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It's called "The Tease." And right now, LeBron James is doing it better than anyone in the history of the game.
"You play out the season, of course; I will consider it," he said recently about a possible extension with the Cavs. "I definitely want to keep an open mind, I will look at everything. [The extension] is a good point. I think me and my group have pretty much made good decisions so far, and we'll look at the opinions and go from there."
And we thought Brett Favre and Roger Clemens were the masters of "The Tease." No more. LeBron has skillfully taken innuendo and suggestive language to such an überlevel that for the next two years there will be no other story line in the NBA more talked about.
How has he done this? Easily. Because we are all suckas. Yes, speculation like this is a fun aspect of being a fan. But it's the beginning of 2009, and the threat of LeBron going to another team won't play out until after the 2010 season. Two seasons! And yet we bite on it as if it were something served to us by Padma.
He's had Skip Bayless debating, Bill Simmons and David Stern podcasting, Chris Broussard and Chris Ballard writing, Cleveland and New York (and all teams in between) wondering.
LeBron Does New York: 2010. The public can't help itself. "See, if LeBron goes to New York, I would fly to a game to see him the same way people come from around the world to go to a Broadway play," says Joel Bullock, one of the biggest LeBron aficionados I know. "Seeing LeBron in the Garden will have that type of impact. I live in Chicago and I haven't driven to Cleveland to see him play. But New York makes people think and do things that they normally wouldn't do."
LeBron aficionado No. 2, Vince Flournoy, adds, "If you look at the history of Cleveland sports, it's inevitable that something like him leaving will happen. Look at Red Light 88, the Fumble, the Shot, Ron Harper leaving, the Browns leaving. ... It's like, 'Here we go again ... only in Cleveland.' And that's why it's a story. Because it's going to happen."
But here's my argument: Where is the evidence that LeBron's inevitable move to New York is going to happen?
A Yankees baseball cap? That's the hard, concrete evidence? LeBron wears a Yankees cap to an Indians postseason game, and that's proof he's leaving Cleveland? The Knicks hire a new coach, dump a few government-bailout-type salaries, move some players and voila! ... Broadway James.
Yes, the Knicks have cleared payroll for the Summer of LeBron. But keep in mind there are other players who may become free agents on July 1, 2010, including Dwyane Wade, Paul Pierce, Amare Stoudemire, Steve Nash, Yao Ming, Dirk Nowitzki, Chris Bosh, Manu Ginobili, Joe Johnson, Tracy McGrady and Tyson Chandler. But no one is talking about where any of them might go.
The hype in New York is all about LeBron.
"Things have been so bad in New York the last few years that LeBron's pending free agency is the only hope Knicks fans have right now," says Frank Isola of the New York Daily News. "If you are accusing us of jumping to conclusions, I'd say you're right. [Same as] in the late '90s when there was talk of MJ joining the Knicks."
And we see what happened with that.
Suckas might very well be an understatement.
There are three solid reasons you may never see LeBron in a Knicks jersey:
1. At no point has LeBron ever made any statement indicating that once his contract is up, New York will be his destination.
LeBron has said many things in addressing the issue, most famously: "A franchise is going to do what's best for the franchise, and the players, for some odd reason, when a player does what's best for the player, it comes back and almost looks bad. But when a franchise decides to give up on a player, then it's OK. So we've got to do what's best for us." He has never flat-out shot down the questions that have come his way. He's been very slick, crafty and smart with his comments and has played both sides of the fence better than Katy Perry. But he's given no definitive indication.
Where are the blatant, slightly disrespectful, calculating comments from LeBron saying he wants out? Where's his Kobe "I no longer want to be a Laker" Bryant moment? They don't exist and probably never will. And unless someone "catches" LeBron saying something off-the-record that can be used as official evidence, none of his comments hold the weight of cheap silverware.
