Commentary

Will 'New York LeBron' win out?

He's an Ohio player and a big-city businessman. So which side of LBJ matters most?

Originally Published: April 2, 2010
By Brian Windhorst | Special to ESPN.com

LeBron JamesIcon SMI/Getty ImagesLeBron James' roots are in Cleveland … But New York may be calling his "business" side.

When trying to understand the psychology of the huge decision LeBron James must make this summer, first you have to meet and understand Cleveland LeBron.

This is perfectly illustrated at just about every Cavaliers home game, where James immerses himself in a level of comfort he's spent seven years developing.

When he gets introduced, his first handshake routine is with Randy Mims, a close friend and business associate who has been with James for every home and road game during his NBA career. Mims, who is employed by the Cavs as a player liaison, sits behind the bench during games as well.

Also there every day is Mike Mancias, the team's assistant athletic trainer who also serves as James' personal workout coach. They do yoga together in hotel rooms, Mancias puts him through a 20-minute stretching routine after practices and before games, and he's on James' private jet as he crosses the globe in the offseason for various commitments.

So too is Chris Jent, the Cavs assistant coach who also qualifies as James' personal shooting coach. It is under Jent's guidance that James has become a stronger shooter and more efficient scorer. Before every game, Jent puts James through a shooting routine. He does the same in the summer, whether James is in Los Angeles shooting a commercial or on vacation in Europe.

Next to the Cavs bench in the front row is usually Maverick Carter, the CEO of James' LRMR Marketing company, a lifelong friend and former high school teammate. Also seated there is Rich Paul, another of James' friends and business associates. Carter shares the four seats with NBA behind-the-scenes operator Wes Wesley, who also sits courtside for numerous James games, both home and road.

James' mother, Gloria, sits in floor seats close by every night. Sometimes James' oldest son, LeBron Jr., 5, sits with her. The cheerleaders always make sure LeBron Jr. gets a mini basketball, which he will dribble through the hallways after the game, mimicking his dad. Behind them, often in a floor box, is where James' long-term girlfriend, Savannah Brinson, usually sits.

[+] EnlargeJames
David Liam Kyle/NBAE/Getty ImagesLeBron's family and friends are always right with him in Cleveland.

Back in the family room, next to the posh locker room where James gets two lockers, there are toys that his children like in a playroom and a fridge stocked with drinks and little snacks they enjoy. That's also where more of James' family, friends and employees -- like his personal bodyguard -- relax and enjoy pre- and postgame meals from a personal chef.

A 40-minute drive away is James' dream home, which took him nearly three years to build, on the outskirts of his hometown of Akron, Ohio. It is not in a gated community, and he generally is left alone by neighbors. Nearby are several of his favorite restaurants, at which he's never bothered, and a mall where he routinely shops with minimal interruption.

When he was still talking about free agency, James said he wanted to compete for championships and be somewhere where he was most comfortable. Right now, that place seems like Cleveland.

"I've been a Cav for seven years now," James said. "And I've never given any indication I was leaving."

That envelope of comfort and protection he enjoys in Northeast Ohio is a big part of the James story, a part that many might not understand when they project what James is going to do this offseason, when he can opt out of his contract and hit the free-agent market.

But it isn't the whole story. There's another side to James, and this is the fraction of his personality that still unnerves the Cavs organization that has done all it can to bring James coziness and surround him with high-priced talent. And it is what scares so many Cavs fans to their very core.

It is another personality, even if it doesn't come out as often as his Akron-rooted sensibilities.

It is New York LeBron.

That's the James who gets in his jet to fly to New York to attend parties, restaurant openings or concerts on off nights during the season. It is the James who loves fashion, being on magazine covers and hanging out with Jay-Z, his mentor, who made a name for himself by conquering the New York music scene. It is the James who once said he wanted to earn a billion dollars and who has devoted his off-court time to developing business interests.

It is the James who took no shame in wearing a Yankees hat to an Indians playoff game three years ago, a move many Clevelanders took as a direct insult. It is also the James who, despite his statements about being happy at home, has also been sure to leave his options open in every statement about his future.

