Commentary

Knicks' biggest game? Landing LeBron

After two years of pain for hopes of a July 2010 gain, New York can't come up empty

Updated: July 1, 2010, 8:34 AM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPNNewYork.com

LeBron JamesJesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty ImagesThe Knicks will have their chance to convince King James that New York is the place to be.

The New York Knicks of Jim Dolan and Donnie Walsh and Mike D'Antoni have not won many games, but they do have a chance to win this one. When there seemed a better chance of President Obama's family vacationing with Gen. McChrystal's than there was of LeBron James signing with New York, James sent word the Knicks should land in Ohio ready to play.

The Thursday afternoon meeting is hardly a courtesy interview, the Knicks have been assured. Were they worried in recent days when LeBron was signed, sealed and delivered to every team except the Washington Generals? Sure they were.

Yet they were also encouraged by the mixed signals and confusing audibles coming out of the James camp. LeBron would land in Chicago, then he would land in Miami, then he would stay with the Cleveland Cavs, then he would be seduced by Mikhail Prokhorov and kiss Cleveland goodbye from Russia with love.

[+] EnlargeDonnie Walsh & Mike D'Antoni
AP Photo/Richard DrewMike D'Antoni (left) and Donnie Walsh (right), along with owner Jim Dolan, will have an audience with LeBron James on Thursday.

The Knicks weren't even part of the narrative anymore, except as a punch line. Only they weren't ready to laugh along. And what of William Wesley, the mysterious dealmaker known as World Wide Wes, the James camp member who was supposedly telling everyone the Knicks were out of it?

"Now it seems he is the one who's out," said one source familiar with the Knicks' thinking.

So they'll fly from their scheduled late night Los Angeles meetings with Joe Johnson and Mike Miller to their afternoon sitdown with James fueled by possibility and hope.

LeBron will give the Knicks a few hours to make the sale. No, the on-site recruiting team won't include the likes of Alec Baldwin because, you know, coffee is for closers.

And the only way for the Knicks to close this deal is by talking basketball with James. Winning basketball. The kind they haven't played in the Garden in a very long time.

For better or for worse, Mike D'Antoni will be the centerpiece of the sell. The coach will tell James his freewheeling offense was built for him, and hope LeBron's doubts about the Knicks' defense last seven seconds or less.

Beyond offering James the chance to fill their second max slot with the fellow free agent he prefers, the Knicks also plan to pump up Danilo Gallinari, whose potential LeBron likes. The team will show James that Gallinari's stats compare favorably to those belonging to Peja Stojakovic, Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu (and aren't far behind Dirk Nowitzki's) at the same stage of their careers.

The Knicks will have Dolan look James in the eye and tell him how much more in luxury taxes he's willing to spend than Chicago's Jerry Reinsdorf and Miami's Micky Arison. Dolan isn't anyone's idea of a dynamic speaker, but he has the numbers to support his case. The Knicks' owner will pay the price for a missing piece when (he won't say "if") his team is a contender.

Donnie Walsh? If he arrives in a wheelchair -- FDR style -- because of recent neck surgery, that shouldn't be an issue. Walsh can always point out, "Hey, at least I'm staying to run my team," a claim that can't be made by the New Jersey Nets' Rod Thorn, who will have a lot of explaining to do when he bats leadoff Thursday morning.

Walsh will remind James that nobody thought he could get the Knicks this far under the cap, and that he's fully capable of adding a move or two to Eddy Curry's expiring deal and making another big score next summer.

The meeting should be low on small talk. The Knicks are scheduled to deliver a video presentation for LeBron, and it's not expected to go heavy on Stephon Marbury highlights. James doesn't have any more use for Marbury than does D'Antoni, but the coach might need to answer questions from LeBron and other free agents concerned about D'Antoni's treatment of Marbury, Nate Robinson and Larry Hughes.

At some point the Knicks might remind James of his own words the night he dropped 50 in the Garden. "To get a standing ovation in the greatest arena in the world is a dream come true for me," James said back then.

He can live that dream 41 nights a season, plus playoffs. It might be hard for a Knicks fan to remember what the Garden felt and sounded like when it shook for a great player on a great home team.

The other day, with the free agency clock winding down to the witching hour, the Garden scoreboard was lowered nearly to the ground, the court stripped away for a concert. The building was dark. In the rafters the jerseys of Frazier and Barnett, McGuire and Monroe, Reed and DeBusschere, Bradley and Ewing and Holzman were hanging in haunting stillness.

A forklift operator was moving this and that, and some men in hardhats came and went. The Garden is in the early stages of a transformation that will cost up to $850 million, and Dolan is expected to tell James all about that.

But if it's time to rebuild the arena, this is no time to rebuild the team. The Knicks haven't taken a playoff series in 10 seasons, and after enduring two years of pain for the sake of a July 2010 gain, they can't come up empty for their fan base.

In two weeks they can't possibly throw up their hands and say, "Sorry, but we tried." The Knicks have to sign somebody, and somebody worth the wage.

They haven't won a big game in ages. Thursday in Ohio, the Knicks have no choice but to play above the rim.

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

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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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