MIAMI — It was the mistake that he knew he'd never live down, but one he vowed not to repeat.
LeBron James may have meant well, when he decided to sit down with Jim Gray for an hour-long special on ESPN, with the proceeds earmarked for computers and renovations for the Boys and Girls Club. But all it did was put off the general populace, with allegations of arrogance and, in the case of how it affected Cleveland, cruelty.
In the four years since, James has done much to repair his image, largely by winning two championships but also through more regular displays of maturity, and he certainly didn't want to undo any of that good work. So, this time, he would shoot down all contract questions during the season, escape on vacation during the moratorium period and avoid any televised announcement specials.
But he remains the most probed, publicized, polarizing athlete in America, if not the planet. And so, even with him spending the start of the moratorium with his extended family in the Antilles islands, and limiting his social-media usage to patriotic and soccer tweets, this country has deemed it its duty to obsess over him.
Thus, when it came to light that he'd done what anyone in his position would—empowering his representative to gather intelligence on his career options—the fireworks started on social media long before anyone sent up a single Independence Day sparkler.
That news was first broken by ESPN's Marc Stein and Brian Windhorst and Larry Fine of Reuters (via Yahoo) that his agent Rich Paul had spoken to the Cavaliers, Rockets, Suns and Mavericks (with the Lakers lined up) with the possibility of James engaging finalists in future meetings.
It stirred panic everywhere in South Florida—except, it seemed, inside the Heat organization, which has gone from celebrating a White Hot postseason (for three rounds, anyway) to enduring a white noise offseason.
Team officials have continued to project confidence about their chances of retaining James, even as they drown in leaks they suspect are coming from rival organizations and market-manipulating agents.
Some of the chatter, specifically the allusion to a disconnect between James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, would benefit an organization that is competing with the Heat for James or some other player, and wants to portray the Heat in disarray.
Some of the rumors, such as the ones that have grossly inflated Miami's available cap space (and ability to pursue top talent), would benefit player representatives trying to get another team to up its offer.
But naturally, even understandably, many in the public have ignored the possible agendas, and woven every morsel of new anonymously-supplied information into a new narrative. The narratives have seemingly changed by the day.
For a while, when reports erroneously insisted that James, Wade and Bosh had already agreed to the exact framework of deals (in Wade and Bosh's case, including extreme pay cuts), the conventional wisdom was that the Heat were in total control. Those players, the story went, were simply biding time to let Riley work, while trying to not to give anyone the impression that they colluded in any way.
Now, suddenly, it's flipped. Reports, from anonymous sources, that James, Wade and Bosh have not been acting in concert at any point (and are unwilling to bend), have made it appear that James needs to leave them to have a chance at another title, unless he can flex his leverage and pressure Pat Riley to improve the roster.
Except that the last part doesn't make much sense.
James doesn't need to flex his leverage. Riley has long known what he needs to do, and certainly knew it after the Heat got whipped in the NBA Finals, and James made it clear the team needed improvements at every position. Riley and the Heat's front-office team entered free agency with plans upon plans upon plans, for countless scenarios involving the team's potential free agents, those they might pursue and the teams that presented the greatest threats.
Let's be clear: Riley's work has not been made easier by James' reluctance to commit, since the Heat president could better sell a situation that definitely includes the league's best player than one that merely might.
Nor has it been made easier by the explosion in the market, which started with Stan Van Gundy and Detroit paying Jodie Meeks and Boston paying Avery Bradley more than twice as much as Miami was willing to earmark for either and hasn't stopped.
These realities accompanied Riley, Erik Spoelstra and the rest of the Heat contingent on their Thursday trip to Los Angeles, where they intended to pitch Pau Gasol and Trevor Ariza on the idea of taking a below-market deal to be part of the highest-profile squad in the sport.
And with Gasol, Ariza and Luol Deng all longshots to some degree, the team already had a series of plan B's—one of which was operating as a capped-out team and using exceptions to quickly add from a group that includes Anthony Morrow, Alan Anderson, Marvin Williams and Shawn Marion.
The reaction to any of those smaller deals, which could come as soon as this weekend, would be lukewarm at best and alarming at worst, especially from those concerned that they will fall far short of convincing James to stay in Miami.
But that assumption runs the risk of understating James' basketball intelligence, as well as his strong belief that he can make many types of teammates better, even if they're not marquee names, so long as they complement his talents. It also is based on believing that James didn't give any suggestions to Riley, and that some of these role guys, especially the space-creating shooters, are to James' liking.
No, the only thing that should worry Heat fans is when James actually takes a meeting with another team, one of the so-called finalists. Not when he merely has his agent hear other teams out and report back.
But when he sits face-to-face, whether in Paul's Cleveland offices or at a suitor's headquarters, with the leaders of another organization, and takes the temperature and temperament of the people with whom he'd be chasing championships for the remainder of his prime.
Even at age 25, when he made The Decision, James wasn't willing to waste time on a flier; he wanted to know, in person, what Riley, Spoelstra, Micky Arison and the rest of the Heat were offering. He's an even more serious, careful man now. He has acknowledged that he expects his time at the top to be finite, since "Father Time is undefeated."
So he needs to know, truly know, what he's getting into.
He's too thorough a person, in all aspects of his life, to rely simply on Paul's initial reconnaissance to steer him in any particular direction. Just as the Heat are too thorough an organization, in all aspects of the operation, to take James' return for granted.
So, for now, Heat fans can take something positive from the team's continuing calm.
Until James actually takes a meeting.
Then, it may be time to take a sedative.
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