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Finally, end to LeBron nightmare within view

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Jim Litke
July 8, 2010

His long national nightmare is coming to an end.


Shortly after 8 p.m. CDT today, we know now, and more convenient still, on live TV, as part of an hour-long ESPN special. And just like that, LeBron James will no longer be homeless.


This much attention for a guy who has yet to win a championship—let alone a game in the finals—is wrong on so many levels that it’s hard to know where to begin. But we’ll venture a guess: Sometime in the early 1990s, right around the time cameras turned up in high school gyms to broadcast “signing ceremonies,” giving kids with an already bloated sense of self an unhealthy dose of more.


Thanks to inflation, 15 minutes of fame has become an hour. Even that might have been bearable, if not for the buildup.


“I’m tired of hearing about all that, to be honest with you. It’s overblown, and we’ve been talking about it for two years,” New Orleans Hornets coach Monty Williams said.


Williams can afford to be honest only because his team never had a chance to land the King. Every one of the handful of franchises that did behaved like someone desperate for a date with the prom fast approaching. NBA commissioner David Stern surveyed the courtships picking up steam in every one of those towns a full two months ago—“Songs, banners, balloons, blimps, armies, I don’t even know what,” he marveled—and good as his word, steered clear of the office since the free-agent signing period kicked off July 1.


No matter. Stern never tried to exert any influence over where James winds up, though the bigger the TV market the happier he’s likely to be. Even so, his fingerprints are all over the process. Ever since Michael Jordan’s emergence, the NBA has become more of a star-driven league than any of its rivals. What’s made all this seem over the top is that James might not be good enough to tip the balance of power by himself.


Let’s be clear: James is plenty good. He isn’t the two-time reigning Most Valuable Player by accident. Further, he’s been just about everything you could ask for from the game’s reigning personality—polite, accessible, generous with his time and money—except a winner.


Yet Kobe Bryant, despite being every bit as heralded a prodigy and a five-time champion besides, never kicked up this kind of fuss, even when he made vague threats a few years back about leaving the Lakers. But James is determined to draw this out, either because all the adulation still isn’t enough, or more likely because he knows he can’t win it all without help.


Either way, some good is guaranteed to come out of waiting almost two more days, then sitting through 60 minutes of what sounds like an after-school TV movie about James to find out which it is. The proposal his representatives pitched to ESPN apparently included an offer to bring along their own sponsors—think: Nike—and then donate the proceeds to the Boys and Girls Clubs of America.


And isn’t that just like


LeBron?


He’s been trying so hard to please his various constituencies since he came into the league that you have to wonder whether even James knows what he wants anymore. The one thing he’s consistently said is that winning tops his list of priorities, but for all the ways he’s been selfish, that’s the one topic about which he’s been the least persuasive.


James is still only 25, which might explain the lack of urgency. But after he disappeared in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference playoffs against the Celtics, then-Cavs coach Mike Brown boldly predicted James “would be ready to go in Game 6.” Turned out James was just getting a head start toward the exit.


Around that time, in response to an e-mail from a reader, ESPN columnist Bill Simmons put together a list of great players and tried to define them with one word that characterized what was most important to each.


There were no surprises among those on the “winning list: Jordan, Bryant, Bill Russell, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Tim Duncan, Bill Walton, Jerry West and John Havlicek.


Oscar Robertson and Rick Barry fell under the heading “perfection”; Wilt Chamberlain under “numbers”; Shaquille O’Neal under “fame”; and Charles Barkley, naturally, locked up “fun.”


James and Julius Erving, whose No. 6 LeBron will wear next season, came in under “amaze.”


Fitting, since just like Dr. J. until Moses Malone showed up at his side, James is not likely to win a title unless someone else good enough to shoulder the load joins him. What’s been really amazing about James throughout this ordeal is how long he’s managed to make the rest of us think this is only about him.



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