Commentary

Countdown to the LeBronocalypse

Originally Published: July 8, 2010
By Bill Simmons | ESPN.com

Careful; this column will self-destruct at 9 on Thursday night. I can't remember writing a column that had a shorter shelf life. Twelve hours and it turns bad like leftover sushi. Let's call this "Twenty-Three Random Thoughts Before Tonight's LeBronocalypse."

1. A few weeks after the 2008 Summer Olympics, Someone Who Knows Things told me the following rumor: LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Chris Paul became such good friends during the 2007 Olympic trials, and then during their 2008 Olympics excursion in Beijing, that they actually made a pact in China to play together. You know, like one of those pacts in a chick flick where two friends agree to get married if both of them are single when they turn 40.

As the rumor went, the 2010 free agents (LeBron, Wade and Bosh) would sign with the same team (at that point the Knicks if they created enough cap room), then Paul would join them in 2012 (or sooner). I thought this was the craziest thing I had ever heard -- so crazy, I only mentioned it once (in a November '08 column). It reminded me of being in my mid-20s in Las Vegas, gambling in the wee hours with my single high school buddies, then all of us drunkenly saying, "We should all pick one city and live there, we'd just go out and kill it every night!" Then you wake up the next morning and forget it was ever discussed. So even if the China rumor was true, that didn't mean it was actually going to happen. Or so I thought.

2. Fast-forward two summers: If LeBron says the word "Miami" tonight, does that mean the rumor was true? Or at least discussed by those guys? Because how could anyone make up something that loony? In 2008, you and I could have sat in a room for 10 hours trying to make up the craziest possible sports rumor and never come up with "Bosh, LeBron, Wade and/or Paul all made a pact in China to play together" without throwing in some improbably bizarre addendum like, "And they did so right after covering up the shooting of Jayson Williams' chauffeur." Was the rumor accurate? Did they stick to their guns? Will we ever find out the truth? Because if they did make a pact, that means …

3. Stephen A. Smith wins the Woodward & Bernstein Award for reporting last week that Wade/LeBron/Bosh in Miami was "done." I thought it was ridiculous. How could it be "done"? Bosh and LeBron were committing to an owner, president and coach without meeting any of them?

My guess at the time: Smith got word that Miami was in the lead, took it and ran with it, then hoped he was right. If he was right, he became the big winner of the summer of 2010. If he was wrong, he could always claim that he WAS right, but that something got screwed up and things changed. I busted his chops a few times on Twitter about it; when he reported one week later that Bosh might be heading for Houston, it sure seemed like Smith was talking out of his butt like Ace Ventura. But if LeBron announces Miami tonight? Then Smith is vindicated and I'm giving myself the byline "William J. Simmons" in my next column as an apology. Although …

4. I'm still not crazy about any report that says "done" unless it's definitely, 100 percent done.

Quick tangent: I like the engagement-ring corollary for all sports reporting. If a friend calls me and says "I'm engaged," I always want to know if they actually got the ring. Give her the ring, you're engaged. If not, "Let's get married" may have been something thrown out there during a drunken dinner, right after sex, during a makeup session after an argument … who the hell knows? I want to see that ring. Once you get the ring, there's no going back. You're locked in. You can get out, but it's almost impossible, and even worse, you might have a one-carat diamond whipped at you at 65 miles an hour.

Had Smith said, "I learned tonight that Miami is the prohibitive favorite to get all three; someone would have to go back on their word for this not to happen," then it played out the way it had, he would have been the Nostradamu-SAS of this thing. But he tried to get engaged without the ring. Still, he gets a partial credit for sniffing it out. Nobody else had the Miami scenario. And if Smith DID have accurate intelligence and it WAS done, then that means the guys panicked and concocted every event these past eight days -- every waffle, every leak, every extra meeting -- just to throw us off the scent.

Did they willfully snooker the general public? Four red flags indicate they may have (assuming LeBron signs with Miami, of course).

5. Red Flag No. 1: Wade and Bosh (who have the same agent, by the way) hired documentary crews to follow them around. As any reality-show junkie knows, if there's no drama, you have to manufacture it. Well, how could a free-agency documentary (or reality show, or web series, or whatever they do with this footage) have drama if both guys decided where they were going weeks ago? You'd have to center it around Wade's upcoming divorce, or Bosh struggling to decide whether to stay with his girlfriend or hook up with those gorgeous half-Cuban models that only exist in South Beach. And neither guy would ever do that. So what works? Indecision. Meetings. More meetings. A lot of "agonizing." If this footage ever sees the light of day, I bet the acting is worse than your average episode of "The Hills." You wait.

