The first time the "Summer of 2010" meant anything, the rest of the world was fully immersed in World Cup fever. This was back in 2006, when the World Cup was in Germany.
You may not remember, but LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, and Carmelo Anthony all came up for contract extensions that summer, and at first, it was reported that LeBron signed the standard, five-year, $80 million max-extension. Much like the contract that Kevin Durant will sign with Oklahoma City in a few days. Likewise, the others were expected to follow suit. Move along, move along, nothing to see here. Except LeBron threw a curveball.
A few days later, LeBron surprised the entire league and signed a three-year, $60 million deal, giving himself the freedom to leave Cleveland in three years if the Cavs hadn't assembled a championship supporting cast. This changed everything. For one, it spurred Bosh and Wade to follow suit, accepting shorter deals and less money in exchange for flexibility. But just as significant, it put pressure on the Cavs to add talent as soon as possible, or risk losing the Greatest Thing That Ever Happend To Them. That's why the Cavs are currently capped out, with a roster full of overrated, overpaid talent. It was all to please LeBron, and that's why he's (probably) leaving.
When this all went down, I was living in a small town outside Kilkenny, Ireland, working as a volunteer farmer for the summer. How I got there and what happened with that adventure is a whole separate story, but basically, this meant working 12 hour days, being surrounded by fellow European volunteers (that knew nothing about basketball and wouldn't stop yelling about the World Cup), and enduring full-fledged media isolation for three months. The pubs in small town Ireland don't have ESPN, if you catch my drift.
My only saving grace came from a 1990s computer with a 28K modem, where I could get periodic updates on my little, meaningless sports world back in the States. That's how I found about LeBron's contract extension. Reading that tiny, dusty screen, repeating the words under my breath, I realized: LeBron James, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade could all be free agents in 2010.
"How crazy would that be?" I thought.
Then I signed off the expensive dial-up internet and went back to life in Ireland.
Since 2006, obviously, the tenor of the discussion has changed. Let's keep this brief, but it needs to mentioned somewhere. The media aspect in all this has become its own subplot and very nearly ruined the larger narrative. So let me at least explain why this story has become so insufferable in the past few months.
We're all completely disgusted with the "July 2010" stories, and it's not even July yet. It's no longer a scene that makes us step back from the computer or television and say, "Whoa... How about that?" Now, I'm pretty sure everyone's just filled with dread that LeBron will do something unpredictable, and we'll spend the next three months hearing about it.
Why can't this story just go away? It's a predictable reaction, too. Part of a cycle that I first encountered with Katie Baker's essay on the prospect of a Favre-Manning Super Bowl this past February. We hated the prospect of that game, and it hadn't even happened yet. This happens more than you think, especially given the modern media's tendency toward oversaturation.
Can you imagine if LeBron actually did sign with the Knicks? It'd be the wost thing ever, right? Just thinking about the days and days of coverage from the New York media... It elicits this visceral rage within sports fans. It's called preemptive irritation.
And we're fully in the throes of it with the "2010 Free Agency Cluster F—k" (my name, not the NBA's). It's reached a point where, sub-consciously, we can anticipate every story, every counterpoint, and everyone else mock-exasperation with the whole affair. It's stories like this that make us hate sports media. A handful of times each year, a story emerges that gets beaten death by the media, while everyone slowly rolls their eyes, waiting for the story to be recycled, and then in another few months, there'll be something else for us to roll our eyes at and complain about.
Depending on your perspective, you could either conclude that we are the sheep here, or it's the mainstream media being herded together clumsily down the information highway. But it doesn't matter--either way, traffic reaches a standstill, and we all just have to wait it out.
So while we're waiting... And since my editors asked me to write something about LeBron James' free agency decision, I'd draw your attention to another media ordeal that seemed interminable. If we can peel back the layers of our resentment, the fractured interests driving this machine, the steady stream of misinformation coming from all sides, and our collective fatigue emotionally and intellectually, there's a story in here that should still captivate us. And when the dust settles, we'll look back at this months-long saga and realize that it signaled a tectonic shift in, at the very least, the NBA landscape.
The means shouldn't obscure the endgame here. Much like Vice President Joe Biden said once health care reform was finally passed, "This is a big fucking deal."
It's impossible to overstate the importance of LeBron James' decision. Not just to LeBron and his own career and legacy, but to a staggering crowd of athletes, celebrities, cities, and media that, in one way or another, will be shaped by LeBron James' chosen destination in 2010 free agency. Joe Biden's practically the only guy that's NOT affected. To wit, in no particular order, here are some of the folks that'll be affected by LeBron's decision.
