- Jon Greenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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Maybe John Calipari would be the perfect guy to coach LeBron James, wherever he plays next season. Cal is such a smooth character, he probably could get James eligible to play at Kentucky, at least until the NCAA tournament is over.
The James Derby has long taken on the sickening feel of a high school recruiting war, with James being seen as some kind of self-reflective prize, a veritable slam-dunking trophy to be paraded down Broadway or Michigan Avenue, as if to say, "We are No. 1 because we have LeBron James, along with everything else." For Cleveland, he is the means of keeping some semblance of civic pride, like the Goodyear Tire factory, only with tattoos and a headband.
Maybe Calipari, the King of One-and-Dones, will be the perfect partner for King James, because if James flees Cleveland, he'll lose his last vestige of authenticity. And while Calipari, who sat conspicuously courtside for the Celtics' grotesque dismantling of the Cavs on Tuesday night, is a great college coach, an engaging interview and probably a fun guy to hang around with, no one has ever called him genuine.
With the Cavs on their heels, playing an elimination game Thursday in Boston, some are saying there's a 50-50 chance James will leave Cleveland after this season, which is a clever way of reporting the obvious: Either he's leaving or he's not. We've known that since he signed a truncated second contract.
Does Chicago want him? There's no equivocation there. Of course. The city wants him; the Bulls' franchise wants him. There's no downside to getting him. But let's be honest with ourselves. We don't worship false idols in Chicago, and while James is the real deal, the Bulls shouldn't kowtow to him come July 1. They should treat him with deference and respect, and obvious desire, but let's hold out on the begging and keep some self-respect. That goes for the fans and media as well.
There is no chance all this fuss has gone to James' head, because he's been the brightest star in his own universe since high school. He knows he's awesome. It's not breaking news, and as time ticked away on Game 5, he sat on the bench chewing his nails, looking impassively at the scoreboard. Afterward, he expressed his disappointment but, more memorably, how his typically superior performance makes his occasional hiccups more conspicuous.
Good luck spinning that nonsense in New York or Chicago. James is on the cusp of being overexposed, much like Michael Jordan was, before he went title crazy. Of course, James could come back, destroy Boston in two straight and march to a championship this season. I think the first will happen, but not the latter.
James forever will be the kid genius in our eyes, the wunderkind who bypassed the awkwardness of youth to enter the NBA and who represents the next stage in basketball evolution, from his sculpted body to his prepackaged marketing persona.
But he's not a young star anymore, not by NBA standards. James is "only" 25, but he is finishing his seventh season in the NBA. In Jordan's seventh season in the NBA, he won his first title.
James already is in that stage of his career where being "The Man" means winning championships. The Cavs have tried, and mostly succeeded, to provide him with a legitimate supporting cast, but the team's fate reside solely on James' impossibly buff shoulders. James is coming off a miserable performance, and injured or not, he is taking the brunt of the criticism for the Cavs' being on the brink of elimination.
Coach Mike Brown, as maligned as he is, didn't go 3-for-14 from the field for a middling 15 points. It's embarrassing and inexcusable for the best player in a sport in which great individual play is expected to go down like that. In Chicago, James would be excoriated. In Cleveland, there is disbelief.
When I read stories and hear scuttlebutt about what teams are doing, or willing to do, to possibly land James this summer, it makes me a little ill, like eating that third slice of Lou Malnati's.
The desperate cougar of the NBA, the New York Knicks, according to a story in New York Magazine's sharp recruiting pitch, have a former general manager who is working as a defacto concierge for James. The story notes that the team practiced its recruiting pitches on Grant Hill and Jason Kidd last summer.
Spike Lee, one of my all-time favorite filmmakers and probably the biggest Knicks fan in the world, is actually rooting for the hated Boston Celtics, just so the Knicks have a shot at landing James and returning his team to relevance. C'mon, Mookie, don't be a sellout.
Along with the Knicks, the Bulls cleared plenty of cap space to try to land a max free agent, with James the obvious, but seemingly unlikely, choice.
When the Bulls finally, mercifully fired Vinny Del Negro, reporters asked general manager Gar Forman whether he would wait to hire a new coach who would appease possible free agents, again with James in mind.
