- Johnette Howard, ESPN.com columnist
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LeBron James is 20 years younger than Reggie Miller, so it's reasonable to wonder how much of the Indiana Pacers star's career the 25-year-old James actually remembers, now that James could be on the verge of becoming Miller every time he returns to Madison Square Garden. Knicks fans haven't had a villain they truly despised since Miller retired, but if James signs elsewhere as a free agent, he's teeing himself up for the full New York treatment.
Do you think James knows that if he jilts New York's team, he takes on the whole city?
Doormen would let go of doors right in his face. Cab drivers would blow right by him on Fifth Avenue. Boos would roll down like thunder from the very last row of the Garden's blue seats, and he'd be met with icy stares and cold-fish handshakes from Spike Lee and all the beautiful people with SAG cards sitting courtside.
The recrimination for James would be so loud, Chris Bosh wouldn't be able to hear anything James said during timeouts, even if he were standing right next to him in the Heat or Bulls huddle. The scorn that was heaped on Pat Riley after he quit the Knicks via fax to join Miami would look like just a little throat clearing. James' steaks will arrive cold when he goes to Sparks. The sushi will be piping hot when he drops in at Nobu. It won't be pretty.
Loathing James would be all that's left for Knicks fans who endured two lousy seasons and 103 losses by fantasizing that James would be the reward at the end.
The nauseating feeling that the Knicks are bracing to be spurned by James first started tickling the back of the throat during Thursday's NBA draft when Chicago, then Miami and now the Nets all started dumping even more salary in a madcap push to get closer to the $34 million in cap space the Knicks already had to sign two maximum-salary free agents.
Can you say "damage control"?
What happened to all the chest-pounding, swaggering talk that only the Knicks could offer James the chance to play in the World's Most Famous Arena and the world's largest media market and the world's most fabulous city?
The minute the Knicks talked about "if" James goes elsewhere, it sounded a whole lot like "when."
What do the Knicks already know that we don't? It could be nothing concrete. But if James doesn't come to New York, it would be devastating to a Knicks franchise that has overreached or blown the big things before.
The gripe isn't so much that the Knicks went all-in to chase James -- no complaints there. The fear is how they'll spend all that money if James jilts them.
Johnson and Stoudemire rejoining their old Suns coach Mike D'Antoni would make the Knicks Phoenix East, but what else? The Knicks would be better than they've been, all right. But an overnight title contender? Nope. Stoudemire has a balky knee. He and D'Antoni still have to prove they can win without Steve Nash. Otherwise D'Antoni and his "Seven Seconds or Less" fast-break offense risk finding a watery grave someday right next to Paul Westhead's playbook.
The Knicks' other alleged current strategy -- wanting a verbal commitment from Johnson to present on some velvet pillow when they meet with LeBron on Thursday -- is even more curious. The Knicks are behaving as if Johnson is on par with Dwyane Wade, when Johnson actually has a better chance to be the Knicks' second coming of Allan Houston.
Remember those heady, heady days when the Knicks actually used to talk about signing Wade himself, not just James? Those are long gone, too.
Knicks president Donnie Walsh looked absolutely daring and brilliant when he started blowing up the team's roster two years ago to get the Knicks in position for the Summer of LeBron. The problem is, Walsh couldn't copyright the idea. He's had many NBA imitators since.
To get to this point, Walsh traded away guys who have contributed elsewhere. He passed on signing David Lee to a long-term extension. The Knicks weren't even able to improve through the draft when they were lousy, like the Nets and Bulls have done. Isiah Thomas already had traded away many of those first-round picks, or the players the Knicks did choose aren't in New York anymore. (Taking Jordan Hill instead of Brandon Jennings really hurt.)
If the Knicks don't get James, this is what they have to show for the past 10 years of futility: Danilo Gallinari.
Again, Walsh's quest to land James had to be tried. All that talk that the NBA is a superstar league isn't exaggerated. Starting with 1998-99 season, the past 11 NBA titles have been split among Kobe Bryant (five), Tim Duncan (four), Kevin Garnett (one) and Dwayne Wade (one) -- all players who are either headed to the Hall of Fame or knocking on the door. Michael Jordan (six) and Hakeem Olajuwon (two) divvied up the previous eight titles before that.
So no one will blame you if you get in touch with your inner Pavarotti, Knicks fans. Start warming up the ol' pipes. Sharpen up your best insults, taunts and jibes.
That old sports axiom that what fans really root for is the laundry and not the players wearing it might never feel truer than if James is playing against the Knicks rather than for them the next time he visits the Garden. Either way, the place figures to be loud. It just might not be happy noise.
Reggie Miller can tell him what to expect.
If he signs elsewhere, LeBron can expect the Reggie Miller treatment at MSG.