It has been 10 years since LeBron James granted six NBA teams the chance to venture to Cleveland, Ohio, and explain why he would be best served playing for them. He ultimately announced that he was "going to take [his] talents to South Beach" to play for the Miami Heat, along with Chris Bosh and incumbent Heat star Dwyane Wade.
In talking to key figures from the five teams who were spurned—the then-New Jersey Nets, New York Knicks, Chicago Bulls, Los Angeles Clippers and Cleveland Cavaliers—what stands out is how close they all thought they were at one point to landing him and, all this time later, how little they truly knew about what it would take to land him.
Thanks to what LeBron did and didn't tell them.
"It always cracks me up," says Rod Thorn, then-team president of the Nets. "All five teams think they came out second. I have no idea who came out second, but I think five teams thought they did."
No one from the other four teams is certain who finished second, either, but they all could make a case.
The Clippers boasted a largely unproven but talent-laden starting lineup—point guard Baron Davis, shooting guard Eric Gordon, power forward Blake Griffin and a center tandem of Chris Kaman and DeAndre Jordan—that only needed a playmaking small forward to be complete. The Bulls were equally young but more proven, having just been led to consecutive playoff appearances by second-year point guard Derrick Rose. The Nets were coming off a league-worst 12-70 record, but they had one of the richest men in the world as their new owner, Russian oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov, a pending move to a brand-new arena in Brooklyn and one of LeBron's closest associates, rap mogul Jay-Z, as a minority owner. The Knicks simply had the arena LeBron called his favorite place to play and a market that would best serve his professed desire to be the first billionaire athlete. The Cavs had both familiarity as the team that drafted him No. 1 in 2003 and proximity to his hometown, Akron.
Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf had as much reason as anyone to believe James intended to join his team after their meeting, which was scheduled to be two hours but went longer at the request of James and his advisers—agent Leon Rose, agent-in-training Rich Paul, business manager Maverick Carter and then-personal assistant Randy Mims.
James provided the teams with a schedule from July 1-3, two teams per day. The Bulls were the last of the six, following the Cavaliers. They had already met with Bosh and Wade in Chicago, knowing that James was interested in playing with one of them. (It wasn't until later that they learned he hoped to play with both of them.)
"We felt pretty good because on our way in, we ran into another team that was coming out," Reinsdorf recalls. "They said it was a very short meeting, very professional. Not very social. Our meeting, after we had the professional meeting, they asked us to hang around. We had bagels and cream cheese and cakes, the kind you can get from a Jewish deli. Here we were, expecting to leave after we finished up, and they said, 'Do you want to stick around? Want to have something to eat?' We sat around and B.S.ed about other stuff. So we had the business meeting and a very pleasant social meeting with them. At one point, LeBron said to us, 'Well, which one of the two do you think I should bring with me?' That got our hopes up pretty good. We thought we had a real good shot."
The Bulls also had just hired coach Tom Thibodeau, whose presentation on how LeBron would fit into his system went over big. "Most of the speaking was Thibodeau talking to LeBron about how they would play," Reinsdorf says. "They had a great exchange of ideas. That's part of why we were so optimistic, because he and Tom Thibodeau seemed to get along so well."
There was one other comment James made that convinced Reinsdorf, if nothing else, that James was headed somewhere. "I told him he should stay in Cleveland," Reinsdorf says. "And he said, 'We're not from Cleveland. We're from Akron.' That's when I knew he wasn't going back."
The Clippers also went into the meeting convinced he was leaving but unaware that having cap space for both Bosh and Wade could seal the deal. Team president Andy Roeser and general manager Neil Olshey were their lone representatives; owner Donald Sterling refused to be part of the contingent. "The farthest Donald has ever gone to meet with a free agent is to Newport Beach to meet with Kobe [Bryant]," a league source says.
Olshey, a former skills development coach and now the Portland Trail Blazers GM, had a reputation for working with players that both James and Paul respected, and those existing relationships assuredly helped the Clippers be one of the chosen six. That they had just drafted point guard Eric Bledsoe, a friend and future client of Paul's, also didn't hurt.
"It said something about the progress we'd made with our roster and as a franchise that we were on the short list," Roeser says. "If you're one of the other 24 teams, you don't know how to stack it up. But if you're one of the six, people look at you different."
The Clippers' pitch was strictly about success on the court, and James gave them reason to think he shared their vision. At one point, Carter made a dismissive comment about Davis, and LeBron snapped at him that Davis was someone "he'd go to war with," sources say.
"They were quite serious about our team," Roeser says. "I can't say what they knew about everybody else's roster, but they certainly knew all about ours."
While the Clippers weren't exactly sure what it would take to land LeBron, they were confident they knew who their competition was—and wasn't.
"The view was if he was going to be in Cleveland, he would've canceled the meetings with everybody and gone on vacation," Roeser says. "We always knew Miami was the competition for us. That's where we thought we could lose it. The one thing we made our takeaway for him is that he should go where he had the best chance to win immediately, and we had a really young, talented nucleus. The funny thing is, he took our advice. What we didn't see as a possibility is that the three players would take less to be together. All of our calculus was: 'No way Miami can get three players, they can get two.' When we gave the advice, we didn't see around that corner."
A contingent hired away from the San Antonio Spurs—GM Danny Ferry, assistant GM Lance Blanks and head coach Mike Brown—had been trying to peer around that corner to determine who or what might lure James away since the Cavs hired them in 2005. They weren't exactly sure who their competition was; they just knew that they had it.
"The plan was to build the kind of organization he would want to grow in and stay with," says Blanks, who's now an ESPN college basketball analyst and a consultant for the African Basketball League. "We always asked ourselves, 'Is it more critical for us to win a championship or more critical to make sure we keep LeBron?' Because you could do short-term things that wouldn't be good for the long-term health of the organization, economically or otherwise.