Jay-Z, Michael Bloomberg, Dan Gilbert, Chris Bosh, Mark Cuban, Pat Reilly, Barack Obama, Mikhail Prokhorov, William Wesley, Mike D'Antoni, Derrick Rose, Adrian Wojnarowski, Michael Beasley, Joe Johnson, Avery Johnson, Spike Lee, Sam Smith, Frank Isola, Maverick Carter, Mo Williams, Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul, Brian Windhorst, Dave Borstein, Jerry Reinsdorf, Aaron Goodwin, the cities of Cleveland, New York City, Chicago, Miami, Los Angeles, Kobe Bryant, Mickey Arison, Tom Thibodeau, David Stern, and every single team in the NBA, except for possibly the Lakers.
A pretty impressive group there. And that's just off the top of my head. But depending on what happens over the next week or so, the decision that LeBron makes will change things for everyone. For instance, if he goes to Miami to form this proposed "dream team" with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, SB Nation's Heat blog immediately becomes one of the two or three most important blogs in our network. Just because Miami becomes that relevant with those guys. A few more examples, while we're here:
Brian Windhorst. If you're looking for an example of what an athlete can mean to the people around, Windhorst is practically a case study. He began his career covering James in high-school, at St. Vincent St. Mary in Akron. Because of his relationship with LeBron (and, to be fair, Windhorst's talent), when James went pro, Windhorst became the youngest beat writer in the NBA in 2003, covering the Cavaliers for the Akron Beacon Journal. From there, he's parlayed his access and talent into gigs at ESPN and the Cleveland Plain-Dealer, not to mention two books about LeBron James, and he's widely considered one of the best beat writers in the entire league. If LeBron James doesn't exist, does Brian Windhorst catapult from Akron, Ohio to the forefront of sports journalism?
Regardless of your answer there, it's fair to say that LeBron's decision will probably change Windhorst's life. If LeBron leaves the only state he's ever called home, Windhorst, too, will be hitting the road, as he's likely to field any number of lucrative offers from media in whichever market lands LeBron.
Michael Beasley. Right now, his career's headed into the gutter. There's no other way to put it. The Heat have tried to trade him for a solid month—asking for nothing in return—and not one team has taken the bait. That says a lot about Beasley's stock right now. BUT. If Beasley somehow stays in Miami and then LeBron joins Dwyane Wade down there? Suddenly, Michael Beasley's a crucial role player on the best team in basketball, and overnight, his whole career changes. He goes from a lottery cautionary tale to icing on the cake for the Heat. The same is true for any other borderline player that lucks into a union with LeBron. Look at what happened to Mo Williams in Cleveland. Playing next a superstar can take a tweener and turn them into a star.
Chris Bosh/Joe Johnson. "I don't want to be mentioned as an addition to a team. I want to be mentioned as the guy that people want to center their team around." You can guess which of these two "superstars" said that quote, but really, it could have been either one. Both guys think of themselves as franchise players, and they're just... Not that. They're both good enough to make an All-Star team, and Bosh can be a nightmare for defenses, but both guys think that they're good enough to have a team built around them, which is just hilarious.
The Raptors and Hawks were centered around Johnson and Bosh, and we saw how that turned out. Having said that... One of these guys is likely going to land next to LeBron James next year, and that completely changes things. Suddenly they go from "below-average superstar" to "insanely above-average role player." As the second or third option, Joe Johnson and Bosh would be phenomenal, and it'll completely change their legacy.
So keep that in mind. One of these guys is going to get lucky and wind up playing on a contender for the rest of his career, going down in the history books as an insane talent, a winner, and a franchise cornerstone. The other player? He'll be asked to carry a team, maybe win 45 games, and he'll go down as an insanely rich, sort of overrated afterthought. And the deciding factor could very well be which player gets to play with LeBron James.
(Note: If Bosh signs with Miami and Wade, while Johnson signs with LeBron and Chicago, then both wind up winners. But if Johnson joins Amare in New York... Oof.)
