Commentary

Only one choice for LeBron's kingdom

New York offers far, far more than James' other suitors

Updated: April 2, 2010, 7:43 PM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPNNewYork.com

A dozen days will pass before the Knicks go underground, before they leave LeBron James and his playoff-worthy peers with a wink and a tweak of a smoky Sinatra line -- excuse us while we disappear.

Another grim Garden season will be complete, and then a city of 8 million point guards will fast-forward past the Finals and the draft and stop dead on the stroke of midnight, July 1, when Knicks president Donnie Walsh makes what could be the biggest phone call in the history of New York sports.

LeBron, this is Donnie. Will you stay or will you go?

Actually, that first call will go to James' agent, Leon Rose. But no rep is making this decision. Only an athlete with a "Chosen 1" tattoo racing across his comic-book back can decide what, exactly, he was chosen to do.

To lead the hometown Cavaliers to a title or three? To save the big-market Knicks from themselves?

James should pick Door No. 2. Win, lose or draw in the playoffs, he should honor the magnitude of his game, his persona and his appeal and do a summer deal with the Knicks that would reduce the sale of Babe Ruth to a story the size of a rosin bag.

No, this isn't to say a start-to-finish career in Cleveland amounts to a bad option. The Cavaliers have been good to LeBron. They've built a consistent contender around him, and, of course, they'll pay him the maximum wage to stay, some $30 million more than the Knicks are allowed to bid.

And let's face it: If Cleveland was good enough for Jim Brown, it should be good enough for LeBron James.

Only it's not quite good enough when measured against New York. This isn't about the pizza, or the weather, or the nightlife, or whatever default positions writers often embrace when elevating one market at the expense of another.

This is about legacy, and one too important to be left in the hands of a New York columnist with an agenda.

Yes, I want to cover the world's best player. Yes, I want the Garden to be the Garden again. Yes, I needed to run into Pat Riley at last month's Big East tournament -- the two of us talking about '93 and '94 and '95 -- to remember what the city was like when the Knicks were playing for a title, even if they didn't win one.

So the pitch to LeBron belongs to more prominent voices, to past and present combatants in the New York arena, to five men from other corners of America and one plucked right off the asphalt of Rucker Park.

They all believe the Chosen One would benefit from choosing the Knicks. Only the former baller from Rucker Park, Donnie Walsh, was prohibited under David Stern's law from saying so.

LeBron JamesJesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty ImagesLeBron James will have the basketball world at his feet when July 1 rolls around.

The captain

Back in the day, Willis Reed never saw anything like LeBron James.

"Guys like him hadn't been invented yet," Reed said.

Reed grew up on a farm in Bernice, La. He didn't want to be drafted by the Knicks, if only because that meant he wouldn't be drafted in a first round that included seven picks.

He was angry when taken at No. 8 and stayed angry until his heart set a blind pick on his brain. Reed loved New York, and New York loved him right back.

So he had no choice but to shoot up his injured leg with carbocaine, hobble down the Garden tunnel for Game 7 in 1970 and score those four forever points over Wilt the Stilt.

The adrenaline was far more powerful than the carbocaine, or Chamberlain's Lakers, and Reed wants LeBron to feel the orgasmic rush he felt during that only-in-New York night.

[+] EnlargeWillis Reed
Jack Arent/NBAE via Getty ImagesWillis Reed, a self-proclaimed 'country boy,' embraced the Big Apple during his time with the Knicks.

"I was a country boy in the city; I didn't even know what a point spread was when I arrived," said Reed. "And New York turned out to be the greatest thing that ever happened to me.

"I don't know LeBron well enough to say he'd be comfortable in the city, but I do know this: There's no place like New York. It's just the way it is.

"So if you're asking me as a Knicks fan, I really hope when all is said and done that LeBron's wearing a New York Knickerbocker uniform. That's my wish.

"I mean, do you want to win a championship in New York or Sacramento?"