"Or you could do things for the long term that weren't good for winning a title right now. So we were always trying to balance the two. But at some point, we knew we were on the clock to have to convince him to stay in Cleveland. There was trying to win a title and trying to keep LeBron. It was an extremely stressful time period. I personally got sick. Not like I had to throw up. Cellular-level stress sick. That pervaded over all of us with the desire and the brain power spent in trying to keep LeBron."
As Reinsdorf intimated, the Cavs walked out of their meeting with James uncertain of where they stood.
"It was just obvious we were going to be competing to sign him," Blanks says. "It wasn't, 'Oh, OK, we killed it, he'll be coming here' or 'We have no chance.' We did as good of a job as we could to make him think about it. He might've known what he wanted to do by then, for all I know. We didn't necessarily know all the answers to the test. We wanted to be sensitive about guilting him, but we wanted him to have to leave something that was pretty special. Again, I think we presented the best case for that."
The Knicks started their run at James long before 2010. Isiah Thomas, the Detroit Pistons legend and Knicks team president from December 2003 to April 2008, had a long-standing relationship with James, Carter and Paul. He specifically constructed a roster of players that James had developed relationships with on the AAU circuit and simultaneously created enough cap space for the Knicks to sign LeBron in the summer of 2010.
"If you look at the way I was trading and drafting, I had targeted LeBron's free-agent year," Thomas says. "You can look at our roster and connect all the dots."
One of the key components was center Eddy Curry, who Thomas insists LeBron sought as a teammate. It also helped that Curry and James were both represented by Leon Rose at the time. (Curry was with James and the Heat when they won the 2011-12 title, making 14 regular-season appearances.)
Owner James Dolan, frustrated by repeated trips to the lottery despite one of the most expensive rosters in the league, forced Thomas to take over for Larry Brown as head coach in 2006. Two years later, Dolan replaced him in the front office with Donnie Walsh. Thomas subsequently relinquished his head-coaching duties and was retained as a consultant but says he was not involved with the team when the Knicks met with James. Walsh, meanwhile, reworked the Knicks' cap sheet to create enough room for two maximum-salary free agents, specifically by acquiring Tracy McGrady and his $23 million expiring contract.
The Knicks' presentation, however, focused on the advantages of living in New York and included a video skit by the late actor James Gandolfini in his role as Tony Soprano from The Sopranos. Walsh remembers LeBron and Carter breaking away to talk basketball with then-head coach Mike D'Antoni and Rose asking pointed questions about the salary cap and how many free agents they might be able to add. The Knicks, much like the Clippers and Bulls, didn't go into the meeting aware that having three max slots might be the key. (The Heat, who met with James on July 2 before the Clippers but after the Knicks and Nets, were the only team that brought their capologist, Andy Elisburg, to Cleveland.)
"They asked a few questions about the cap rules, which I didn't understand at the time why they were asking," Walsh says. "They were trying to see how many other guys you could get. Leon kept asking, 'Can you do that?' Leon wanted someone to come up and explain the cap to him. We were in Chicago meeting with other free agents the next day, so I sent Glen Grunwald (then the team's vice president of basketball operations), to go back and do that."
That James' camp was clearly searching for a way to land him on a team with multiple stars sent his suitors scrambling with an impending sense of desperation.
By the time the Bulls realized they would have to create room for three maximum salaries, it was too late. "We knew if we could take all three, we had a slam dunk," Reinsdorf says. "But we couldn't take all three."
Rumors and speculation ran rampant in the days leading up to James' announcement, which came in an ESPN television special from the Boys & Girls Club in Greenwich, Connecticut, five days after his last meeting. Fueling the information pipeline was a network of people within James' circle, each of whom were providing their perspective on where matters stood to the team execs pitching the then-two-time MVP. The Clippers communicated mostly through Paul. The Bulls' GM at the time, Gar Forman, spoke with Leon Rose, as did the Knicks. Jay-Z spoke directly with LeBron on behalf of the Nets.
"He and LeBron had been besties," Thorn says. "I remember when we were at the All-Star Game in Dallas, I went to a party that LeBron and Jay-Z hosted, and they were presented as the two kings."
The Cavs had several different lines into LeBron's camp. Ferry, who had fallen out of favor with LeBron, was dismissed in early June, and Chris Grant was elevated to GM. Grant had a good relationship with Paul and also talked to Rose. Blanks spoke with Carter and, "when it was appropriate," he says, LeBron.
When those lines of communication went quiet, however, all five runners-up sensed they were not James' choice.
"I got a call about five minutes before the announcement, but I knew we weren't getting him before then," Reinsdorf says. "You could just tell. The discussions sort of got cut off. I would think the team that would get him would have a better feel and would've been tipped off earlier. And knowing that Miami could take three of them gave me another clue. When we realized they were going to have the capability, that's when we figured we probably weren't going to get him."
Paul called Grant shortly before the announcement. Even though Team LeBron had gone dark on the Cavs as well, and even after Blanks got word from Grant that LeBron was leaving, he held out hope.
"I would say about the middle of the process is when he went dark," Blanks says. "Whatever the window was between losing that last playoff game [against Boston] and The Decision, it started to get pretty quiet. Even when I was told he was leaving and he was going to Miami, I didn't want to buy it, because I didn't think he would go through with it."
On some level, every team in the LeBron sweepstakes not located near South Beach retains the thought that it could've, should've, would've gone some other way than it did. Maybe because they never had a clear indication, as it unfolded, as to exactly what it would have taken to be the one.
In some ways, they still don't.
Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @RicBucher.
Bucher hosts the podcast Bucher & Friends with NFL veteran Will Blackmon and former NBA center Ryan Hollins, available on iTunes.