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Saturday, July 3, 2010

'Summer of LeBron' in full swing

CLEVELAND (AP) It's a flirtatious courtship, media frenzy and global event rolled into a package unprecedented in sports history.

News photo
Courting begins: Superstar free agent LeBron James is being eyed by several NBA teams willing to pay him huge money. AP PHOTO

The recruitment of LeBron James, the NBA's two-time reigning MVP and player for the ages, has become an international soap opera featuring private jets, closed-door meetings and rumors that seemingly change by the second.

It's battling the World Cup, Wimbledon and the oil spill for headlines, and its conclusion may not only alter the league's balance or power, but also mean tens of millions of dollars more in revenues for the winning city.

All hail the King. Or at least make him an offer.

On Thursday, James became the most celebrated free agent of our time, touching off a multimillion-dollar bidding war that began with the New Jersey Nets, led by billionaire Russian owner Mikhail Prokhorov and rap mogul Jay-Z. They were followed by the New York Knicks making presentations to the 25-year-old superstar, who must decide if it's time to leave home.

In the next few days, at least six teams, including the sentimental hometown favorites, the Cleveland Cavaliers, will have audiences with James and try to convince him that he should join them to satisfy his ambition of winning a championship and becoming a billionaire.

Cleveland can offer James, who was already a national figure before he graduated from St. Vincent-St. Mary High School, $30 million more than any other team, thanks to the NBA players' collective bargaining agreement.

Money, though, is not all the 203-cm, 118-kg player wants. He's after titles, lots of them.

The scene was surreal outside IMG's international headquarters Thursday as the initial hours of what some have called "The Summer of LeBron" got under way. TV camera crews, photographers, reporters and curious onlookers crowded the sidewalks of East 9th Street and St. Clair waiting for James to arrive.

All that was missing was the red carpet.

James, whose 10-story-tall likeness has adorned the side of a building across from Quicken Loans Arena for the past few years, arrived at 10:58 a.m. in a white Cadillac SUV.

James made a brief stop in the lobby before heading in an elevator to Suite 823, the headquarters of LRMR Marketing, the company he started with boyhood friend Maverick Carter and two other longtime pals. As James exited the corridor, a phalanx of photographers clicked their cameras through the building's front windows.

Moments later, Prokhorov, whose worth has been estimated at nearly $10 billion, confidently strolled in alongside Jay-Z, one of the Nets' part owners.

About 90 minutes later, the Nets packed up and left town, headed to Chicago for a meeting with guard Dwyane Wade and forward Chris Bosh.

"It went well," Nets coach Avery Johnson said.

Jay-Z stayed behind, perhaps for a private talk with James, a longtime friend. But when hip-hop's biggest star was pulling out of the parking garage in the back seat of a luxury sedan, he passed the Knicks' entourage as it arrived in a four-vehicle motorcade for its audience with James.

The Knicks' crew included owner James Dolan, president Donnie Walsh, coach Mike D'Antoni and former Knicks guard Allan Houston. Walsh was brought into the building in a wheelchair following recent neck surgery.

This was New York's moment, one the franchise has been building toward for more than two years. The Knicks have endured a franchise-record nine straight losing seasons but gutted their roster with the hope of signing James, who was in Greenwich Village last weekend looking at a luxury apartment — a sighting that some took to mean he was leaning toward Gotham.

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