6. Red Flag No. 2: Wade's second visit with Chicago (the old "I really might do this, look, I'm meeting with them again!" trick) was a textbook reality ploy. Look, I've logged my fair share of reality TV over the years. It's one of my vices, along with gambling, Sour Patch kids, Sly Stallone movies and unprotected sex in hotel saunas. (Fine, I made that last one up.) If I were producing Wade's documentary, I would have told him, "After we meet with the Bulls, let's leak information that you want to meet them a second time, and that you want to be closer to your kids post-divorce, then after the meeting we'll shoot a scene of you walking along Lake Michigan deep in thought like you're deciding what to do. Just trust me. It will be great TV." That's what you do when you fake reality. And that second Chicago meeting sure seemed fake.

(Also helping this theory: Multiple teams -- that's right, multiple -- believe Wade went through the free-agency process partly to spy on Miami's competitors for Pat Riley. And if he did? Savvy. Why not? Did you ever think an NBA free-agency period would include the word "spy"? That would have been the wackiest thing that happened this summer if Darko Milicic, Channing Frye, Amir Johnson and Drew Gooden hadn't signed for a combined $114 million on the same day Atlanta offered Joe Johnson $120 million to thank him for leading the Hawks to a four-game sweep in Round 2 in which they were outscored by 25 points per game.)

7. Red Flag No. 3: Wade is 28 years old and just finishing a bitter divorce. He's earned max money for exactly three years and doesn't have a second payday looming in 2016 like Bosh and LeBron do. As we learned with Antoine Walker and Allen Iverson, "wealthy" superstars are never quite as wealthy as we think. Walking away from a sixth guaranteed year in Miami (and no state income tax) when he's battled serious injuries in the past? No way. This was his one chance to bank as much money as possible. It was always going to be Miami.

8. Red Flag No. 4: Bosh clearly wanted to emerge from this summer more famous than he was. I know this because he hired his own documentary crew. Because he made an "Entourage" cameo last month. Because someone who attended one of Bosh's free-agent meetings told me that Bosh was considerably more concerned with his camera crew than hearing the team's pitch. Because he asked his Twitter followers where he should play next year -- a slap in the face to everyone in Toronto who supported him these past seven years -- and because I attended two different 2010 Lakers games at which Bosh inexplicably walked a complete lap around the court while holding hands with his girlfriend, like someone who just wanted to be seen. And it worked. You see a 7-foot basketball player strolling 0.02 miles an hour around a basketball court, you're going to notice him.

If you want fame, then attaching yourself to Wade and/or LeBron in a major market is the way to go. That's what Bosh did. Orlando's Stan Van Gundy even hissed yesterday that Bosh followed Wade around for two weeks like a "lapdog." Doesn't sound like someone who ever seriously considered anywhere but Miami. Add those four red flags together and it's pretty clear, in retrospect, that Wade and Bosh never seriously looked elsewhere. You know, because any time you can play in a city with such rich basketball tradition, you have to do it. It's hard not to get inspired during the national anthem when you see Rony Seikaly's number in the rafters.

9. If one more person refers to Bosh as a "superstar," I'm going to scream. His résumé: seven seasons, 11 career playoff games, one second-team All-NBA selection, never played in a big game in his life other than the gold-medal game of the 2008 Olympics. Now he's fleeing frigid Toronto for South Beach, no state income tax, Dwyane Wade, max money and the playoffs … and this makes him a "superstar"? Did we really drop our standards that low?

Look, I need my NBA superstar to sell tickets, generate interest locally and nationally, single-handedly guarantee an average supporting cast 45-50 wins, and potentially be the best player on a Finals team if the other pieces are in place, which means only LeBron, Wade, Howard, Durant and Kobe qualify. There's a level just a shade below (the Almost-But-Not-Quite-Superstar) with Steve Nash, Dirk Nowitzki, Carmelo Anthony, Brandon Roy, Chris Paul and Deron Williams. (Note: I think Derrick Rose gets there next season.) Then you have elite guys like Bosh, Pau Gasol and Amare Stoudemire who need good teammates to help them thrive … and if they don't have them, you're heading to the lottery.

