By The Associated Press
CLEVELAND (AP) — Alert the royal trumpeters for an announcement from King James.
LeBron James, the NBA’s reigning two-time MVP, is ending months of speculation and suspense by telling the world Thursday night where he’ll play basketball next season.
Will he stay in Cleveland, which has braced itself for maybe the most heartbreaking moment in a lifetime of sports agony?
Will he go to Miami and join fellow U.S. Olympic teammates Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in a power trio to rival any in NBA history?
Will he succumb to New York’s bright lights?
Or will he head to Chicago, where the Bulls have a young, talented roster and Michael Jordan’s daunting legacy?
Much is at stake, and there are lots of opinions about what he should do. President Barack Obama openly rooted for his hometown Bulls, which may not help his poll numbers in Ohio.
ESPN is televising James’ decision live from a Boys & Girls Club in Greenwich, Conn., a group with which James has a relationship. Frank Sanchez, the vice president for corporate and partner relationships for the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, said James approached the organization last weekend about using its location for his big show.
The TV special should raise at least $1 million to help refurbish gyms under a program that James’ foundation will help direct, and kids from the Greenwich club were invited to attend the announcement, Sanchez said.
In the hours before his choice was revealed, the sports world spun out of control with speculation and rumors. Some reports said he had told his inner circle he is leaning toward the Miami Heat.
James, Bosh and Wade entered the pros in the same year, the respective Nos. 1, 4 and 5 picks in the 2003 draft. They went their separate ways: James to Cleveland, Bosh to Toronto and Wade to Miami, where he won a championship partnered with center Shaquille O’Neal in 2006. That year, James, Bosh and Wade all signed matching contracts to make sure they were all unrestricted free agents at the same time.
They won gold medals together at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and could now be poised to unite in South Florida.
Season-ticket sales for the Heat’s coming 41-game season were suspended Thursday afternoon after the entire supply of available seats were sold out. Not every seat has been released for sale yet and some will be held back for single-game purchases at the 19,600-capacity arena.
“I’ll believe it when I see it,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said while attending a tournament of high school stars at Cleveland State University, co-sponsored by James and Nike, one of the 25-year-old’s corporate partners. “In the end, it’s going to be tough for LeBron to turn down what he has here, but there could be some championships for him down there.”
James, in a T-shirt and shorts, showed up at the tournament in midafternoon with former teammate Damon Jones. James nervously chewed his fingernails while watching some high-schoolers play. He stayed a little more than an hour before heading off in a white Bentley, presumably on his way to the airport.
He did not speak to a reporter, but said “thank you” to some coaches in the stands who wished him luck.
In Greenwich, fans and media set up their own camp across the street from the Boys and Girls club more than five hours before the announcement. More than 15 satellite trucks lined the streets, and about two dozen fans with beach chairs and coolers settled on a patch of grass, hoping for a glimpse of James.
By 6:30 p.m. more than 100 people had gathered.
Dustin Dobbs wore a James jersey and carried a small radio to listen to the announcement — one he said merited all the hype.
“He’s the face of basketball today,” the 18-year-old from Westport, Conn. said. “This is all worth it.”
Westchester, N.Y. buddies Jason Mendell, in a Knicks jersey, and Eric Wenig, wearing Nets apparel, were determined not to miss the announcement.
“He’s either going to be my favorite player tonight or the most hated player,” Mendell said.
Knicks president Donnie Walsh, an executive with nearly 30 years in the NBA, understood all the fuss.
“It’s something new, but we’re in new age,” he said. “I don’t remember Michael Jordan ever becoming a free agent. I don’t remember Larry Bird becoming a free agent. I don’t remember Magic Johnson becoming a free agent. It would’ve been the same back then if they had, but that never happened.”
The Cavaliers, a franchise that was in ruins before winning a lottery drawing and bringing James up Interstate 77 from his Akron home, have had the upper hand — until now. They were able to offer him more money — $30 million more — than any other team.
But because they have overspent while trying to please James and win the first title by any of Cleveland’s three pro sports teams since 1964, the Cavs are strapped with a few big contracts that have eaten up salary-cap space and prevented them from making roster moves to improve the team.
They’ve come close to winning it all with James, who at 6-foot-8 and 260 pounds has the quickness of a point guard and brute force of an NFL defensive lineman.
With the possible exception of Los Angeles Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant, James is the NBA’s premier player, but his legacy cannot be fulfilled until he wins a championship.
If he goes to Miami, he can build a dynasty with Wade and Bosh, who agreed to sign for less money so the Heat would have enough to pay James, too. Miami president Pat Riley reportedly showed James some of his NBA championship rings last week at the star’s business offices in downtown Cleveland.
This King wants a ring, but in the NBA, nothing is guaranteed.
Even if he joins his buddies, James, who has always been the alpha male on any team he has ever played on, would have to share the ball and the spotlight. Same for Wade. The Heat are D-Wade’s team. Can their egos coexist for a common goal?
“I think it would become both of their teams,” said Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, an assistant coach for the U.S. team in China four years ago. “They are both such great players. At the Olympics, they were on the court at the same time and scored a point every second. I think they could play together. I don’t think it’s that big of a deal. They would have a good chance with those three, that’s for sure.”
As the clock ticked down to James’ announcement, northeastern Ohio was on edge.
James has always preached family and loyalty and commitment as his core values; he even has “Loyalty” and Akron’s area code of “330” tattooed on his chiseled body.
Would he stick a knife in the back of a place where No. 23 jerseys are so prevalent they could be school-issued uniforms?
Cleveland fans have nicknamed their lowest sports moments. “The Drive,” ”The Fumble,” ”The Shot” and “The Move” are forever burned in the city’s psyche.
“The Decision” might top them all.
“If he leaves, and says so on national TV, it would be the cruelest act imaginable,” said resident Bill Plagens of suburban Rocky River. “Pure evil.”
Emotions are running high for a city mired in a sports championship drought stretching across generations. For many in Cleveland, the only memories of the Browns’ 1964 championship are black-and-white images of Hall of Famer Jim Brown running loose on the Baltimore Colts.
James gave Cleveland hope. He can also take it away.
Associated Press writer Pat Eaton-Robb in Greenwich, Conn., and sports writer Tim Reynolds in Miami contributed to this story.