The captain II

In 1991, Mark Messier didn't need New York half as much as New York needed him. Messier had won five Stanley Cups with the Oilers in his native Edmonton, Alberta, or five more than the Rangers had won since 1940.

Little did Messier know that No. 6 would define him in ways that one through five never could.

Messier guaranteed a Game 6 victory over the Devils in the '94 conference finals, delivered a hat trick and finally grabbed the Stanley Cup on Garden ice before letting loose his MGM lion's roar.

"Because it was New York and we hadn't won in so long," Messier said, "even if you weren't a hockey fan you were tuning in. It became bigger than hockey and bigger than the Stanley Cup."

He would find it very appealing to be on the New York stage.

-- Former Rangers captain Mark Messier

Messier, who is currently special assistant to Rangers GM Glen Sather, is the Greek god of hockey, just as LeBron James is the Greek god of hoops. The one who ended a 54-year drought wants the other to try to end a drought at 37 years and counting.

"I don't know LeBron personally," Messier said, "but everything I've heard says he has tremendous character, he's a competitor, he has integrity, all those things that make superstars superstars. He would find it very appealing to be on the New York stage.

"He'd come in, and you know he'd deliver. I think when you add it all up, there's not one person in this area who doesn't want LeBron James on the New York Knicks, and I think I can speak for everybody."

The executive

Ten minutes after midnight, July 1, 1996, Garden president Dave Checketts phoned David Falk, who happened to represent a free agent named Michael Jordan.

"Michael's done all he can for the Bulls; now it's time for him to come to New York and help Patrick [Ewing] win a championship," Checketts told Falk. "Here's all of our cap room. Everything we have is yours. If Michael comes back to me and says we have to trade Player X, as long as it's not Patrick, I'll do it."

Jordan rejected the Knicks' bid, but he later told Checketts that he was flattered by the sentiment and intrigued by the notion of playing in New York.

Ousted years later in a power struggle with Garden czar James Dolan, Checketts is in no mood to help Dolan close the deal on LeBron that he couldn't close on Jordan.

"But if I was [the Knicks] right now," said Checketts, owner of the St. Louis Blues and Major League Soccer champ Real Salt Lake, "I'd get A-Rod and Eli Manning and Derek Jeter in a room with LeBron on July 1."

The Knicks can't sell a credible product right now, Checketts reasoned, so they have to sell the benefits the city offers to baseball and football stars who have bathed in a ticker-tape rain.

"When you win in New York you are immortalized," Checketts said. "LeBron will win in Cleveland if he stays and be revered for a long time, but it still wouldn't equal what winning one or several in New York would mean to him.

"I've been gone from the Garden almost nine years, and there's a reason I've never moved back home [to Utah]. I still have my office on Park Avenue. If LeBron ever does go to the Knicks, he'll find out there isn't a better place in the free world than New York."

The slugger

[+] EnlargeReggie Jackson
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesReggie Jackson spurned the Dodgers for a chance to play under the bright lights of New York.

Reggie Jackson wanted to be a Dodger. He wanted to play in that ballpark, with that lineup and pitching staff, at least until George Steinbrenner opened his vault.

The next fall, in 1977, Jackson hit three World Series homers on three consecutive Game 6 pitches thrown by three different Dodgers arms. What would've been the impact on Jackson's legacy had he delivered that epic performance in the colors of, say, the Cleveland Indians?

"It would be significantly smaller," Mr. October said.

So would two or three LeBron titles in New York be bigger than four or five LeBron titles in Cleveland?

"I'd definitely agree with that," said Jackson, who recently hosted a weekly call-in show on Sirius radio. "If Jordan won four in New York rather than six in Chicago, he'd be even bigger than he is now.

"There's only one city like New York, even if the Knicks' brand isn't the Yankees' brand. The Knicks don't have [Babe] Ruth, [Lou] Gehrig, [Joe] DiMaggio, [Mickey] Mantle and [Derek] Jeter. In the NBA you have the Lakers and the Celtics.

