The LeBron James Sweepstakes

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These are anxious times in the city of Cleveland where a downtown banner in honor of two-time NBA Most Valuable Player LeBron James proclaims, "Born Here. Raised Here. Plays Here. Stays Here."

In most cases, three out of four is seen as a winning percentage. (I know I would've glady accepted that as a batting average while asking girls out back in high school as opposed to the school record hitless streak I preserved through graduation.)

But whether James stays in Cleveland with July 1 free agency approaching is a complete game changer in the mental health of a dedicated, reinvigorated but still mostly hapless sports town.

Taking down the "Born here" banner is the least of it. Having to use it to break falls from high ledges -- fireman rescue style -- is a possibility if LeBron bolts.

Only the Cavaliers can talk to James between now and July. NBA rules allow teams to pay more than other suitors to keep their own superstars. Yet, James' announced intention to "go through the process" and his track record of flirting with New York is the cause of much trepidation and -- at the very least -- downgrades the banner declarative to a question:

Stays Here?

Musical Chairs (Really Expensive Ones)

James, Miami's Dwyane Wade and Toronto's Chris Bosh are friends and Olympic teammates who orchestrated their free agencies to coincide, thereby raising the volume and increasing the tempo in this game of high-stakes musical chairs.

In part for that reason, this is like no other free agency. Baseball, still without a salary cap all these years later, most often produces the free-agent buzz. Alex Rodriguez signed with Texas for $252 million over 10 years. Long before him, Pete Rose made the one of the first ego-inflating "free agent tours" in 1978.

Only in basketball, though, can one superstar change the fortunes of a franchise so quickly. And James is launching himself into those waters at the height of his game and at the still precocious age of 25.

Forbes magazine estimates that the Cavaliers franchise was worth approximately $250 million the year before James came out of high school in Akron, Ohio, and went to work 30 miles north. This past season, in which every home game was sold out, the magazine estimated owner Dan Gilbert's investment at $476 million.

The stakes in part explain why Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland recently stopped in town to join a chorus of local celebrities and politicians in serenading James in a "Please Stay LeBron" video to the tune of "We Are The World."

Strickland defended taking time out of his busy schedule, telling reporters, "Come on, this is economic development. Do you know how important this is to the state of Ohio? LeBron means a lot to the future of our state."

Comedian Mike Polk came up with the idea for the video. His previous Cleveland tourism videos were outrageously funny, though some city officials didn't see the humor. Maybe some of the lyrics -- "Buy a home for the price of a VCR" -- had something to do with it. So, too, the battle cry sign-off of "We're not Detroit!"

The LeBron video was likewise done for comic relief. Some outsiders took it seriously. (I mean, folks, really now. We know "We Are The World" was originally used to raise awareness about world hunger. That's the joke.)

Polk put a famous-in-Cleveland furniture salesman and a personal injury lawyer on the same stage with the Governor and had a U.S. Senator (Sherrod Brown) pipe in on a remote feed. The lyrics offer to name every street in the city after James.

Which, of course, is ridiculous. Too costly. They'd just change the town name to LeBronland.

The LeBron-O-Meter

On the subject of things LeBron, the website partner of the newspaper I work for, The Plain Dealer, began running a daily LeBron-O-Meter offering a daily measurement (do I need to say "unscientific"?) of this period of transition.

Depending on the news or rumor of the day, the LeBron-O-Meter needle can settle into any one of five areas:


Staying.

Looking Good.

Keep 'em Guessing.

Uh-Oh.

Gone.

(It strikes me that given the divorce rate in 2010, this could be a handy tool for marriage counselors to give couples to better help them deal with issues as they arise.)

Everywhere the people of Cleveland look these days they find other women flirting with their beau and third parties sticking their noses in and adding to the stress.

His Many Suitors


From New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg says he wants James to know what a great place his town is to raise kids. (James has two children.)

On behalf of Chicago, President Obama told Marv Albert in a recent interview that the Bulls would be a "great fit" for James.

Cleveland Browns' great Jim Brown says James will leave because Cavaliers fans were so harsh in their criticism of him after the team's surprising second round loss to the Boston Celtics.

The same day, author Buzz Bissinger, who did a book on James and his high school teammates, said James probably should leave for the benefit of his emotional development because Cleveland fans have coddled him too much.

In Dallas, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban was fined $100,000 by the NBA for saying the obvious -- the Mavs would be interested in James if he chooses not to stay in Cleveland.

In Los Angeles, 75 fans of the Clippers staged a parade around Staples Center last Thursday to show James how much they want him. That's impressive. I mean, who knew the Clippers had 75 fans and that they'd know how to stage a parade?

Not to be outdone, a 23-year-old transplanted Clevelander by the name of Brandon George, is intent on making James understand how important it is that he stay in Cleveland.

So George, who lives in Atlanta, waxed his chest.

Then he brushed his teeth with Dave's Insanity Hot Sauce.

I don't know the state of his list, but at that point he had 21 other self-tortures planned. Twenty three in all to match James' jersey number.

George started inlebronwetrust.com. Similar sites have cropped up on behalf of other fan bases. There are at least 67 Facebook groups dedicated to bringing James to New York.