Whichever City Lands LeBron. The potential transformation of SB Nation's Heat blog is a microcosm of what would happen to any city that lands LeBron and whichever superstar he brings with him. The Bulls and Heat have sold thousands of season ticket packages over the past few days, and nothing's even happened yet. A winning team won't necessarily transform an economy, but it can alter the personality of a city. (Look how insufferable Boston's become the after their championships). In turn, that goes a long way toward picking everyone up. In the same way winning a National Championship brings a spike in alumni donations, incoming applications, endorsements, and a hundred other revenue streams that you'd never connect to college sports, having a great basketball team—and an iconic basketball player at the center of it—can change more than you'd ever imagine.
Falling into a dream team starring LeBron James would be like getting the Super Bowl for the next five years, and in the next five days, some city's going to get lucky.
Poor Cleveland. As if the city didn't have enough of an inferiority complex. Even if LeBron James stays, it'll come after a year-long tease that's made Cleveland look exactly as desperate as they are. But losing LeBron, if it happens that way, could set that city back for decades, and professional sports literally may never recover. I mean, the economy's already lagging, the history of sports in that town is nothing short of miserable, and generally speaking, just about the only thing that separates Cleveland from Detroit is LeBron James.
If he leaves, all bets are off. And you can't help but feel a little guilty for watching this happen to Cleveland fans. Everyone I've ever met from Cleveland is a good-natured, friendly person, that just happens to be crazy about sports. They deserve better.
For all its implications, though, the decision comes down to LeBron James. And since AMC's Mad Men will be returning soon, we may as well have some fun breaking down his options. Who is LeBron James really choosing this next week?
New York Knicks (Sportsbook.com odds at landing LeBron: +1000). The Knicks began this process as, if not the overwhelming favorites to land LeBron, than certainly the sexiest destination.
With a franchise steeped in history and a city that's crazed for basketball, the Knicks can offer LeBron a a seemingly glittering future, where he's king of the basketball universe, in the biggest city in the world, with millions of fans that just happen to love basketball more than anyone in the world. That's their pitch to LeBron. We're the Knicks, it's New York City. How could you turn this down?!
But really, the Knicks are Betty Draper. Dream situation on the outside, but sort of a nightmare up close. LeBron, would you be interested in coming to New York and playing in a city with the most fickle media on the face of the earth, a team with spare parts as your supporting cast, with fans that regularly lust for glory days that never really existed? That's the Knicks. If LeBron's looking for the challenging of taming an insane, occasionally self-loathing beast, he'll go with Betty Draper.
You may not make a lot of people jealous choosing to hitch your wagon to Peggy Olson, but at the end of the day, you might be happiest. That's how I feel about LeBron and Cleveland. It's less glamorous than New York or Chicago or even New Jersey, but if LeBron wants to be loved for the rest of his career, Cleveland's a pretty good bet to be unconditional.
Why doesn't anyone ever love Peggy Olson or Cleveland?
It's one of those questions where the answer makes you feel sort of crappy about life's fairness, so let's just leave that hanging for now. More important: Does LeBron James seem like the type of guy who's going to lower his standards and settle down with good ole Peggy? Just because it's the right thing to do, and he'll be happiest? ... Didn't think so.
Chicago Bulls. (Odds: Even) In fairness to LeBron, I'd choose Joan Harris over Peggy, too. She's sort of perfect. Not necessarily a classic beauty like NYC and Betty Draper, but Joan measures up with just about anyone on earth, and Chicago can go toe-to-toe with any city in the country.
She's got it all, really. And so does Chicago. Best team? Chicago. Most marketing opportunities? Chicago's right up there with New York. Best history? Chicago. Easiest basketball transition? Chicago. Plus, LeBron looks at least a little original for not going straight to New York City. There's something unique about the opportunity in Chicago.
This is the one decision that just about any NBA fan would understand.
Betty Draper over Peggy Olson? You're a heartless bastard. Joan Harris? Well... Who wouldn't be tempted? LeBron's got the chance to join Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah, two pieces of a championship roster already in place, and if he can bring Chris Bosh (a.k.a. "The Centerpiece") with him, the Bulls are automatic favorites in 2011.
Miami Heat. (Odds: -140). Ooooo coming out of the shadows looking to seduce a married man in a stunning gown, we have Rachel Menken, Don's mistress from Season One. Rachel's a 10 in her own right, and she offers the appeal of another life entirely.
Sure, getting together with Joan or Betty or even Peggy could reap untold benefits, but Rachel's got an empire of her own. Think Dwyane Wade. LeBron, have you ever imagined what life would be like playing South Beach with one of the only true "peers" you'll ever have in basketball.
Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat offer that kind of chance.
