- Brian Windhorst, ESPN.com
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MIAMI -- Only LeBron James knows what was truly in his heart and mind last July. But on the first day he became a free agent, the vibe was apparent:
The New York Knicks, the team that had eyed him for years, were already out.
James is in New York with the Heat for the first time since spurning the Knicks' major recruitment pitch last summer. When the Heat play the Knicks on Friday (7 p.m. ET on ESPN), it will probably be the first time James comes to Madison Square Garden to actually play a meaningful game in his career. James and the Knicks have never been in the playoffs in the same season, much less played a game with postseason ramifications.
The last several years, his visits to New York have been little more than veiled flirtation from both parties, then plenty of James dominating weak Knicks teams.
All of it was supposed to lead to fireworks come July 1, 2010, when the Knicks would have huge salary-cap space and the draw of Broadway. But all that build-up turned out to massively outsize the reality.
"I considered all the six teams that I had my free agent meetings with," James said diplomatically Wednesday night. "It wasn't that New York wasn't the right fit, it just wasn't the best fit."
Read it this way: The Knicks were ultimately in the same boat as the Los Angeles Clippers.
James and his camp kept their cards relatively close in the days leading up to July and during their week in the worldwide spotlight. After all, they were able to organize a prime-time cable television show without his choice becoming public until less than 48 hours before the telecast.
But one piece of information was out there from numerous sources -- the Knicks weren't even in James' top three. This was hard for many people, especially the Knicks themselves, to understand. But the word was out, loud and clear, just the same.
Even after the Knicks struck first in free agency and got a commitment from Amare Stoudemire, they weren't able to significantly impress James. He sent that message to the Knicks when they made a last-ditch effort to recruit him by calling in Isiah Thomas from Florida to go to Ohio after the Stoudemire signing.
Thomas didn't even get past James' gatekeeper.
"I looked at all my options," James said when asked if the Stoudemire pickup changed his viewpoint. "The Knicks being one of my options, yes I looked at it."
Polite, but simply, James wasn't interested.
Being there in Cleveland for meeting day, it was stunningly obvious the uphill battle the Knicks -- the destination that seemed to be the biggest threat to steal James away from his home state -- were facing right from the start.
The Knicks were the second team to meet with James, which seemed just fine. Unless you were in the building's lobby watching the scene.
New York also suffered a major blow when James decided to hold his meetings at an office building in Cleveland and not to do a tour across the country as was originally planned. The Knicks were planning a home run swing. They were recruiting celebrities to showcase New York and looking for spaces to hold a major party that he couldn't get in Cleveland.
Instead they ended up presenting the antithesis of the image they wanted to that morning in Cleveland.
First in to see James were the New Jersey Nets. Their representatives walked out after their meeting beaming. There was the tall and tan Mikhail Prokhorov, who had flown in from the south of France on his G550 to meet with James. He stopped in New York to pick up Jay-Z, one of James' closest friends, and a well-dressed and smiling Avery Johnson among other executives.
Winning appeals to me, it is all about winning, I said it all summer. I'm not about saving franchises.
”-- LeBron James
Jay-Z, who was on his way to his own private jet to fly to Europe for a concert right after the meeting with James, left the Knicks' party waiting in the lobby so he could have a private session with James.
That stylish cast sold the New York/Brooklyn market as slickly as head salesman Brett Yormark could have hoped. Less than two minutes later, in came the Knicks.
Their party was led by the slumping shoulders of James Dolan and Donnie Walsh, who is one of the best basketball minds of the last 25 years but who was wearing a neck brace and using a walker after surgery.
Former Knick Allan Houston and coach Mike D'Antoni were in the party, but the contrast between the Knicks and Nets contingents was startling. It may not be fair to say it, and there were certainly circumstances, but there was simply no getting around it. One would appeal to a 25-year-old superstar and one wouldn't.
Then, sources have said, they gave a presentation that wasn't all that different than the Nets'. Within a few minutes of the Knicks' meeting, James was out of the building and on his way to lunch.
So if the Knicks couldn't soundly beat out the Nets on Day 1, how could they hope to beat the Heat, Pat Riley's charisma and grand free agency plan, or the Bulls' remarkable young roster in a desirable city James always admired, or even the hometown Cavs?
The answer was they just couldn't.
Despite all those cap-clearing trades, all of Walsh's discipline in staying the course and all the losses during the wait, the Knicks never got deep in the game.
"Winning appeals to me, it is all about winning, I said it all summer," James said. "I'm not about saving franchises."
Life moves on. The Knicks are doing just fine. The Garden is rocking again. Stoudemire is mounting a MVP campaign. Carmelo Anthony might be on the horizon.
James isn't giving a second thought to the past even if Knicks fans might have their say when James comes to visit. But unlike Cleveland there will be no extra emotion from James because he never had an attachment to New York.
"No one is going to actually try to come up to me and try to hurt me," James said. "They may wait until I walk down the street and yell it after they've walked past me. I'll go out to eat and if there is something going on [Thursday] night, I may hang out. No one is going to do anything, I'm a big guy, man."
New York was never a major player for LeBron James.