If there’s one person who can provide some perspective on what LeBron James and his advisors are about to go through, it’s Leonard Armato. Armato was Shaquille O’Neal’s agent during the 1996 free agent derby that resulted in O’Neal leaving the Orlando Magic to sign a seven-year contract with the Los Angeles Lakers that was worth more than $120 million. It became the most momentous free agent move in NBA history, as O’Neal went on to win three championships and one most valuable player award during his stay in Los Angeles. I gave Armato a call on the eve of the most significant free agent marketplace since that summer 14 years ago.
“First thing I would say is, it’s not over until it’s over,” Armato said. “There’s always tons of speculation about what’s really happening.
“Usually when there’s a decision of this magnitude, the free agent would always try to be logical and make a well-reasoned decision. They’re going to say, ‘I have an open mind.’ It’s what happens during that period when the mind is open.
“I’m sure LeBron hasn’t 100 percent decided yet. It’s going to be influenced by those meetings he decided to take.”
In 1996 the Magic started off with a four-year $54 million offer, playing it conservatively and playing their way out of O’Neal’s heart. When they came around and upped their offer to $115 million over seven years it was offset by a poll in the Orlando Sentinel that showed 91 percent of the respondents didn’t think he was worth it.
The Lakers had Jerry West showing O’Neal love from the outset, with West waiting in the lobby of Armato’s Santa Monica, Calif., office building and then taking the elevator up to meet with him the minute the free agency period began.
“One of the things that Jerry West sold, he sold the history of the Lakers, and it’s undeniably a storied franchise,” Armato said. “He sold owner Jerry Buss, who always wanted to put a winning team on a court. And then, Jerry West is a legend. He always figured out a way to put winning teams together. He was selling something that had a lot of value. And of course, he was incredibly enthusiastic about getting Shaq, and that was communicated very effectively.”
The Lakers were rumored to be O’Neal’s next destination throughout the season leading up to his free agency. No consensus leading candidate has emerged for LeBron. That’s one difference. Another is the fact Cleveland will be upfront with a maximum offer, which will financially top whatever else the other teams can offer. It all makes predicting James’ destination much more difficult.
“The most important thing for people to remember is it’s likely not to get decided until the fat lady sings,” said Armato, who currently is president of the fitness division of Skechers shoes. “Things could happen in course of next 36 hours that are unexpected. It appears to go one direction and all of sudden something else happens and you’re surprised.”