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Steve Aschburner

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LeBron James has directed the conversation about his future (instead of letting it direct him).
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

In the mania surrounding LeBron, he stands above it all


Posted Jul 5 2010 10:58AM

CLEVELAND -- Five days into levels of scrambling, slobbering, silliness and speculation unprecedented in NBA annals, the person who looks the best -- the sanest and the most sober of all the players, team officials, agents, fans and media representatives circling throughout this overheated free-agent marketplace -- is the guy at the center of it all: LeBron James.

Well, actually, Kobe Bryant looks the best because he's cradling a Larry O'Brien trophy under one arm, a Bill Russell award under the other and he is being virtually ignored during this who's-got-next-and-where? hysteria. Everything these 2010 free agents want -- rings, riches, talented teammates and sunshine -- Bryant already has. But since he's under contract to the Lakers for the next four seasons, he could be holed up behind the walls of the Playboy Mansion playing volleyball with the stars of November 2007 through April 2009 and it wouldn't register a blip this summer on the paparazzi scale.

James has been impressive, though, while remaining nearly invisible. He has rolled in and rolled out of the parking garage beneath his business partners' office suite in downtown Cleveland in a series of luxury vehicles, but has done so clad in T-shirts and sweat pants. Rather than jet around to his possible 2010-11 NBA destinations -- half pop star, half Hunt brothers trying to corner the world's silver market -- James invited team representatives to travel to him.

No incessant Twitter updates. No guerilla video interviews verbally tiptoeing the line between "I'm going!" and "No freaking chance!" No 24/7 vigils, either, since the six teams that have been courting James came and went in mostly orderly two-a-day workouts during business hours.

This hasn't stopped those around the process, from certain team execs and the predictable "unnamed sources" to talk-show callers and local TV anchors, from succumbing to LeBron Mania. But James hasn't come across as manic at all. Not the way some of his peers have (hello, Chris Bosh and Amar'e Stoudemire!), not for the guy hyperbolically accused when this whole process began of "holding the NBA hostage" this offseason.

Perspective has been hard to come by for the past five days. People get excited. The thunderous amount of fireworks unleashed at Cleveland's Public Square last Thursday at the end of a "Please Stay, LeBron!" rally surely used more gunpowder than the colonists in the entire Revolutionary War. A "fan tunnel" -- that is, a gauntlet of LeBron boosters who lined the streets for the few final blocks of James' drive Saturday to meet with the Cavaliers, organized by the team -- sounds like something the pharaohs tinkered with back in pyramid days.

Then there was the moment after the New Jersey Nets' sales pitch last week: Photographers rushed into an intersection to gawk and snap away at a town car in which Jay-Z purportedly was riding behind smoked glass. When the light changed from red to green and the black limo rolled away, the shooters pulled their noses out from behind their cameras to notice other cars' bumper licked their shins. This was just sports, right? But for an uncomfortable instant, it felt like life or death.

Crazy as this has been, as suspenseful as it figures to get while James, Dwyane Wade, Bosh, Stoudemire, Carlos Boozer, David Lee and the rest in some descending order ponder their futures, it could have been worse. I was involved in coverage of Favre-A-Palooza last August in Minnesota, when Brett Favre's Hamlet impersonation ("To play or not to play") held a franchise and a couple of Twin Cities hostage, all orchestrated by the quarterback in a passive-aggressive way. Heck, I remember Jack Morris, the former Detroit Tigers pitcher, embarking on his free-agent world tour in 1987 in a full-length mink coat.

James has kept all of his high-concept meetings at a casual Friday level. Wade at least acknowledges that his decision could be swayed by what's best for his two young children tugged by newly divorced homes. Bosh? Well, after seven seasons in Toronto, it's understandable if the Dallas native is a little overexcited. After that, going down the pecking order, the clamor drops off considerably -- even if the staggering dollar amounts do not.

But if this truly is the offseason tha rehapes the face of the NBA, as many contend, James so far has been less blameless than the Beverly Hills plastic surgeons on retainer to Joan Rivers.

Other deep thoughts on Decision 2010:

• Let's start right there: Decision 2010. Did Ted Koppel come up with that label? And if so, why don't we number the days as we go?

• There were reports that James and his business team were unhappy with, even insulted by the Cavaliers' resolutely optimistic comments in the 24 hours leading up to their meeting with their guy. As if they were being presumptuous, as they introduced new coach Byron Scott and then spoke publicly of a future that included LeBron in Cleveland. Gimme a break. What were they supposed to do, qualify every statement with a doomsday clause?

Anyone who would be annoyed by the Cavs -- or any of the teams, frankly, that had traveled to and from northeast Ohio to pitch woo -- talking as if things would go their way is a lot less secure, and a lot more focused on trivial matters, than James ever has been. [Note to potential employers: If you offer me a job and a guaranteed contract of at least five years and $96 million, you are entitled to behave as if I'll accept it.]

• If James, Wade and Bosh all do end up with one team -- a.k.a., the Miami Plan -- they will not be defined by the number of championships they win. They will be defined by the number of championships they lose.

• From this point forward, James, Wade, Bosh, David Lee and the rest of the heavily recruited free agents lose their sympathy privileges, as far as inadequate supporting casts are concerned. The whole "he doesn't have enough help" excuse goes overboard when a star player has the opportunity to look around, survey the competition, ask questions about various suitors' team-building and then choose his present and future supporting cast.

If any of these guys relocate, it's safe to assume that "new teammates" is one of the categories he will have considered. Beyond "money," "lifestyle," "off-court opportunities," "climate" and the rest. If winning or just avoiding a career of double-teams matters.

So if Wade ends up scraping himself off the floor on a nightly basis, with the broadcast crew bemoaning his lack of All-Star support, he'll have no one to blame from now on but himself. Ditto for Bosh, if landing somewhere as his new team's centerpiece finds him again, in star power, as its only piece.

• If it's James and Wade teaming up in Chicago, who would win the comparison of old champions vs. 2010-11 fantasy Bulls? Would LBJ and D-Wade be "better" than Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen? In rings, no way. In talent, I think so.

• I'm happy for anyone who becomes incredibly wealthy (without breaking law or cheating shareholders). But there is something wrong with a system in which Bosh and Joe Johnson get paid as much as or even more than James and Wade. Any free agent is within his rights to pursue a sign-and-trade (Bosh) or to re-sign with his current team (Johnson), mechanisms available to all in the collective bargaining agreement. But if players who never have made a team's turnstiles spin qualify as "max guys," what upside does that leave for those who put fannies in the seats? Cell phone, sneaker and sports drink commercials?

• While in Cleveland last week, I was surprised by the number of Cavaliers fans who told me, "I'm sick of LeBron. Good riddance." Then I understood: Those particular folks expect him to leave, so they were trying to "break up" with him first. Been there, done that. Most are hoping for a happy re-sign.

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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