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LeBron James decision generates plenty of offseason interest

By Mike Wise
Thursday, July 8, 2010; D01

[Updated: July 8, 9:30 a.m.]

Many people have asked me recently, "Mike, you used to cover the NBA regularly -- do you know where LeBron James is going?"

Being the responsible kind of columnist who checks his facts before he writes, I always promptly reply, "Yes.

"LeBron is going to Hades, which will be almost as miserable as Cleveland tonight. He will be sent there for putting us through this narcissistic charade in which one basketball player who has won exactly zero NBA championships has decided to hold a league hostage because nothing else is on TV."

Will I watch "The Decision" at 9 p.m. on ESPN? Of course I will watch. Even though the suspense might be waning, if you believe the reports that James appears set to join Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade in Miami to tilt the NBA's axis of power.

Because let's face it, America, other than authenticating the Shroud of Turin or finding a bathtub stopper big enough to plug a spewing hole in the Gulf, are any of life's real mysteries left other than where James will be playing this October?

Did you know some poor schlub from the Cleveland Plain-Dealer filed a report at 3:27 a.m. Thursday morning -- about a pro basketball player!

Is anyone from Kandahar filing a report at 3:27 a.m.? Is anyone inside the West Wing up at 3:27 a.m.? Is LeBron even watching himself on an NBATV loop at 3:27 a.m.?

Nonetheless, I must watch. I will watch because I am being taught the vapid, mindless value of reality TV. Like a hopelessly gullible new bride that can't believe Jake the control freak picked Vienna over all those other blow-dried nothings -- and now relishes in their unseemly breakup -- the NBA version of "The Bachelor" finale has reeled me in.

Why? Because the basic two elements of essential viewing exist: a celebrity in emotional turmoil in prime time, followed by an abject meltdown at 11.

I'm not talking about LeBron melting down; he'll be fine whether he goes to Miami, stays in Cleveland or just signs autographs for adult children of journalists in Bristol, Conn., the rest of his life.

The league right now reminds me of the mortgage crisis: big-splash signings and prime-time announcements giving a veneer of glitz to a system crumbling under the weight of its own irresponsibility.

Did you see who got $119 million the other day? Joe Johnson, whom Atlanta signed to six years after he couldn't get the Hawks out of the second round of playoffs.

Dirk Nowitzki is 32 years old. He is the No. 2 player on any championship team, yet he was said to have given the Dallas Mavericks a bargain by agreeing to an $80 million deal rather than $92 million.

Paul Pierce is a year away from being unable to create his own shot. No matter. The Celtics just forked out $62 million over four years to retain his fading game.

Desperate to hold on to their meal tickets before a looming lockout next summer, an owner-driven spending spree makes no sense. LeBron, Wade, Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony deserve max deals. But as good as Bosh is, he and Amare Stoudemire are not $100 million players.

Crazy, no? This is a league that never wanted to sell team play when it could sell advertising vehicles. When the Pistons and the Spurs were winning titles, entire marketing campaigns were built around LeBron, D-Wade, Carmelo Anthony and Kobe Bryant. Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich and Rip Hamilton won rings in June, but they were never going to move the needle in July.

Now this is where their madness ends -- nearly a billion dollars in salaries signed away Thursday.

If Bron-Bron indeed gives the last rose to Pat Riley and the Heat tonight, that franchise should hold a parade on Friday because it might be their last one in a while. And the NBA had better hope the announcement gets good ratings, because no one tunes in to a lockout.

"I've informed my clients to count on missing two of their 12 paychecks" next season, said Charles Harris, an Atlanta-based business manager who has eight NBA clients. "I don't see the season starting up in 2011 until maybe the second or third week of December. The system is broken."

Before greedy players take an ounce more of blame, check out some of the top 25 career salary leaders in league history, according to http://basketballreference.com. Jermaine O'Neal comes in at No. 9 at $153 million. Stephon Marbury is at No. 10, having signed deals worth $151 million. Someone inexplicably paid Zydrunas Ilgauskas $123 million over his career, making him the 19th most compensated player in league history, figuring "Z" should never be paid less than Hakeem Olajuwon or Michael, both of whom didn't make the list. (Shaquille O'Neal was No. 1, having signed $290,846,146 worth of contracts in his career.) Just seven of the top 25 have won titles.

I don't know why, but I still hold out the slimmest hope LeBron could walk on stage tonight and say, "I'm staying in Cleveland." If LeBron is about anything more than getting paid, it's getting paid attention to. Being fawned over. Talked about.

Enough to show up on Larry King the night Kobe was trying to defend his crown in Game 1 of the NBA Finals.

Enough to keep the city of Cleveland pining for his love, to the point of the Ohio governor, other elected officials and local TV celebrities desecrating the old "We Are the World" video, crooning pathetically to a chorus of, "Please Stay LeBron."

Enough to make sure his decision is carried in prime time, because why take the weekend to think about the most important decision of your young life if a network executive has already booked you for 9 p.m. Thursday?

Anyhow, as my friend in Akron, who once knew LeBron before the messiah junk began, surmised: "When he went flying by me on I-76 [Tuesday night] doing about 85, I thought, No cop would pull him over. If they did, that's not seen as doing your job here. That's seen as a bad career move in Akron and Cleveland. You think any law-enforcement officer is ever going to feel that way in New York, Miami or Chicago? You think any city will ever let his crowd get away with stuff or feel the way this area feels about LeBron?"

Nope.

But for all his hubris and faux maturity -- for all the tats and 'tude and platinum ropes concealing the fear and insecurity of a young, rich man still finding his way in the world -- LeBron does know one thing: basketball.

He might just feel the Cavaliers don't have the talent or the heart to give him what he wants and needs the most, the attention Kobe gets in June.

The pageantry, hype and production are way over the top, a convergence of a network and a player who think way too much of themselves.

Yet at their core is a big kid who just wants us to watch and validate him. LeBron never got that moment most high school stars get when they announce their college choice; everyone knew he was going pro. Now he gets to pick his hat for the cameras.

A star is reborn. Perhaps in South Beach.

It's sappy. It's contrived. But let's be clear: Bron-Bron as "The Bachelor" is an important moment in modern world history -- almost as seminal as the breakup of Jake and Vienna.

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