took another sip.

"But I never thought my mother would die. She's been gone 13 years."

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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