You know what we call these people? All-Stars. Although if LeBron picks Miami, we have to call Bosh something else: lucky. On a good team, he could absolutely thrive like Gasol did on the Lakers, although he's not as sure a bet because Gasol played in so many big games overseas before the Lakers stole him. (Bosh had the opposite experience: He's never played in a Sweet 16, a Game 7 or even Round 2 of the NBA playoffs.) Hearing Bosh referred to as a "superstar" these past few weeks left me with the same face Jake had on Monday's "Bachelor" special when Vienna wouldn't shut up and kept undermining and emasculating him. If Chris Bosh is your third-best player, you're in tremendous shape. Just don't think you can win a title with a 228-pound big man who doesn't block shots and grabs 10 rebounds a night. You need more help than that. Which brings us to …

10. Let's say LeBron signs with Miami. Can you even make the Finals with LeBron, Bosh, Wade and nine minimum-salary guys? Because that might be next year's team … and if that's what happens, the answer is "no effing way." You don't win titles just because of your top three. That belittles the meaning of guys like Derek Fisher, Robert Horry, Steve Kerr, John Paxson, Brian Shaw … you could go on for hours naming role players who swung a title. The 2008 Celts lucked out by getting James Posey, Eddie House and P.J. Brown for practically nothing; Miami wouldn't have that luxury this summer, not with so many role players jockeying for contracts one year before the possible lockout. Nobody is taking less money to showcase themselves for a summer that might not happen. Even if Miami could spin Michael Beasley for a fourth guy (say, Trevor Ariza), that's still not enough. They'd need one more rebounder, point guard, a 3-point shooter and a center. Good luck.

11. Another problem: You realize how many minutes these guys would log on a three-man team? About 42-44 minutes for 100 games … and if anyone missed an extended stretch of games, then that would put even more pressure on the other two. Crazy. No way they win more than 50, especially with teams gunning for them every night. We've also never seen two perimeter superstar alpha dogs coexist for an NBA title -- not even when Jerry West and Elgin Baylor teamed up with Wilt Chamberlain against the aging Celtics in 1969. LeBron would have to accept becoming Mega-Pippen to Wade's Jordan. (Yeah, right.) Even during the final quarter of the 2008 gold-medal game, when everyone on the American team was staring at each other wondering who was going to step up against a red-hot Spain team, there were a few minutes of tentative, "I don't want to step on anyone's toes here" basketball before Kobe said, "Screw it, get out of my way" and took over the key portion of the game.

Well, at some point, Wade and LeBron will have one of those 2008 Spain moments … but what happens if both guys say, "Screw it, get out of my way"? You need to have a special type of mentality to want that moment; that's why Scottie Pippen melted down in that 1994 Bulls-Knicks playoff game, because Phil Jackson had spent that entire year building him up and making him think, "We can win without Jordan, you're just as good, we can DO THIS," then designed the biggest play of the season for someone else. It was a slap in the face. Pippen reacted terribly, but still, don't you want him to be pissed there? Isn't that what being an alpha dog is all about? Don't you need a special level of swagger and confidence to carry that load every night? And once you reach that level, doesn't it become impossible to share the spotlight with someone else? Of course …

12. Maybe LeBron knows that he isn't wired that way.

Maybe he wants to be an unselfish creator like Magic or a do-it-all wingman like Pippen. Maybe he has too much Doctor J in him, as I theorized after Game 6. Maybe he believes that if Wade carries the crunch-time load, it will free LeBron to do LeBron things and average a triple-double every game without having that burden of "I've gotta create every shot for us in the final four minutes." Maybe he thinks it's his best chance to win. And if so …

13. I think it's a cop-out. Any super-competitive person would rather beat Dwyane Wade than play with him. Don't you want to find the Ali to your Frazier and have that rival pull the greatness out of you? That's why I'm holding out hope that LeBron signs with New York or Chicago (or stays in Cleveland), because he'd be saying, "Fine. Kobe, Dwight and Melo all have their teams. Wade and Bosh have their team. The Celtics are still there. Durant's team is coming. I'm gonna go out and build MY team, and I'm kicking all their asses." That's what Jordan would have done. Hell, that's what Kobe would have done.

In May, after the Cavs were ousted in the conference semifinals, I wrote that LeBron was facing one of the greatest sports decisions ever: "winning (Chicago), loyalty (Cleveland) or a chance at immortality (New York)."

I never thought he would pick "HELP!"

14. LeBron joining Wade after his 2010 playoffs flameout, in my opinion, is like Conan O'Brien getting kicked in the teeth by NBC, then overreacting and forming a late-night version of "The View" with Chris Rock, Adam Carolla and Jeffrey Ross over trying to create his own show somewhere else. (Note to Carolla and Ross: Don't get excited, it's only a hypothetical.) Total cop-out. The move of someone who, deep down, doesn't totally trust his own talents any more. And maybe he doesn't.

