AKRON, Ohio — More than two years of hype, drama, conjecture and expectation have dwindled to a few more hours.
LeBron James’ big moment is here — not as an NBA champion but as a free agent. There will be no parade, no ring ceremony, no banner raising.
Instead, on a prime time made-for-TV special his handlers contracted with ESPN, James will announce Thursday night where he’ll play next season and beyond. Fans from coast to coast will tune in to watch, with the ones in his home state of Ohio praying they won’t have their hearts broken again.
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The Decision, it’s been dubbed.
In Cleveland, they can only hope it doesn’t join The Drive, The Fumble, The Shot and The Move in the lexicon of sports misery.
James has kept everyone waiting. It’s time to come clean.
“I’ll be watching,” said fellow free agent superstar Dwyane Wade, who agreed to re-sign with Miami on Wednesday and may be trying to recruit James. “We’ve scheduled it. I’ll make sure I’m in front of the TV tomorrow at 9 to watch like everyone else.”
James will announce his plans within the first 10 minutes of the special, Norby Williamson, ESPN’s vice president of production, told The Associated Press. He said sportscaster Jim Gray, who was hand-picked by James’ team, will handle the introduction, announcement and initial questions. A person familiar with the plans tells the AP the interview will take place at the Boys & Girls Club of Greenwich, Conn.
James offered no hints about his plans on his final, full day of free agency. His secret remains safe, despite an information frenzy and growing speculation the 25-year-old superstar might join Olympic teammates Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami, a move that would rock the league.
That’s exactly what new Cavs coach Byron Scott doesn’t want. He showed up unannounced at James’ summer camp at the University of Akron and spent an hour watching the two-time MVP and Cleveland players Jamario Moon, Danny Green, Christian Eyenga and assistant coach Chris Jent scrimmage.
Scott, who was part of the Cavs’ presentation team that wooed James last week at the megastar’s business office in downtown Cleveland, said he did not speak with James but was keeping his fingers and toes crossed that James’ loyalty to his home state will sway his decision.
“I’m always hopeful,” Scott said.
Hope and home are what’s sustaining Cleveland’s die-hard fans. Although the Cavs could offer James $30 million more on a maximum-length contract than any other team, money might not be enough.
James wants to win championships. Without any salary-cap space, the Cavs, who also could try to swing a last-minute trade to make their roster more appealing to James, don’t have enough money to acquire the Robin to his Batman.
But in Cleveland, this goes deeper than dollars.
James is one of their own. Although he led the Cavs through the most successful stretch in their 40-year history, the Akron native came up short in winning a championship and snapping the city’s pro sports title drought dating to 1964. In Clevelanders’ minds, James has unfinished business. If he decides to leave them dry, he will be viewed as a villain on equal footing with Art Modell who packed up the Browns and bolted for Baltimore.
In the other NBA cities where James’ courtship has dominated the summer’s headlines, fans will hope their teams did enough to land LeBron:
— The New York Knicks are counting on the magic of Manhattan, Madison Square Garden and their recent agreement with Amare Stoudemire.
— The New Jersey Nets appealed to James’ global ambitions with Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, rap mogul Jay-Z — a close friend of James — a young roster and their planned move to Brooklyn.
— The Chicago Bulls, who at one point looked to be at the front of the line for James’ services, have rising stars Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah, money to spend and just secured free agent forward Carlos Boozer, who played with James in Cleveland.
— And then there’s the Heat. Miami’s now got two All-Stars and is eager to make room for a third. It’s assumed Wade, Bosh and James all would have to take less money to play together, but the chance to win one, two, three or more titles might be enough to convince them to join forces and build a dynasty under president Pat Riley, who might even wind up as their coach.
There have been signs James is preparing for a new chapter in his career.
In recent days, he has relaunched a website that was dormant for two years and opened a Twitter account, which drew more than 250,000 followers in first two days of existence. Now, he has scheduled a TV special to tell the world what he’s doing next.