It is the James who keeps invoking the term "business" when discussing his future -- not the emotion Cavs fans want to hear, especially when the business capital of the country is in play as his other option. And especially when he talks in a removed, third-person manner.

"When July 1 gets here, I'm going to approach it like a businessman," James said in November before issuing a moratorium on all free-agent talk. "And I'm going to approach it for the best fit for LeBron and his family."

There will be other opportunities, of course. There are the Miami Heat, who offer wonderful weather and the chance to play with Dwyane Wade. There are the Chicago Bulls, a team James grew up rooting for, and one that features a good young core led by Derrick Rose. There are even the Los Angeles Clippers, another team with a young core in the most glamorous of towns, even if the thought of James pairing with owner Donald Sterling seems ridiculous.

But while James might not be able to pass up at least having a meeting to listen to what owner-to-be Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov has to say, those who know James firmly believe it is a two-horse race. Cleveland and New York. Or is it -- just maybe -- New York and Cleveland?

For James to leave and carve a scar in his hometown as deep as when the Cleveland Browns left in 1995 -- an ordeal James lived through and remembers well -- the only possible justification could be for the brightest lights.

A student of the game who is keenly aware of the present, James fully understands all facets of the decision. And the impact on fans in Cleveland, as well as on those in New York.

[+] EnlargeJay-Z/Lebron James
Johnny Nunez/WireImageLeBron enjoys hitting the New York night life with good friend Jay-Z.

"You look at history. It is like the Yankees. The big-time franchises that have a lot of history, it is hard for the fans to look at what they've been looking at the last few years," James said earlier this season.

"Because they know the history of what has gone into the Garden. So I can understand that as a fan, and I know, because I know the history of the game. I think the league is doing just fine, but with the Knicks being good, the Celtics being good, the Lakers being good, it makes the league that much better. I'm talking as a fan now, please understand that."

Another little trait of New York LeBron: the teaser.

In 2008, in the moments after the Cavs lost a brutal Game 7 battle to the freshly reloaded and soon-to-be champion Celtics, James was crushed and emotional. After shedding the hint of a tear in the locker room, he dressed and walked into the press conference and demanded roster upgrades, or else. Afraid of the "or else," the Cavs made three huge trades over the next two seasons and committed themselves to an additional $150 million to bring in players Shaquille O'Neal, Mo Williams and Antawn Jamison, not to mention re-signing Delonte West and Anderson Varejao to long-term contracts.

In the meantime, the Knicks have undertaken a painful two-year project of ripping their team to shreds in the hope they could sign James. General manager Donnie Walsh has had to make a series of bad trades with the plan of saving money, even as the team has spiraled into its ninth straight losing season -- all without being sure it will even work.

"I understand why people haven't done this before, because it's a very tough decision to make in an area like New York," Walsh told ESPN. "But there's no understanding, or 'I know what I'm doing' as far as specifics. No. We're like the rest of the world. We have to go in there and try to get the best players we can."

For James, maybe neither team's moves will mean anything. He hasn't had to worry about his future; he knows the options will be there. As he's about to wrap up his second Most Valuable Player award, he hasn't lost any sleep. He thinks about it, but he doesn't obsess like the teams trying to sign him.

That's why, sources close to him say, nobody really knows what James is going to do. Not even his closest friends and family. Maybe James doesn't either. He has the luxury of not concerning himself with it until July and still having plenty of desirable choices.

That's why the Cavs, despite their cautious optimism that he'll re-sign for at least three more years, still lose sleep. And the Knicks, despite their empty cupboard and miserable recent history, still get goosebumps.

"I don't tease; I've never teased New York," James said. " For me to say, 'I'm not going to be a Knick, I'm going to be a Cav' or 'I'm going to be a Knick, I'm not going to be a Cav,' I'm not going to do that. I did the three-year contract for a reason. I'm going to leave my options open."

Brian Windhorst covers the Cavaliers for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. You can read more of his coverage at cleveland.com/cavs.

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