MIAMI — Well, actually, NEW YORK.
That's where the Miami Heat were on January 9, to play the struggling New York Knicks. That's where the Madison Square Garden media played to their reputation, trying to coax an unusually loose and loquacious LeBron James into revealing a little about Carmelo Anthony's offseason plans...and, by extension, his own.
A reporter asked James how he had been able to avoid answering questions about free agency this time around, as Anthony couldn't seem to do the same.
"See me?" James said. "I don't talk about it."
Was it easier because the Heat were winning?
"No, it's easier that I'm in Miami, and he's in New York," James said. "New York media [are] a little bit different than Miami [media]. You guys don't take no for answer. So...I don't have to deal with that."
He said that with a touch of smugness, and it led to some snickering from the Gotham press corps, as well as a recoil from this reporter, since it came off like a suggestion that South Florida reporters were soft.
Maybe we are.
Or maybe we just realized, once James clearly set the terms at the start of training camp, that there wasn't much point to daily poking and prodding. Browbeating would lead to silence and stonewalling and thus, nowhere.
Either way, here were are, in late May, in the Eastern Conference finals, with James chasing his third straight title, and everyone is still looking for any sort of answer about what James will do this summer. But they're generally doing it on their time, not his.
And so, while the four-time MVP is still seven wins from another ring, he can already declare a different sort of victory. Somehow, he has masterfully managed to keep his status from serving as a distraction to the Heat's championship chase in a way he couldn't control the conversation during his last season (2009-10) in Cleveland.
Sure, the Bristol-based carnival barkers have desperately tried to stir the pot with breathless, baseless proclamations, hoping the public forgets about all their misfires about James and the Heat over the past four years. But now, the silliest stuff isn't sticking as it once did, as was evident when the latest flare-up in the LeBron-to-Cleveland angle got kicked aside by the hotter topics of Landon Donovan and Mark Cuban.
After Thursday's Heat practice, James shooed away a question about the Cavaliers securing the top spot in the NBA draft by insisting that he had more important issues on his mind. That's been his consistent answer to the occasional attempts to engage him, and there's no certainty that he'll openly address his future after the Heat play their final game of this postseason, whether in this series or the next.
So no, none of us who regularly cover the team can know for sure, or even be sure that James knows. We can only collect clues while being careful not to make too much of any particular one. After all, few pegged Miami as even a possible destination at this stage of the 2010 spring, not after the Heat had bowed out in the first round. We can only take educated guesses based on incomplete evidence, and the guess here is that James' two most likely actions are either opting in to spend at least another season with the Heat, or opting out to sign an extension that guarantees several more seasons with them.
Simply, I'll be surprised if he leaves, even for a home state about which he still has fond feelings, even with his sidekick (Dwyane Wade) no longer a full-time regular-season player, and even with Pat Riley needing to restructure the aging Heat roster.
I'll be surprised because James frequently praises his coach, Erik Spoelstra, without prompting, and even repeats some of Spoelstra's phrasing to reporters, reminiscent of the way that Alonzo Mourning always parroted Riley. I'll be surprised because he has seen the strength in organizational stability, and only one organization (San Antonio) has been as stable as the Heat over the past two decades. I'll be surprised because, while free agents will follow him to most places, Miami's high sun-to-taxes ratio has proven an additional inducement to attract the ideal complementary parts. I'll be surprised because when the Heat travel north these days, James commonly complains about the cold.
I'll be surprised because James cares about his legacy, a concern that probably boxes him into at least one more Miami season. If the Heat win a third straight title, it makes little sense to walk away from a chance to win a fourth in succession, something that Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson never did. And if the Heat fall short and he flees, his repolished image will get another scratch, with some certain to see weakness in another run from failure.
I'll be surprised because he doesn't have many places to go.
I'll be surprised if he goes to Cleveland after the Screed of Comic Sans, and because of the Cavaliers' comically poor rebuilding work since Dan Gilbert posted that takedown of James on their website. I'll be surprised because that return presents the possibility of making things worse for James there: What if he can't give Cavaliers fans the championships that he gave to Miami?
I'll be surprised if he goes anywhere else, because there simply aren't that many enticing options in major markets, at least until some franchises (Clippers) clean up their acts and others (Knicks) clean up their caps.
Mostly, though, I'll be surprised because some of those closest to him will be surprised. That includes his teammates, those with whom he's spent most of his time for the past eight months, those with whom he tends to communicate most freely. They haven't wanted to touch this topic on the record, at least not honestly and completely, but some have privately pooh-poohed—even eye-rolled—the "leaving" chatter for months. They continued to do so even after Cleveland won the lottery on Tuesday.
No, James won't talk about his future to the prying press, from Miami, New York or otherwise, and that's been for the best so far.
But I wouldn't surprised if he's given hints to one, or some, of those who seem so sure.
Ethan Skolnick covers the Heat for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @EthanJSkolnick.