But then, Rachel demands some of the power in the relationship, too. She's not exactly a feminist, but there's no doubt that she's on level ground in a relationship. Could Bron handle not being the alpha male at all times? Because that's the reality that'll play out if he goes to Miami. Dwyane Wade is 95% as good as 'Bron, and in crunch time, his track record's 100% better. If it's glamour LeBron wants, he could get it in Miami, but it may not be the relationship he had in mind.
New Jersey Nets (Odds: +1000). Well would you look at that? Popping out of nowhere we have Jane Sterling, probably the most attractive woman on the show. She's young, she's power hungry, and she's not afraid to ruffle some feathers. So let's call her the Nets.
Like Betty, she's a classic beauty, and with New Jersey set to move into New York City, a move to the Nets plays into LeBron's classic fantasy of conquering the greatest city in the world. But like New York, we have to consider the context here. The Nets, while promising, are still a very young team.
LeBron would lend immediate credibility to the Nets franchise, but they'd also be leaning on him heavily to deliver in the early going. It'd be like Cleveland all over again, where his supporting cast consists mainly of guys that will defer to LeBron second, last, and always. LeBron wants the power in a relationship, but he doesn't want all of the power. He's been there and failed. And just because we have to mention Jay-Z here, let's say that hanging out with Jay would be LeBron's equivalent of hitting the town with Roger Sterling.
Los Angeles Clippers (Odds: +2000). Well hey there, crazy lady. In case you're not a Mad Men diehard, that's Helen Bishop, the scandalous single mom in the Drapers' neighborhood. And is she maybe a little crazy? Maybe, maybe not.
Maybe she's the only one that's sane? Regardless, if you're LeBron James, the Clippers and Helen Bishop are terrifying. Out-of-wedlock kids, skeletons in the closet, terrible luck, scorned by onlookers.
It would be the upset of the century if LeBron went to L.A. Like living in an alternate reality. I'm not saying Helen Bishop is Donald Sterling, because that's an insult to Helen. But unless LeBron's looking to play Russian Roulette with his future, the Clippers don't stand a chance.
Alright. Those are the choices. Now ask yourself: Would you want to be the one choosing?
LeBron James wanted all of this, of course. A year ago, when The Daily Show's Jon Stewart asked him about coming to New York this summer, LeBron replied with a smirk, "Well, I'm here with you now." He'd been giving those sly responses for months. Creating this frenzy was intentional. But even LeBron has to be a little baffled by the gravity all this has taken on.
Where he goes in free agency will change people's lives. It'll change the rest of his career. It could make him a villain in the only place he's ever called home. And maybe most of all, it's a decision that will be second guessed for the next 50 years. Those are the stakes here.
From day one, LeBron's stated goal has been to become a global icon. And here he is now, choosing between destinies, with the rest of his world poised to react to his whims. If it's surreal for the rest of us, imagine being the guy at the center of it.
That's why it's impossible to predict what happens here. It rests on the shoulder of a 25 year-old superstar that's being asked to account for a thousand different factors, weighing his options while the whole world watches. How do you predict how someone responds there?
With a gun to my head, I'd say that he goes to Chicago. LeBron's unofficial consigliere, William Wesley, negotiated the deal that landed Tom Thibodeau the head coaching gig there. Chicago's market may not compare to New York City or Los Angeles, but the marketing industry in Chicago is as robust as anywhere in the world. Factor in the basketball opportunities, LeBron's fascination with Michael Jordan, and the tradition that comes with playing for the Chicago Bulls, and it's not hard to see LeBron getting entranced by it all. But who knows?
His choice is beside the point, anyway.
What's most remarkable about all of this is that he's choosing at all. The best basketball player on earth has announced to the world, "I'm available to the highest bidder, and whoever can offer the most attractive situation for me as a basketball player and a businessman." It's unprecedented.
And we have no idea what's going to happen. We've talked about this in abstract terms for the past 24 months, and now it's here. Yes, it's taken on the feel of a bad soap opera, but peel back the layers of media artifice, and it's got all the mystery and glamor and gravitas of a Mad Men season finale.
It feels like it's been a decade since I was in Ireland reading that dusty old computer, waiting for the dial-up internet to load ESPN's page, and finally, repeating under my breath, "LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh could all be free agents in 2010."
"How crazy would that be?"
Well, it's Wednesday, June 30, 2010. And at 12:01 Thursday morning, we're going to find out.