Thursday, July 08, 2010

LeBron mania to be resolved tonight, as nation will learn superstar's destination in prime-time special; Nets' chances drop

Update 9:45 pm: LeBron James goes to the Miami Heat. The Nets haven't nabbed a top free agent, but coach Avery Johnson insists he's not discouraged.

Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz digs deep for optimism: "LeBron James has worked hard in Cleveland, so maybe he needs this vacation in Florida before he moves on to reach his professional zenith — a championship dynasty in Brooklyn, USA."

Nets principal owner Mikhail Prokhorov issues a statement: "Fortunately, we have more than one plan to reach success, and, as I have found in all areas of my business, that is key to achieving it." Does he have a plan for detention in France up his sleeve?

***

Basketball superstar LeBron James's final choice of a city and team--er, sports entertainment corporation--will be revealed tonight in an hour-long special on ESPN, capping the mega-hype and drama that started months ago and ramped up a week ago when teams could approach him directly.

(Graphic at right from EPSN's LeBron Tracker. New York Daily News and New York Post covers, the latter front and back, below from today's papers.)

Given how the chess pieces have fallen in the past week--Dwayne Wade joined by Chris Bosh in Miami; Amar'e Stoudemire signing with the Knicks; Carlos Boozer signing with Chicago--the free agent-less Nets have lost ground, despite what the New York Post inaccurately hyped July 3 as Nets insider: Meeting with LeBron 'spectacular'.

(The self-serving, unidentified "insider" was referring not to the meeting but the team's pitch: And the Nets were the first team to try to impress James with a presentation one team insider dubbed “spectacular” after getting reviews from those involved.)

Staying in Cleveland?

Several sports pundits have suggested that James's hometown Cleveland Cavaliers retain the inside track, based on his local loyalty, the team's new coach, the capacity for a larger contract, and even Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov's observation that the "King" won't want to share his title quest with co-superstars.

In the Star-Ledger, Dave D'Alessandro gives Cleveland by far the best odds, followed by potential dynasty teams Miami and Chicago, with the Nets and Knicks lagging far behind. He thinks that Cleveland, alone among James's potential destinations, really would rely on an economic boost from the superstar.

On ESPN Insider June 29, before the free agent visits, sports gambling expert Chad Millman devised his own formula, suggesting that the Bulls would top the Heat, given that they had the best chance to win NBA titles.

But that was before Bosh joined Wade. This morning, ESPN reported that James is leaning toward Miami.

Going too far?

D'Alessandro thinks things have gone way too far:
So now he’s ready to announce his decision. The free agent market in any sport is always a shameless function of ego, and one week of this was enough. Now the grand prize, a young man who refers to himself as The King, has concluded his vainglorious quest to keep our attention as he decides that he is either going to take one billionaire’s money or another billionaire’s money.
Buzz Bissinger, who with James wrote a book about the star and his high school teammates, told the Times:
“I’m disappointed because I think he’s handled this terribly,” said Buzz Bissinger, who helped write James’s 2009 biography, “Shooting Stars.” “I hate the idea that he is the king and that all these grown men have had to go grovel in front of him. It’s a side of him I didn’t see before.
Who's responsible?

It's tough to pin the main blame on James. He's the talent, and he's playing in a world where the sports media and local governments are clinging to his words and willing to grovel. (Then again, read some entertaining, pointed coverage from Bill Simmons, Ian O'Connor, and Dave Zirin.)

Indeed, ESPN reported July 4 in tones reminiscent of high-level diplomatic negotiations:
CLEVELAND -- LeBron James is not expected to pick a team by July 5, a source close to the situation told ESPN The Magazine's Ric Bucher.
Yesterday, the Daily News reported:
James, who has been a free agent for seven days, is expected to fly to Greenwich, Conn., for a sit-down interview with ESPN Thursday night, according to a source close to James.
The Daily News, in an episode of fierce objectivity, has a web page titled Get LeBron, which has been sponsored by the Nets.