His free agent tour can start on July 1. It'll be the recruiting period he never had as a high school senior, seeing as how every college recruiter knew it would be a waste of time since James long planned to go right from high school to the NBA.

With the NBA keeping an eagle's eye out for tampering with other teams' players ahead of the July 1 date, no organization is even hinting at how it will go about enticing James. Only a handful of teams have the salary cap flexibility to sign a superstar looking for a max contract.

Recruiting Pete Rose

Coincidentally, one of the first free agent tours also involved a hometown guy facing the prospect of leaving his local team -- the aforementioned Pete Rose in 1978.

What I remember about that first ego trip was that Rose appeared to be wearing Zsa Zsa Gabor's fur coat.

Atlanta, Kansas City, St. Louis, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia were among those who declared interest in Rose as part of a free agent re-entry draft back then.

Rose chartered a Lear jet and showed up places wearing a $4,000 mink coat. Earlier in the 1978 season, the Reds had asked Rose to stop driving his Rolls Royce to the park because it "made the fans mad." Rose refused.

He took two things on the trip. His agent, Reuven Katz, was one.

The other was a 25-minute video tape of his highlights.

Rose had already won it all with the Big Red Machine. He'd chased Joe DiMaggio's 56-game record hit streak. And he needed a video?

In Atlanta, Ted Turner offered him $1 million a year while he played and $100,000 a year for life in retirement.

In Kansas City, Kaufmann offered him a four-year deal and an oil investment.

Augie Busch in St. Louis offered a beer distributorship.

The Galbreath family in Pittsburgh, which owned Dandy Don Farms, were willing to cut him into the thoroughbred biz.

When Rose accepted a four-year deal in Philadelphia, he left money on the table but wasn't worried.

Of his four-year, $3.2 million contract, Rose said, "You could stack it all up and a show dog couldn't jump over it."

Keep 'em guessing

NBA rules prohibit teams from circumventing the salary cap these days. Like Rose choosing the Phillies because he felt they gave him the best chance to win a World Series, James says his decision will be all about the opportunity to win championships.

When he accepted his second consecutive MVP award during the Boston series, he staged the ceremony at the University of Akron basketball arena where he played many games as a high schooler. His family and friends and teammates all joined him.

Looking at the scene that that day, you couldn't help but think that it would take something extraordinary to extract James from his comfort zone in Northeast Ohio, what with the Cavaliers on the verge of a title.

Someone asked him about that in not those exact words.

"Wherever I go, Akron will always be my home," he said.

On the LeBron-O-Meter, that was "Keep 'em guessing."

Then the Cavs lost three straight to the Celtics and the series.

That put Cleveland fans in "Uh-oh" land.

The LeBron Sweepstakes

Cleveland Cavaliers

Pluses: The Cavs can offer James more money. If he signs a three-year deal, which is the conventional thought, he could make $9 or $10 million more simply by staying. Cavaliers' owner, Dan Gilbert, has spared no expense in trying to build a winner around James. His mother, long-time girlfriend and children are already here. Head coach unsettled after the firing of Mike Brown. But James could have a say in his successor. In a CNN interview with Larry King, James said that Cleveland "absolutely" had an advantage over his other suitors.

Minuses: The Cavs' roster may take a year or more to overhaul and they've lost salary cap flexibility in chasing a title. James may feel a bigger market would help sell him as a brand. He may simply be ready for a change of scenery.

New York Knicks

Pluses: James loves New York and Madison Square Garden as a stage. If you can make it there, you can make...oh, sorry, that's a song I had stuck in my head. The Knicks have the cap room to potentially add James and, say, Toronto's Chris Bosh.

Minuses: The Knicks roster. If they spend on James and Bosh, the rest of their team will be made up of players making the minimum. That's not a recipe for a championship.

New Jersey Nets

Pluses: Some good young players. A new arena in Brooklyn in the works. Well-heeled new ownership in Russian Mikhail Prokhorov. James' friendship with Jay-Z, a Nets' part owner.

Minuses: It's the Nets, not the Knicks. It's not Manhattan. The Nets aren't close to winning.

Chicago Bulls

Pluses: Point guard Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah. James grew up a Michael Jordan fan. He switched his number from 23 to 6 for next year in honor of Jordan.

Minuses: Not the kind of ownership James has enjoyed in Cleveland. Head coach unsettled. Living up to the Jordan legacy would be next to impossible.

Miami Heat

Pluses: The Heat have the flexibility to add another superstar. James could team up with Dwyane Wade, who has already won a title. A Hall of Fame coach, Pat Riley, is already in the organization. Florida is tax friendly for athletes. The weather can't be discounted.

Minuses: NBA rules only allow teams to play with one ball at a time. Who gets it with the game on the line, James or Wade? James is a better distributor of the basketball but James and Wade are too similar to truly complement each other.

Los Angeles Clippers

Pluses: They have cap flexibility. And talent.
Minuses: They're the Clippers. Donald Sterling is still their owner. James would play second fiddle to Kobe Bryant in L.A.

Bud Shaw is a columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer who has also written for the Philadelphia Daily News, San Diego Union-Tribune, Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The National. You can read his Plain Dealer columns at Cleveland.com, and read all his mental_floss articles here.

June 4, 2010 - 7:10am
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