15. What should LeBron do? Pick Chicago. That's where the rings are. The fact that he didn't say to Bosh, "Come to Chicago with me, we'll play with Rose and Noah and win six titles together" was the single most disappointing outcome of the summer. That team would have been a true juggernaut with pieces that actually complemented each other, unlike this pickup-basketball situation that's brewing in Miami. Even with Boozer there in Bosh's place -- and I think he's a great fit for them, with or without LeBron -- it could still translate to multiple titles, because Rose could have been the best second banana since Kobe in 2001.

Just know that Kobe would have caught a whiff of those rings and gone to Chicago. Same with Jordan. Same with Magic and Bird. Chicago had the biggest competitive advantage of anyone: room for two max guys along with an under-23 franchise point guard and one of the only elite defending/rebounding big men in basketball. How can you care about winning and NOT go to Chicago?

16. I need to make that point a second time: How can you care about winning and NOT go to Chicago? Unless …

17. LeBron picks New York. Ballsiest move. Fulfills his "global icon" wishes, puts him in the best possible basketball city, allows him to live a relatively normal life in our biggest city, gives him the biggest possible challenge (saving basketball in New York) and the biggest possible reward (going down in history as the guy who saved basketball in New York). I wouldn't love the thought of him crushing Cleveland for a similarly shaky situation, but if he spun it the right way, you could talk me into it. And here are the words I'd want to hear:

"Bringing New York a championship -- and doing it in the biggest city in America, in the best arena to play basketball -- would mean more to more people than anything else I could do as a basketball player. It's a challenge I could not resist."

Say that and I'm signing off. Anything less … no.

18. I ruled out the Knicks last week after details trickled out about LeBron's comical New York meeting, which sounded like a "Saturday Night Live" sketch because of Donnie Walsh being in a wheelchair and wearing a neck brace (he just had neck surgery), and James Dolan being James Dolan. Now the Knicks are gaining momentum thanks to the "He's coming!" buzz that drove MSG's stock price up 6.5 percent Wednesday. Where did this buzz come from? As far as I can tell, nowhere. But there's buzzing. You have to believe me. My BlackBerry practically blew up yesterday with e-mails from sports-industry friends with "KNICKS???" in the subject heading.

If he spurns them, then suddenly we're looking at the most disastrous decade in the history of New York sports -- first the Layden Era, then the Isiah Era, then Walsh spending two years gutting the team so he could spend $100 million on a guy with a bad knee and a bad eye who hasn't played defense in six years. Do you realize the Knicks will have given away top-10 lottery picks in 2004, '06, '07, '09, '10 and, potentially, '11 and '12 without making the playoffs or landing one superstar? How is that even possible?

(Important note: The fact that David Stern stuck Rod Thorn in New Jersey, Walsh in New York, David Kahn in Minnesota and Stu Jackson in Vancouver has to be added to his Wikipedia page. Like, right now. He's the Pied Piper for putrid GMs.)

19. I always thought the goal was winning rings. That's what Russell, Bird, Magic and Jordan taught us. That's what I grew up believing. But sports are different now. You're a brand as much as an athlete. In the past 72 hours, with the suspense building for his announcement, LeBron created a Twitter account, launched his own website and agreed with ESPN on a one-hour live selection show that, incredibly, was the exact same idea that a Columbus reader named Drew had in my Thanksgiving '09 mailbag … but I thought he was kidding. Now I think he's Nostradamus. Or even Nostradamu-SAS.

Drew from Columbus looked into the future, and here's what he saw: A world in which it was totally conceivable that an NBA superstar would sell an hour-long show in which he picked his next team and tainted his legacy in the process. I played along and pushed a "Bachelor"-type setup ("The LeBrachelor!") in which LeBron whittled 29 teams down to six, then four, then two, then one over the course of six episodes. Hell, have him hand out roses. Why not? It's not like this would actually happen, right?

20. Seven months later, it's happening. I can't wait to watch for the same reasons I couldn't turn away from O.J.'s Bronco chase or the Artest melee: it's Car Wreck Television. If LeBron picks anyone other than the Cavaliers, it will be the cruelest television moment since David Chase ended "The Sopranos" by making everyone think they lost power. Cleveland fans will never forgive LeBron, nor should they. He knows better than anyone what kind of sports anguish they have suffered over the years. Losing LeBron on a contrived one-hour show would be worse than Byner's fumble, Jose Mesa, the Game 5 meltdown against Boston, The Drive, The Shot and everything else. At least those stomach-punch moments weren't preordained, unless you believe God hates Cleveland (entirely possible, by the way). This stomach-punch moment? Calculated. By a local kid they loved, defended and revered.

