- Ian O'Connor, ESPN Senior Writer
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Before they talked about love and basketball with LeBron James, the Knicks opened their video presentation Thursday with a scene from a LeBron favorite. Suddenly James Gandolfini and Edie Falco were Tony and Carmela Soprano, maybe for the last time, and the look on LeBron's face said he was hoping this show would last an hour or three.
Tony hadn't been killed off by David Chase after all. He was wearing a beard and living with his wife under the cover of the witness protection program, and Tony was telling Carmela he had an important friend coming to town. A friend who needed a place to stay. A friend named LeBron James.
Carmela scanned her computer for the ideal midtown spot, and when she told Tony she'd found the right place for a man of James' stature, the final shot wasn't half as suspenseful as The Sopranos' final scene in the diner.
Madison Square Garden was the iconic image on the screen, the arena James has called his favorite place to play. From there LeBron would hear taped testimonials to the power of big-city winning from Willis Reed, Mark Messier, Reggie Jackson and Earl Monroe. Spike Lee and Rudy Giuliani had their parts on the video, and Chris Rock told some jokes.
But the Knicks weren't kidding around. They did their homework. Yeah, they knew LeBron loved The Sopranos. They also knew LeBron loved talking about the transition game more.
So Mike D'Antoni spent more than half this meeting on the eighth floor of a Cleveland building talking basketball with a basketball player. Suddenly a high-stakes summit with hundreds of millions of dollars on the line was reduced to a two-man huddle you'd find in shoebox gyms all across America.
A coach was drawing up X's and O's for a ballplayer, the two of them engaged in a Rockwellian scene that no max-out talks could taint.
The Knicks had their two hours and change in LeBron's presence, with Allan Houston staying behind for a few minutes to get the final word, athlete to athlete, man to man. James proved to be as gifted a poker player as he is a small forward. He didn't reveal much to either the Knicks or the Nets that day, and he also planned to cover his cards for the Heat, Clippers, Cavaliers and Bulls.
The Nets all but did an end zone dance when their sitdown was done, while the Knicks simply handed the ball to the ref. So as the Knicks got hot after Amare Stoudemire, the coach and the team president and the owner, Jim Dolan, were floored when word hit that their LeBron presentation went LeBust, that James was now more likely to sign with the Maple Leafs than with the Knicks.
You can accuse the Knicks and the Garden of fouling up a lot of perfectly good game nights in recent years, but few in the business of sports are better at putting on a show. The Garden knows how to entertain, and it's hard to believe its people spent months piecing together a sales pitch that just cost them any chance of signing James.
The Knicks believe they've been victimized by the kind of negative recruiting that defines major college sports, and hey, it happens, on both sides of the aisle. Former Knicks president Dave Checketts said he and ex-running mate Ernie Grunfeld routinely tried to sabotage any acquisition being made by the Chicago Bulls.
That was then, this is now. Right now, today, it seems the only people in the NBA who want the Knicks to land LeBron are drawing a paycheck from them.
Everyone has an agenda here -- teams, players, agents, people inside LeBron's camp, people who want to get inside LeBron's camp. The Knicks have an agenda, too. They want to sign James a whole lot more than they want to sign Stoudemire.
The Nets feel the same. They declared a border war on the Knicks when they posted the skyscraper-sized image of Mikhail Prokhorov, their billionaire owner, and Jay-Z, his one-percent partner, right in Dolan's face. This fight isn't going to get any prettier over the next 48 hours.
Of course, the Knicks' best response to all this is to, you know, sign LeBron James. Toward that end, they did their research. They found out LeBron loves kids, and so they showed him a video on their Garden of Dreams charity for children in need.
Walsh spoke of his ability to work the salary cap and keep a LeBron-led Knicks team in contention for the long haul. Dolan told James about his Steinbrennerian willingness to spend, spend and spend some more on luxury taxes. James heard about the $850 million being poured into a new and improved Garden, and the president of MSG Sports, Scott O'Neil, showed LeBron the commissioned study explaining how he could become a billionaire in New York.
Mostly the Knicks gave the ball to D'Antoni and let him discuss basketball with his blue-chip recruit. The former Olympic assistant and former Olympic star talked about offense and defense and about finding a way back to the gold-medal game.
No, James didn't give the Knicks a ton of feedback, if only because he wasn't giving anyone a ton of feedback. The Knicks went to bed Friday night believing they were very much alive in the James derby, no matter what was being whispered between Miami and Moscow.
James might decide to go with Cleveland, Chicago, New Jersey or Miami. He might pick up his cell and end the Knicks' quest in a New York minute.
If that happens, if LeBron James rejects Tony Soprano's offer he could refuse, the Knicks wouldn't have lost the game because of their presentation.
They would have lost it because of their roster.
4dEthan Sherwood Strauss
5dMatt Walks, ESPN.com