Free agency decisions weigh heavily on LeBron James, Dwyane Wade

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

I actually do know what it's like, relatively speaking, to be driven crazy by a free agent dilemma. The Chicago Tribune called. Well, actually, a Chicago Tribune editor flew to Washington to visit me some years back and said my hometown newspaper, the one I grew up delivering as a kid with my brother and our dog, was going to make me an offer I couldn't refuse. That started weeks of deliberations, nights where I couldn't sleep, days of uncertainty and anxiety.

So I have a sense of what Dwyane Wade has gone through in recent weeks, being pulled by Miami and his life there the last seven years and Chicago and his life there the previous 21 years, the mom he bought a church for, the brothers he played with in the back yard, the two young sons who live there now. LeBron James has gone through a similar push-and-pull, especially since a change of teams would mean leaving home in Northeast Ohio, leaving Cleveland where he's the most beloved thing to come down the pike since Jim Brown.

I presume they've gone back and forth a hundred times because I'd wake up one morning convinced I was leaving D.C. for Chicago. I even had my wife go to Chicago one weekend and look at neighborhoods we might live in. One day the Trib sent me a box of "recruiting materials" that included my high school letter sweater from my days on the baseball team. It was an incredible rush. I was gone. Then I'd wake up the next morning convinced I couldn't possibly endure those Midwestern winters again, and anyway I couldn't at that point in my life tell Benjamin C. Bradlee, the greatest editor in the history of newspapers, that I was leaving The Washington Post for another paper.

Last week, former major league outfielder Eric Byrnes told me about one free agent winter when he bounced back and forth, convinced one day he would go to Cleveland only to change his mind the next day and become certain he'd wind up in Arizona. It went on that way for days.

Of course, the conversation turned to LeBron James and D-Wade, mostly LeBron, and Byrnes said: "I imagine those guys have to be all over the place. People think you know all along where you're going and there's no possible way . . . and I wouldn't even dare compare my situation to LeBron's."

Oh, but it is comparable in one way. Whoever is confronted with the decision, it's only your whole life. That's not to be confused with one's quality of life; that's not going to change one iota for any professional athlete choosing between $20 million per year offers. But in the case of LeBron and Wade, maybe even Chris Bosh, we're probably talking about their decisions affecting the way the modern history of professional basketball will be written, the way their careers will be assessed, criticized and/or celebrated. So, Bosh is not only weighing whether he wants to live in Cleveland, Miami or Chicago, but whether playing with LeBron James in Cleveland (or Wade in Miami) is better than playing without either in Chicago. Making these decisions in partnership with another person who has a million considerations of his own would be impossible for me. During my own personal debate, I didn't really need to take into account how competing with the Chicago Sun-Times's Jay Mariotti was going to affect my life.

Ultimately, I think whoever is in Wade's ear last is going to win him over, and right now he's physically in Miami. I can't imagine him, while in South Florida, telling Pat Riley goodbye, not even to go to Chicago where he'd return a conquering hero. If you took a vote in that city as to which player natives prefer, Wade or LeBron, the bet here is Wade would win comfortably because that's the way Chicagoans are wired. LeBron, in any basketball circle, would be considered the better player but Wade is ours. There would be so much more pressure on LeBron to win in Chicago (or anywhere else) than there would be for him to win in Cleveland, where the love for one of their own is closer to unconditional. While following this story as closely as I've followed anything in years, and in the process talking to agents and executives and other players, I've changed my mind a half-dozen times about where I think each is going to wind up, so not nearly as much as they have. I'm at the point now where I think Wade is going to stay in Miami and LeBron is going to stay in Cleveland, and what that probably speaks to is life being pretty damn good where each man already is. (I keep hearing Kornheiser tell me "If people can make you happy where you are, then stay.") Maybe the only thing more difficult than going home again is leaving home. Meanwhile, my home town, as happened at the end of the Olympic bidding, appears likely to be shunned again.

I remember at the most stressful point of my own ordeal thinking I couldn't make a bad decision, which was of great comfort. Don Graham was the best boss in the world. My editors, Len Downie and George Solomon, were my Micky Arison and Riley, to continue the Wade analogy. I stayed in Washington, happily as it turned out. It could only have been a fraction as complicated as the stuff Wade and LeBron are navigating, though it was my whole life at the time. The free agent drama has been pretty good theater since before the end of the playoffs, even during the NBA Finals. Decisions are going to be announced soon. It's fair to wonder if either man believes now, or in 10 years, that he couldn't make a bad one.

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