Commentary

Can big pond lure big fish LeBron?

He's being koi, er, coy, but we'll know soon if James is ambitious enough to pick NY

Updated: June 11, 2010, 7:27 PM ET
By Johnette Howard | ESPNNewYork.com

We're going to learn a lot about who LeBron James really is in the next few weeks. Everything about how James has milked attention and handled his coming free agency on July 1 suggests he wants to be a big fish in a big pond, not a big fish playing out the prime of his career with the Cavaliers in a small pond like Cleveland, wondering what might have been.

But when it gets down to actually making the decision, will James be driven enough, tough enough, even deaf enough to criticism -- not just fame-mongering or money-hungry enough -- to come here and play for the New York Knicks?

As Alex Rodriguez found out, ambition only gets you in the door in New York. The rest is roulette.

[+] EnlargeLeBron James
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty ImagesKnicks fans are hoping LeBron will say hi and not bye come July.

Does James, 25, really have the guts to walk out on his home state of Ohio and a Cavs team that, however flawed, still led the league in wins this season? Does the NBA's biggest star want to start over in his eighth NBA season, shoulder everything that playing in a crucible like New York demands, then deliver on the court?

Will his loyalty to Cleveland trump the klieg lights New York can offer? His choice will tell us a lot.

If James is what he says he is -- a superstar determined to fulfill his destiny by winning multiple NBA titles, an aspiring entertainer and business mogul who speaks of making a billion dollars and excelling on myriad platforms like his tycoon friends Jay-Z and Warren Buffett -- then choosing New York is a no-brainer, right?

It's not necessarily the best basketball move James could make. The Chicago Bulls, not the Knicks or New Jersey Nets, have the best roster among the six teams with the salary-cap room to sign James. The Miami Heat at least have a proven winner, Pat Riley, in their front office. The Knicks haven't been able to crack the postseason for 10 straight years, and the Meadowlands-Newark-Brooklyn Nets narrowly avoided setting the record for losses this season.

What New York can offer James is the best perks: biggest market, rabid fans, the chance to hand-pick the other max free agent with whom he'd want to play for the Knicks.

He could headline in Madison Square Garden, the last legendary NBA arena.

If James brought the Knicks their first title since 1973, he'd be in the running for a place on the city's modern Mount Rushmore of sports, next to Mark Messier and Derek Jeter and Lawrence Taylor. He'd forever be spoken of in the same breath as Willis Reed and Walt Frazier.

LeBron's presence would guarantee that New York City wouldn't be a baseball town anymore. New York would feel like the center of the basketball universe again, something it hasn't felt like for quite a while. There would be a trickle-down effect. The drifting local college programs, the Rucker League, the pickup action on playgrounds from the Bronx to Brooklyn, Harlem to the West Village would all take on a different buzz. The city game would make a comeback. James would own the tabloids' back pages.

Dobbs New York is a place where you have to be able to take the good and the bad, look yourself in the mirror and be honest. Because you can't B.S. people here.

-- Alex Rodriguez,
on playing in New York

As Frazier himself has observed, the Knicks have never had the best player in the league on their team. Never. Even in 1970, Reed's best year, the other top center in the league was a guy named Wilt Chamberlain.

But that's not all James could walk into here.

No other city would give James the day-in, day-out access to the sort of power brokers and excitement he could routinely access in New York. The courtside seats at the Garden would be a hot ticket again. The stars and business kingpins would all turn out to see him. Here's how we know that matters to James: He regularly gasses up a private jet on Cavs off days during the season and flies to New York for events, concerts and meetings.

Who goes to those lengths if he doesn't have a genuine jones to be in the hum of New York?

James' ambition is boundless. He's already written a book, and he's shooting a movie this summer. He started a management firm that he's personally recruiting athletes to sign on to. He caught criticism last week for scheduling his first postseason interview -- a say-nothing sitdown with Larry King -- when it could have upstaged the NBA Finals. Then during the King interview, James laughed and lobbied for another guest-hosting gig on "Saturday Night Live" and -- James couldn't help himself -- volunteered that even President Barack Obama is following where he will sign.

All the stories about James' building his dream house 10 minutes from the projects where he grew up in Akron or being able to shop unbothered at his local mall are nice, even quaint. But is that really what a once-in-a-generation athlete puts a premium on? Gliding through the tire store or Best Buy unbothered?

It's still an open question if James has a stone-cold killer instinct that past champions Kobe, Jordan, Magic and Bird all had. People wonder.

But James knows that athletes from Babe Ruth to Reggie Jackson are all proof of how playing in New York can work a sort of alchemy on athletes' careers. No matter what James does in a smaller city, the same athletic feats would be writ larger in sports history if he accomplished them here. The city's Midas touch is so strong that even visiting athletes have felt the spillover effects.

Would Pirates second baseman Bill Mazeroski, a defensive whiz and career .260 hitter, really have gotten into the Hall of Fame if that Game 7 walk-off homer he struck in the 1960 World Series had come against anyone but the Yankees? Would Pacers guard Reggie Miller enjoy lasting renown or have a documentary made about him if that hadn't been the Knicks he torched in their epic 1995 Eastern Conference finals showdown?

Miller likes to say that if you can't wear the white hat in New York, the next-best thing is realizing "some people had to wear the black hat ... There had to be someone the crowd had to go after. And it was me."

A-Rod is the most recent athlete whose stature and ambition to come to New York most closely compares to James. For A-Rod, even being paid obscenely well by the Texas Rangers never rubbed out the feeling that he was playing summer stock all those years while the real action was happening elsewhere. When asked the other day whether he had any advice to give James, Rodriguez said, "To me, New York is a place where people come to be challenged. I think New York is the greatest place in the world to play. … No place is more rewarding. But New York is tough, too. New York is a place where you have to be able to take the good and the bad, look yourself in the mirror and be honest. Because you can't B.S. people here."

James is getting accused of some B.S.-ing now. David Falk, Michael Jordan's longtime agent, has suggested that James' priorities and grandstanding way of doing business are out of whack. Back in Cleveland, a backlash has been building against James since the Cavs were upset by Boston in the second round of the playoffs. He's been accused of being too cavalier about losing, too distracted by his other interests, too egotistical or coy about his plans.

Again, the choice James makes will tell us a lot about him.

Can James, who went from high school straight to the pros, pull the trigger and leave the only home he's ever known? Would he risk being treated like a pariah every time he went back? And if he is willing to wear the black hat -- Miller's term -- couldn't that portend that he really might be able to handle the heat in New York?

A James-to-the-Nets signing would be the apocalypse scenario for the Knicks. Right now, it's an open question whether James prefers the Knicks' old-school appeal or whether he could really be swayed by his friend Jay-Z and the makeover the Nets are promising under new owner Mikhail Prokhorov -- the live-wire Russian billionaire who already has been talking smack about taking the city away from the Knicks. He's even running TV commercials about a new era during the NBA Finals. Already, Prokhorov sounds like Mark Cuban East.

Choosing the Nets wouldn't be the first time James preferred the unconventional.

Seven years ago on the night he came to the Garden knowing he'd be the first overall pick in the NBA draft, the 18-year-old James was asked by a reporter why in the world he had expressed a preference to play in Cleveland. James smiled at the older man as if he knew something he didn't, then said, "I'm pretty sure when I get there it's gonna be lit up like Vegas on a Saturday night."

Only someone who yearns to be a star talks like that.

Big Fish, your Big Pond is calling.

What's your answer going to be?

Johnette Howard is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

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