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A King for Washington: Why LeBron James should sign with the Wizards

By Michael Abramowitz
Sunday, May 30, 2010; B01

Picture it: the opening home game of the Wizards' 2010-2011 season. Tied score, fourth quarter. Rookie point guard and top draft pick John Wall snags a rebound and races out on a fast break, whipping the ball to Gilbert Arenas for a jumper from the corner. Gilbert -- in his rehabilitated, unselfish and unarmed incarnation -- takes a quick look at the basket but pump-fakes, freezes a defender and instead feeds the ball to the Wizards' glorious new small forward trailing down the middle, who takes off from the free-throw stripe for an insane, jaw-dropping dunk.

The sold-out crowd at Verizon Center explodes. Senators, lobbyists, White House aides and visiting heads of state exchange awkward high-fives courtside. Instant "SportsCenter" highlight.

Now imagine this for 82 games each year, and deep into every playoff season, for the next decade or so.

Everyone, even President Obama, has an opinion about where Cleveland Cavaliers superstar and free-agent-to-be LeBron James should play next year. But the obvious answer has yet to emerge from the speculation flooding the nation's sports media: The most talented player on the planet should come to the most powerful city in the world. Washington, the town named for our first president, is ready for its first King.

The Wizards signing King James would be the right thing for the NBA, which needs a marquee team in the nation's capital. It would be the right thing for the luckless basketball fans of Washington. Most of all, it would be right for LeBron, still only 25, who needs to find the proper stage to display his otherworldly talents and to write the storybook saga those talents deserve.

Washington is clearly the place to be for any global icon, which is what LeBron aspires to become. Bono, Bill Gates and Angelina Jolie have all trekked to the capital to make their mark as truly international figures. Prime ministers, Wall Street plutocrats and Hollywood moguls all come here to get their business done. Sure, New York has Madison Avenue. But LeBron doesn't need to go to New York to get his commercial deals -- Madison Avenue comes to him.

Besides, if he went to the Knicks -- as fans from Spike Lee to New York magazine are begging him to do -- LeBron would just be another superstar, the biggest for sure in New York, but still vying for attention with the likes of Derek Jeter (and his five championship rings) as well as the various rock stars and supermodels who walk the streets of Gotham. Despite the presidential nudge last week, he should definitely avoid Chicago, where nothing he might do would ever rival Michael Jordan's exploits for the Bulls in the 1990s.

And where are the romance and mystique in Dallas or Miami or New Jersey, reputed to be among LeBron's other suitors? Seriously, Jersey?

Of course, a case can be made that LeBron should stay put in Cleveland. Ohio is where James grew up, and there is no place that will ever love him like home, no one who needs his talents more than Cleveland's long-suffering fans, without a professional sports champion since the '64 Browns won football's crown. Bringing even one NBA title back home would cement his legend.

But King James appears to have wanderlust, and if he is to leave Quicken Loans Arena, he ought to set up court at Verizon Center -- where he would immediately become the most incandescent sports star in a sports-savvy town.

I don't want to hear about the unproven Stephen Strasburg, the aging Donovan McNabb or even two-time hockey MVP Alex Ovechkin, who plays a sport most Americans still don't care about. (Sorry, Caps fans.) The day LeBron shows up in Washington, he will become the Man, the greatest superstar Washington will have seen in years, with an unusual opportunity to write a very special story for a city that, like Cleveland, has been starved for professional sports champions since the Redskins last won it all nearly two decades ago. (Yes, it's been that long.) It's an opportunity James won't have anyplace else, certainly not in New York, where the Yankees and Giants have long spoiled their fans.

As for Chicago, I know, I know -- that's where he could find a team ready-made to contend for a championship. But think of it this way, LeBron: Even if you win a title next year for the Bulls, you're still five behind Jordan. And your legacy there will be defined less by your own accomplishments than by how you compare to His Airness. Win here and you're an instant sports deity, upgraded from your current demigod status. And we won't boo you the first time you fail to get a triple-double.

