On a night just after Thanksgiving in 2008, LeBron James came to a cramped room deep inside Madison Square Garden before his Cleveland Cavaliers were to play the New York Knicks. With a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye, he announced how excited he was for his free agency that was still more than 19 months away.
"If you guys want to go to sleep right now and not wake up until July 1, 2010, then go ahead because it's going to be a big day," James said to the New Yorkers. "July 1, 2010 is going to be a very, very big day."
So much has changed in James' world since then. He's not the same player, leader or man that he was a month before his 24th birthday. He has learned many lessons since, including those jagged ones he had to swallow following the events after July 1, 2010.
As he readies for the process to repeat itself when training camp opens in three weeks, James is viewing his potential free agency with a completely different mindset than he did leading up to the summer of 2010. That is to say, he has chosen not to view it at all.
As it was going into the 2009-10 season, James can get out of his contract by the following July. As in '09-10, there are high-profile teams who already have set themselves up to make a run at him a year in advance. Unlike then, though, James is determined not to let it cloud his mind or create distractions with public flirtation.
James has vowed not to seriously consider free agency or even talk about it until after this upcoming season with the Miami Heat. He plans to address it, as briefly as he can, on the first day of camp and then try to table it for the rest of the season. He has even squashed talk about it in his inner circle.
"All LeBron is thinking about is winning a third straight title," said Rich Paul, James' agent. "He has no interest in talking about next season and everyone around him knows it."
There is no definitive plan in place. There is no conspiracy churning. Perhaps never before in James' career have his feelings on the complex matter of his ever-intriguing future been so transparent. It's because there is nothing to show.
"I have absolutely no idea," James recently told ESPN The Magazine's Chris Broussard. "I would love to spend the rest of my career in Miami with this great team and great organization as we continue to compete for championships. That's ideal. But we don't know what may happen from now to the end of the season. That's the nature of the business. It's the nature of not knowing what tomorrow brings."
Teams who are expected to court James if he opts out of his Heat contract next June aren't so liberated. The Los Angeles Lakers, for example, have only signed free agents to one-year contracts this summer so they can save their cap space to eventually chase James. The Cleveland Cavaliers have structured recent deals with players to allow them to clear cap space if needed. The Chicago Bulls have kept their options open to allow for flexibility next year just in case. Contract extension talks with Luol Deng reportedly broke down recently.
Even James' Heat have reached a point where they are going year-to-year with their plans. Twelve of their players will be or can choose to be free agents next year. For many of them, their future will be heavily influenced by what James does. That could include coach Erik Spoelstra, who currently has only one year left on his contract.
"Our stance is the same we had with (Dwyane) Wade in 2010, that we're just going to play the season and not let that hang over our heads and become a distraction just because the media wants to get an answer on it every day," Pat Riley told ESPN.com about LeBron's situation. "I don't know LeBron's stance. He'll probably say one time, 'I'll talk about it next year.' We haven't discussed it yet, but we will. I'll tell him the main thing is to make sure the main thing remains the main thing. And the main thing is to win the championship."
James may successfully block it all out, but because of some uncertainty in Miami there will be plenty of speculation surrounding him as the year unfolds. Winning streaks, losing streaks and significant transactions will be put through a filter of how they could affect James' thought process at season's end. Nothing more so than how the Heat perform as they bring back nearly the same team that won the title last season. It will be especially magnified with the Lakers option so blatantly on the radar.
"LeBron surely wants to wait and see just what happens next summer. We've seen radical moves and star player movement the last few years and he'll want to see what he can do to improve his situation," one general manager said. "But it's going to be hard for him not to get caught up in it because it's against human nature. It's a long season and things are probably going to happen that will force the issue a little."
Nonetheless, James has a luxury most of those around him or who covet him don't enjoy. He knows that no matter what happens this upcoming season he'll have every choice open to him. This time it will come without the pressure to prove himself a champion that he carried back in 2010.
That will tantalize and perhaps even taunt the fans and management of other teams as they brainstorm how to attract him. It will keep some in the Heat organization up some nights as they worry about keeping him. Right now James feels no such burden.
The final buzzer could ring next year and James could say nothing and let his contract opt-out pass on June 30 and do it all over again in 2015. Then he could opt in and do it all again in 2016. Or he could announce he plans to re-sign long-term in Miami or with any of the other 29 teams, all of whom would tear up their roster if James decided he wanted to play there.
It's a buffet of choices and all of them place supreme power in James' control, a control he will continue to enjoy for the foreseeable future.
He may be headed for being truly the most "free" agent the NBA has ever seen.
"LeBron knows exactly what his position is," said one of James' advisers. "He knows that wherever he chooses to play in the future that the team will want him, players will want to play with him and he'll have a chance to compete for championships. There is no use worrying about what ifs, all there is to do is focus on winning another ring with the Heat."
The last time around, the drawn-out process leading to James' free agency was dominated by "plus-one" theories. Leading up to 2010, teams became obsessed with attracting James by pairing him with another star, either one already on their roster or one through free agency. The Knicks, for example, rather obviously dumped enough salaries to clear space for two maximum-level free agents. So did the then-New Jersey Nets. The Bulls wanted James to team up with Derrick Rose.
The Heat outmaneuvered their opponents, however, by raising the stakes and executing a "plus-two" pitch, getting Chris Bosh to join Dwyane Wade to outclass all of James' other offers. This is the type of premium package that will probably be required to get James again. The Heat have it in residence, which gives them the advantage.
But with James' standards more defined, there will be some swings for the fences. Some will be obvious in their intent. James, a keen follower of the league, won't be able to help but take notice. Just don't plan on bringing it up to him.
Never before in his life has James been as content as he has been this summer. He's getting married this weekend in San Diego. It's the culmination of a decade-long relationship with Savannah Brinson, whom he took to her senior prom in 2004 a few weeks after winning Rookie of the Year. He has taken an extended break for the first time in two years, recently taking a vacation on a yacht in the Mediterranean. He wakes up each day with a clear mind, the sort of satisfaction that comes after back-to-back championships.
He wants nothing more than to extend this feeling for as long as it can last. Even if he knows the honeymoon will eventually end.
"I mean, as a kid, I never thought the Bulls would break up," James said. "Never. If you'd of told me as a kid that [Michael] Jordan and [Scottie] Pippen wouldn't play together for the rest of their lives, I'd have looked at you crazy. And Phil Jackson wouldn't be the coach? I'd have looked at you crazy. But sometimes the nature of the business doesn't allow things to happen like you would want them to. But we'll see."