Commentary

LeBron's toughest call: Where to go?

His basketball path to this point has always been laid out for him; now he has to choose

Updated: July 3, 2010, 6:12 PM ET
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

If it's about money and loyalty, LeBron James stays in Cleveland.

If it's about winning championships, James leaves for Miami or Chicago.

If it's about the size of his world launching pad, James leaves for New York.

[+] EnlargeLarry O'Brien Trophy
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty ImagesLeBron James wants to get his hands on the Larry O'Brien Trophy. If he does, where will it happen?

If it's about building something from scratch, James leaves for New Jersey/Brooklyn.

If it's about playing for the most passionate owner in sports, James leaves for Dallas.

If it's about playing for the worst owner in sports, James leaves for the Los Angeles Clippers.

If it's about the first five, then I have absolutely no idea what NBA uniform James will wear next season. And from the number of breathless but conflicting rumors surrounding his free-agency romancing, I'm not sure James knows, either. Cav or Mav? Knick or Net? Heat or Bull?

We are witnesses to one of the great sports decisions of all time. Bigger than Alex Rodriguez to the New York Yankees. Bigger than Joe Namath to the New York Jets. Bigger than Robert Irsay moving the Baltimore Colts to Indianapolis. (Baltimore got another NFL franchise; Cleveland isn't going to get another LeBron.)

If James screws this up, his basketball legacy will fit under a beer cap. He will become the guy who overthought or underthought himself into the wrong choice. Agents and business school professors will use James as a cautionary tale, a 6-foot-8 example of what not to do in free agency.

The King will be reduced to a spectacularly rich jester.

You see the great James calmly orchestrating some grand career scheme. I see a guy just old enough (25) to rent a car without an age surcharge. And on top of that, James is facing a kind of extreme pressure he's never seen on a basketball court. In other words, he could panic.

Basketball is easy compared with this. Players can practice shooting jumpers from the arc. They can't practice making sense of a half-dozen business scenarios from six different teams with six different presentations.

James gets only one opportunity in his life to be a free agent in the absolute prime of his playing career -- and that opportunity is now. If he signs a six-year max deal with the Cavaliers, or a five-year max deal with any of the other teams, he'll be 31 or 30 the next time free agency arrives. That isn't basketball AARP age (Kobe Bryant just led the Los Angeles Lakers to a championship at 31), but who knows what sort of physical toll the game will have taken on James by 2015 or 2016.

What would you do? Would you let your heart dictate the decision?

Cleveland hopes so. Without James, the Cavaliers would instantly lose an estimated $100 million in franchise value. The downtown businesses, according to a recent Cleveland Plain Dealer story, would lose about $200 million in LBJ-generated season revenue. And a city with a long, depressing history of sports failure would lose a chunk of its self-esteem, as well as a player who was born and raised in nearby Akron. One of its own would become an Ohio export.

Comfort counts, and James is comfortable as a Cav. Plus, he would leave $30 million on the table if he signed elsewhere.

But James is also ringless. There's the not-so-small matter of the Cavs' roster, which isn't getting any younger, better or more likely to help James with a championship.

So the heart has its limitations, as do the Cavs.

This is semi-new territory for James. He was recruited by colleges out of high school, but his entry into the NBA was a foregone conclusion. Then the Cavs drafted him. He has never had to choose an NBA team; one chose him.

[+] EnlargeLeBron James, Chris Paul
David Liam Kyle/NBAE/Getty ImagesLeBron has pulled other stars such as Chris Paul to his hometown with events such as the State Farm King For Kids Bike-a-thon. If he stays with the Cavs, can he pull in a supporting cast?

Now the Bulls, Knicks, Nets, Heat, Cavs and Clippers will essentially make the equivalent of home recruiting visits to the Akron area beginning July 1. They will be selling -- that's what recruiters do -- James on everything from basketball to brand name.

The Bulls will sell the quality of their roster, the chance to connect the championship dots from MJ to LBJ, and the vitality of their city.

The Knicks will sell the wattage of New York and the franchise's plan to turn Madison Square Garden into a place where they raise banners again. What that plan is, I have no idea.

The Nets will sell a new owner with pockets as deep as the Caspian Sea, the business savvy of Jay-Z and their impending move to Brooklyn.

The Heat will sell Dwyane Wade and the audacious, but doable idea of having D-Wade, James and Chris Bosh on the same team.

The Cavs will sell familiarity and commitment.

The Clippers will sell the law of averages -- that Donald Sterling can't be the most clueless owner every year, right?

There are no guarantees James will make the right decision. That's because championships, health and rebuilding plans aren't guaranteed. The money is, but nothing else.

James is in the rare position of having everything to gain but also everything to lose. If this works, he can start collecting title rings. If it doesn't, he'll have wasted the chance of a lifetime.

You see a guy with choices. I see a guy with perspiration stains.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here.

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