Sports Illustrated's Jack McCallum has an acid take on the media's co-operation:
As I said before, SI has played its part -- my intrepid colleague Ian Thomsen has spent the last few weeks with a cell phone surgically attached to his ear -- but ESPN has truly jumped the shark. One might've thought that the walk-up to David Beckham's Los Angeles Galaxy debut set the standard for over-coverage (how did that work out, by the way?), but this is indeed a brave new world. A half dozen of ESPN's best reporters on the story. Endless bulletins. Endless crawls. Endless "according to sources." Endless "ESPN has learneds." Even a 24-hour sports network should have some sense of perspective about sports, and The Worldwide Leader utterly lost it on this one.
Daily News columnist Mike Lupica wrote:
LeBron James is exactly where we are in sports, and celebrity, and fame. And generally acting like complete idiots about all that. The stars acting like idiots, and everybody else.
Civic efforts

And who can forget New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, in his Bahs-ton accent, invoking New York hoops history in a video urging James to come.



Or the campaign by nearly the entire civic apparatus of Cleveland to keep James, singing, "We are LeBron."

"We Are Lebron" Ohio Campaign To Keep Lebron James from BlackSportsOnline on Vimeo.

Some sobriety

In a Next American City essay July 2 headlined Cities to Lebron: “We Need You”, Ferentz Lafargue looked skeptically at the campaign for James, suggesting that the numbers bandied about regarding the local economic impact were not to be trusted.

New York Times columnist Clyde Haberman wrote June 29 about the impact of transit cuts on the poor, and looped in the buzz of the moment:
For example, on Thursday the fabulously wealthy LeBron James, a Cleveland basketball player, becomes a free agent. Some prominent New Yorkers desperately want him to play here, and they are throwing all sorts of freebies his way as inducements. After all, why should a zillionaire pay his own way? That’s what the less illustrious and the less affluent must do.

The courtship of Mr. James is supposed to fill us with civic pride. The good news is that we will have more time to read about it while we stand on the subway platform waiting longer than ever for an overcrowded train to arrive.
The advertising is the story?

Meanwhile, the micro-story gets attention. Remember how last week the big news was a mural?

The Times reported July 1, in an article headlined Nets Throw First Bucket of Paint at the Knicks:
From the blacktop of Harlem, LeBron James gazes up at the skyline, projecting hope. From a building in Midtown, Jay-Z and Mikhail Prokhorov tower over Madison Square Garden, casting an audacious shadow.

Two basketball-themed murals, spaced 121 blocks apart, came to life Wednesday afternoon, turning Manhattan into a bright canvas of free-agent dreams and taut rivalries.
(The graphic above is from the Nets website.)

The Daily News reported
New York Knicks annoyed by Jay-Z, Mikhail Prokhorov 'blueprint for greatness' billboard near Garden:
According to sources, the Knicks grumbled to league officials Wednesday about the Nets unveiling a larger-than-life billboard on the side of a building visible along Eighth Ave., within a bounce pass of Madison Square Garden.

The ad, which the News first reported on in Wednesday's editions, features huge photos of new billionaire owner Mikhail Prokhorov and part owner Jay-Z.
That led to such deep thinking as the Times piece headlined Jay-Z vs. Spike Lee: Nets May Have the Edge:
The Prokhorov-Jay-Z campaign does not mention LeBron James, but it would probably not exist without him...

“This really highlights the old blood-new blood disparity between both teams,” said David Reeder, vice president for GreenLight, a consulting firm that specializes in branded entertainment. “You have new ownership with the Nets, and a vibrant contemporary urban personality like Jay-Z. With the Knicks, you have the Dolans and Spike who, God love him, has been around a bit, and is showing some gray in that beard.

The plastering of Prokhorov’s image, so early in his reign, represents a “little sizzle but not much substance,” said Jason Schlossberg, president of Kwittken & Company, a public relations and marketing agency. “When I think of great owners, I think of George Steinbrenner, Jerry Jones and Mark Cuban. I feel like they use themselves in more authentic ways. I can’t envision Steinbrenner creating a campaign with only his face on it.”

If only the media paid such aggressive attention to, say, KPMG.

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