"But the New York Knicks' brand is just waiting for someone to plant a seed there. If it's LeBron, that brand will grow like wildfire."

The recruiter

Brian Cashman met LeBron James once at a Yankees game.

"I was introduced to him, and I was in awe of who I was meeting," the GM said.

Cashman also was in the Cleveland stands in 2007 when James famously made his grand AL Division Series entrance wearing a Yankees cap, drawing boos from the home crowd. If James made an impression on the GM, Cashman was more interested in watching LeBron's buddy, CC Sabathia, who would become the Yankees' No. 1 free-agent priority a year later.

Known for his California cool, Sabathia wasn't eager to pitch in the Bronx.

"I told him about the Thanksgiving Day parade, and how he can be the grand marshal. I said, 'Hey, I'm from Lexington, Ky., and if you want to live somewhere quiet, I've got Connecticut and New Jersey. Westchester is a mixture of both. If you want a busy place with a lot of choices, Jeter and [Jorge] Posada are in Manhattan.'"

Cashman sold LeBron's buddy on the schools, the nearby beaches, the eclectic beauty of the tri-state area. So what would he tell LeBron to persuade him to sign that letter of intent?

"If you accomplish something in New York," Cashman said, "it's better than anywhere else. It's the toughest place to fail, but it's the best place to be successful. And we all know LeBron James will be successful no matter where he goes."

The boss

As a teenage prospect out of Riverdale, Donnie Walsh was told to report to the city's most storied outdoor court. Holcombe Rucker assigned the kid to a team, and with some 2,000 fans wrapped around the playground, Walsh savored the best playing experience of his life.

[+] EnlargeLeBron and Jay-Z
AP Photo/Andy KropaJames and good friend Jay-Z could see more of each other if the Cavs star picks the Knicks this summer.

More than a half century later, Walsh returned home to give back to the city. "That's the whole challenge for me," he said. "At first when I talked about this job, I thought, 'Geez, I don't know if I want to take this on.' The thing that got me was, it would be so great if I can help get New York back."

Walsh and the man hired to be his chief recruiter, Mike D'Antoni, have endured two brutal seasons to get from there to here. In the mind-numbing grayness of defeat, Walsh found a beacon of light -- in the crowd.

"To see the team supported the way we've been the last two years is really unusual," he said. "It makes you think, 'What if we had a better team and star players?' It's incredible what it would be."

A cancer survivor at 69, the map of the city's subway system written all over his face, Walsh isn't afraid of the buildup to July 1. As much as he's tried to temper expectations about the summer and all that cap space, Walsh knows what the average fan is thinking.

It's LeBron or LeBust.

"I don't think any city's like this when it comes to what kind of attention a great player would get," Walsh said. "You're talking Babe Ruth and being an icon. To me, that is what the Knicks have to offer and what New York has to offer.

"We're going to go for it."

The conclusion

In the end, LeBron James won't be listening to Donnie Walsh or Leon Rose or Warren Buffett on this one. James will find the answer within, and not in the fine print of a Nike deal that doesn't offer a big-market bump.

He loves Cleveland yet also loves the Knicks fans who chanted for him to be league MVP and who stood and cheered for him when he dropped 50 on the home team.

"To get a standing ovation in the greatest basketball arena in the world is a dream come true for me," James said then.

He can live the dream night after night after night. He can own New York the way Jordan owned Chicago and Kobe owns L.A. He can be bigger than his cherished Yankees, bigger than everyone from No. 2 (Jeter) back to No. 3 (Ruth).

No, Cleveland isn't a bad option at all. It just happens to be the second-best option on the July 1 board.

Ian O'Connor is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

Ian O'Connor

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Ian O'Connor has won numerous national awards as a sports columnist and is the author of three books, including the bestseller, "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." ESPN Radio broadcasts "The Ian O'Connor Show" every Sunday from 7 to 9 a.m. ET. Follow Ian on Twitter »

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