It's a reasonable question, I suppose, but it's also insulting to not only the Bulls' organization, but to the hierarchy and history of the NBA, and for that matter, the culture of professional sports.
A player should never pick the coach -- that's all there is to it. It's a surefire recipe for disaster. Should a superstar get a heads up or a chance to voice any worries? Sure. Should a team pick a coach based on the strengths of its stars? Yes, to do otherwise would be self-defeating.
But to give any player, even King James, a chance to publicly choose a coach is not only ridiculous, it all but guarantees an ineffectual choice. If a star, or a team, doesn't like a coach, you'll see it on the floor. We might have seen a minimutiny Tuesday in Cleveland against Brown.
Jordan & Co. needed a new voice after a few years of Doug Collins, and thus, Phil Jackson became Phil Jackson. It wasn't totally organic, but it wasn't as if Jordan brought in Dean Smith or Roy Williams.
James is great, but he's still just a basketball player. He's still playing a team sport. And while I'm not Jerry Krause, opining on organizations -- a championship team needs an alpha dog to lead it -- James didn't create this game. It will go on without him.
Since the Bulls-Cavs series, I've been needling my Cleveland friends about the possibility of James leaving town. Cubs fans can moan all they want about the century of futility, but the North Siders' failures really pale in comparison to the abject misery of being a Cleveland sports fan. Most Cubs fans had the Bears' or the Bulls' titles to relish, not to mention the everyday joy of living in Chicago (or being from here) and getting to see games at Wrigley Field.
Cleveland fans have The Drive, Art Modell's exodus, the 1997 World Series, the 2007 American League Championship Series, the 2009 Eastern Conference finals, the Romeo Crennel era, and on and on and on. None of Cleveland's three major pro teams has won a championship since the Browns in 1964.
"Just root for the Cavs," a friend asked me last month after one of my mocking text messages. "Let me be happy for once in this godforsaken town."
I wonder whether Jim Brown said something similar to Lee. I highly doubt it.
I guess I'm rooting for Cleveland, although I find no small sense of schadenfreude with another Cleveland meltdown. Like David Stern, I'm hoping James stays in Cleveland, and not just for the long-suffering galoots who buy Brady Quinn jerseys and hang Fathead stickers of Zydrunas Ilgauskas on the walls of their suburban basements.
No, I think if James leaves, he's giving away the only part of him that is truly real, his attachment to his Rust Belt upbringing. In New York, he'll be another star, the biggest sports star to be sure, but he won't be a hero.
The Bulls can live with Chris Bosh or Joe Johnson (although Johnson does not deserve a max deal, especially after his playoff performance) or Carlos Boozer, and still contend for a title as Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah continue to improve.
But if James did decide to bolt, there's no question Chicago would be a better destination, based on the team in place. New York would have to build a team on the fly, like Boston did when it improbably landed Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. But the Celtics already had Paul Pierce and an unknown star-in-waiting in Rajon Rondo.
New York is the unquestioned media and culture capital of the world, but if the name of the game is really winning a championship and cementing a legacy, Chicago would be the spot, if all that 50-50 stuff is actually true.
In Chicago, James will have to deal with immediate expectations, not just civic hope, to win a championship, not to mention the annoying ubiquity of a big-city media with a small-town focus, a nifty mix of kiss-ups and annoying contrarians.
Longtime LeBron reporter -- and the only person I trust to deliver me James news -- Brian Windhorst of the Cleveland Plain Dealer wrote that James can move freely around his favorite haunts in Akron without much bother. Wait 'til he gets to Chicago. While Jordan enjoyed some level of anonymity in the North Shore, that was before camera phones and blogs.
Then again, the city's acute craving to land a superstar -- we're forever wanting to be No. 1 here -- might be desirous to a guy like James. Who wouldn't want to have a metropolis throwing rose petals at his Nikes? Sports-wise, this city fell to its knees for a guy like Jay Cutler. Imagine what the reaction would be if James landed in our lap?
Regardless of the outcome of this series -- and I'm on record as saying the Cavs roar back and win the next two games -- James will likely win a title before his career over. He should retire with a couple of rings.
And I know it's heretical to say as a Chicago sportswriter, but I really hope it's with Cleveland.
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.