Washington is one of the most storied basketball cities in America, known even to rival towns such as New York and Philly as a source of great talent, and with a heritage worthy of LeBron's skills. DCbasketball.com points out that relative to its size, metropolitan Washington has had more influence on the game than any other basketball hotbed, with more than 100 players in the NBA and ABA ranks -- and countless college stars -- hailing from this area.

Before Julius Erving and Michael Jordan, there was Elgin Baylor, who first flew through the air above District schoolyards. Red Auerbach was a Washingtonian before he coached the Boston Celtics to nine NBA titles. Former DeMatha coach Morgan Wootten is the winningest high school coach in the land, the man whose Stags ended Power Memorial Academy and Lew Alcindor's 71-game winning streak in 1965. Even the 2009-2010 NBA scoring champ, 21-year-old Kevin Durant of the Oklahoma City Thunder, hails from Washington. After politics, basketball is our sport.

Then there's the First Fan factor. Here, for once, we have a president who is a bona fide hoopster but who prefers to go see the Wizards only when his beloved Bulls come to town. Obama may say he wants LeBron to go to Chicago, but if James comes to Washington, the president and the King will be hanging out at Verizon Center and dropping by Ben's Chili Bowl for half-smokes and milkshakes on Saturday afternoons. LeBron will become a fixture on the White House basketball court, schooling the commander in chief and former Duke forward (and presidential aide) Reggie Love. I have to imagine that's at least as appealing to LeBron as hanging out in Brooklyn with his buddy Jay-Z, part-owner of the Nets.

In Washington, state dinners will need to add a special table for the 6-foot-8 superstar, news organizations will be all over themselves to invite LeBron to the White House Correspondents Dinner, and Verizon Center will become the hottest place in American politics 41 nights a year (plus a dozen or so playoff games.) If lobbyists can figure their way around the gift ban, Wizards tickets will be the coin of the realm for influence-peddlers seeking to grease passage of their favorite legislation.

So, could it really happen?

Nobody is talking about James coming to D.C., except a few out-of-their-minds bloggers and Miss Cleo, the psychic for ESPN2's "SportsNation," who predicted last month that LeBron would be playing for the Wizards next year. And, of course, new Wizards owner Ted Leonsis and General Manager Ernie Grunfeld are playing it safe, insisting that they are taking the long view and building the team through the draft.

Except we all know that's nonsense. You build through the draft in the NFL, the NHL and Major League Baseball. In basketball, you luck out and get that one special player -- Bird, Magic, Jordan, Kobe -- and eventually you're in the championship conversation every year. Leonsis and Grunfeld are intelligent men who understand that the opportunity to get a once-in-a-generation talent comes along, well, once in generation. I can only hope they're playing it cool and avoiding the wrath of NBA Commissioner David Stern by disguising their true intentions while James remains under contract to the Cavaliers. (No need to pay Mark Cuban-type fines unless you have to.)

Even after paying Arenas and Wall, the Wizards would have enough salary cap space to offer LeBron the maximum contract needed to acquire his services. Upon signing him, the Wizards would have the core of a championship team in place: LeBron, Wall, an improving Andray Blatche and of course Arenas, who will be desperate to prove himself as a team player after his stint in a halfway house. Even though they won't have much cap space left, top veteran role-players will flock to Washington at cut-rate prices for their chance at a ring.

Now we know there's been some bad blood between the Wizards and the Cavs, left over from their memorable playoff encounters of recent years. In 2006, James messed with Arenas's head at the free-throw line in the closing seconds of a critical game, and in 2008, Wizards guard Deshawn Stevenson disparaged James as "overrated." But Stevenson is long gone from Washington, and it's definitely in Arenas's interest to play the loyal wingman for LeBron, like Scottie Pippen did for Jordan in Chicago. And there's always George Mitchell and Richard Holbrooke around to make peace in the Wizards locker room, as soon as they figure out the Middle East and Afghanistan.

Here's hoping that when July 1 arrives and the LeBron sweepstakes formally opens, Leonsis and Grunfeld do the right thing and get the man who will bring the NBA title back to D.C. for the first time in 32 years.

This LBJ can stay in Washington as long as he wants.

mjabramowitz@yahoo.com

Michael Abramowitz, a former Washington Post reporter and editor, recently gave up his Wizards season tickets but is willing to reconsider.

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