2. There is no precedent.
For decades there's always been a superstar who was supposed to go to the big market. For years, it seemed as if Vince Carter was headed to NYC because the world would never fully appreciate his spectacular brand of ball while he was playing in Toronto. The closest he got was Jersey.
Penny Hardaway was never supposed to stay in Orlando. Clyde Drexler was supposed to go somewhere else because Portland was never big enough for his game. Philly was not big enough for Charles Barkley's personality; neither were Houston or Phoenix. Kevin Garnett has been coming to Chicago (his second home) since 2000. Hakeem Olajuwon, David Thompson, Dominique Wilkins. How many years was Reggie Miller said to have been on his way to New York to light up the Garden the way it seemed he did every time he visited with the Pacers?
And Michael Jordan? Please. It seemed like every year Jordan either was going to be a Knick or was going to get a percentage of the league's intake because his contract (up until his final two years with the Bulls) was so insulting.
And anyone who thinks Shaq's leaving Orlando for Los Angeles is evidence should read pages 45-46 of his book, "Shaq Talks Back." Hollywood wasn't necessarily on his mind -- Jerry West's money was.
In the NBA, superstars' leaving smaller markets for a glamour city just doesn't happen (example No. 1: Tim Duncan). Yet this is exactly what everyone thinks will happen with LeBron. We are mentally moving him to New York. We're envisioning his putting on a Knicks uniform just because of the increase in visibility the city can give him. We've transcended him from a basketball player into something more important: a male Oprah. His omnipresence in our lives is necessary, and we can no longer wait.
From a pure basketball standpoint, why would he leave to go anywhere but L.A. if he's really trying to get his shine on and win simultaneously? Do you think his LeBron Inc. portfolio is more important to him than winning championships?
James is running the show on arguably the best team in the East, one of the top five in the NBA. His Cavs are tied with the Lakers for the NBA's best record, have the best scoring differential, are 17-0 at home and lost a Game 7 to the eventual champions in last season's playoffs by only five points.
But still we persist. Push the belief without any regard to what is logical, what makes sense. Get caught up in emotions and disregard all reason -- including that the Cavs can offer more money, $133 million max for six years compared with $102 million max for five, than any other team. Look at the Knicks' record. Look at the Knicks! When has a superstar left a great team to go to a worse one?
Ever seen anyone willingly, by choice, leave heaven to go to hell? Me neither.
As Cleveland sports talk radio host Kenny Roda points out, "It's all about New York, not the other way around, which actually makes more sense. No one is talking about how [Cavs GM] Danny Ferry and [Cavs owner] Dan Gilbert have done such a good job that the Cavs can go out in the market and get a D-Wade or an Amare Stoudemire or a Chris Bosh and have them come here to play with LeBron. Which can easily and is more likely to happen. But no one on the national level or in national media is talking about that."
Branson Wright, a former Cavs beat writer who covered LeBron for five seasons, adds, "A lot of his fans just wish he'd come out and say he's going to stay or say nothing at all. They've had enough of this already. But still at church, the first thing people ask me is, 'What's he going to do?'"
So for two seasons, this will be our lives. Where's LeBron going? What's he going to do? "2010: A Hoop Odyssey" with LeBron playing the role of Stanley Kubrick.
In his lifetime, LeBron James has made two iconic statements that have come back to haunt us.
One was the classic "I want to be a global icon." The other: "Every night I go out and play hard, and that's loyalty." The second one is where we are in the Life and Times of L. James.
With LeBron, we've allowed ourselves to not even live in his now; we've become preoccupied with his next.
But that's the trap we fell in. All because of a Yankees cap. Like moths to a flame, Brangelina to kids, sneaker fiends to the LeBron Big Apple VIs (which he wore in his most recent game in NYC that fueled even more speculation) or conspiracy theorists to his quote of NYC's being his favorite city.
My advice: Enjoy LeBron now. Let 2010 arrive when it's supposed to.
Scoop Jackson is a columnist for ESPN.com.