It would be unforgivable. Repeat: unforgivable. I don't have a dog in this race -- as a Celtics fan, I wanted to see him go anywhere but Chicago -- but LeBron doing this show after what happened in the 2010 playoffs actually turned me against him. No small feat. I was one of his biggest defenders. Not anymore.

And here's where I really worry, because I don't think LeBron James has anyone in his life with enough juice to hurl his or her body in front of the concept of "I'm going to announce during a one-hour live show that I'm playing somewhere other than Cleveland." It's the best and worst thing about him -- he has remained fiercely loyal to his high school friends, but at the same time, he's surrounded by people his own age who don't stand up to him and don't know any better. Picking anyone other than Cleveland on this show would be the meanest thing any athlete has ever done to a city. But he might. Assuming he's not malicious, and that he's just a self-absorbed kid who apparently lost all perspective, that doesn't make him much different than most child stars who became famous before they could legally drink -- or, for that matter, Tiger Woods. That's just the way this stuff works. Too much, too fast, too soon. You don't lose your way all at once; just a little at a time. Then one day you look up and there's a TMZ photo spread with 15 of your mistresses, or you're agreeing to stab an entire city in the heart on a one-hour television show.

(When Kevin Durant announced his own five-year, $86 million extension with an endearingly simple tweet yesterday, we all had the same thought: "Now that's how it's done." Pretty sad that an NBA star stood out for being humble and only caring about basketball.)

21. I don't think LeBron will pick Cleveland for the simple reason that he didn't want to meet with Tom Izzo a few weeks ago. If he was staying, he would have wanted to meet someone who may have been his next coach. He didn't care. That tells me he's gone. But what do I know?

22. I think he should pick Chicago, and if not the Bulls, then New York. But I live in a dream world where NBA superstars only care about winning titles and/or playing in the biggest basketball cities with sophisticated fans and tons of history. The truth is, New York might not mean anything to LeBron, just like college football recruits don't care about Notre Dame any more. He isn't old enough to remember Frazier's Knicks, or Bernard's Knicks … hell, he's barely old enough to remember Ewing's Knicks. And he might be too egotistical to follow Jordan in Chicago, like it was the sloppy seconds of NBA cities or something. But what do I know?

23. Before I heard that tonight's announcement was taking place in Greenwich, Conn., I would have bet anything on Miami … as well as my next column having the byline "William J. Simmons." The Greenwich thing threw me for a loop. I am still picking Miami. Cautiously. Then again, what do I know?

(Actually, I do know one thing: By going for 24 thoughts instead of 23, I have to nail only six of them to win the LeBronocalypse MVP. Let's go one more.)

24. The goofiest part of these past few weeks: The way media people have been speculating in a way that seems like a cross between learned information and opinion, except we're never really sure what's real and what's conjecture. Thanks to Twitter and the 24/7 news cycle, the lines have been blurred completely. Chuck Klosterman thinks the true hero of the LeBron saga is Brian Windhorst, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter who cranked out articles and Tweets by the boatload -- never speculation, always facts, always backed up by sources, and there were a couple of times when he made you wonder, "Wait a second, is Windhorst hiding under a table in LeBron's office right now?" Maybe he was.

Sifting through the various reports and tweets, trying to figure out fact from fiction, glancing at my BlackBerry every 15 seconds to see if anyone e-mailed me … that's what I'll remember from the LeBronocalypse more than anything else. And also, who knew anyone could keep a secret for this long in the Twitter/TMZ Era? Even yesterday, when I was batting around LeBron theories with my buddy Connor, we were breaking down the Greenwich thing and had this exchange:

-- Connor: "Greenwich, that's nine minutes from the Knicks' practice facility. That has to mean something."

-- Me (thinking): "Maybe they KNEW it was nine minutes from the Knicks' practice facility, so they put it there to throw people off the scent."

I mean … what the hell kind of sporting event is this? It's like college signing day crossed with JFK's assassination. LeBron's team wanted to keep people talking and promote his website, and really, that's what happened. The man nearly exploded Twitter and melted ESPN. He transcended free agency, the World Cup, everything. He will draw a massive television audience tonight; he's the only professional athlete who could have pulled that off.

What a week for LeBron's brand. I just hope he remembers to wipe the blood off the knife after he pulls it from Cleveland's back.

Bill Simmons is a columnist for ESPN.com and the author of the recent New York Times best-seller "The Book of Basketball." For every Simmons column and podcast, check out Sports Guy's World. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sportsguy33.

Bill Simmons (@BillSimmons) is the editor-in-chief of Grantland and the author of the New York Times no. 1 best-seller The Book of Basketball. For every Simmons column and podcast, log on to Grantland. To send him an e-mail, click here.
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