CLEVELAND – After three days being romanced by six NBA teams, a few billionaires, coaches, executives, hip hop’s biggest star, and fixating the sports world on his every move, LeBron James got behind the wheel of his customized car and drove home.
Only he knows where he’s going next.
James concluded his personal free-agent summit on Saturday by hearing presentations from the Cleveland Cavaliers, whose pitch focused on his familiarity with their franchise and tickled his sense of humor, and the Chicago Bulls, the last team and the one believed to have the best chance of stealing him from Ohio.
The meetings are over.
The guessing game has begun.
The ball is in James’ court.
The Cavs came away from their 90-minute sit-down with a renewed confidence that James will re-sign with them.
“It went very well,” said a person with knowledge of Cleveland’s visit, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the talks. “It was very easy, very relaxed. There were moments of emotion and moments of laughter.”
Knowing James as well as they do, the Cavs, who were represented by owner Dan Gilbert, new coach Byron Scott, general manager Chris Grant and assistant GM Lance Blanks, tried to lighten things up by showing the 25-year-old a cartoon featuring him and his friends as characters.
The team had an animated video made in the style of “Family Guy” – one of James’ favorite TV shows – that depicted some inside jokes and locker-room humor as the Cavaliers reminded James that he is indeed part of their extended family. James was joined in the meetings by business manager Maverick Carter, close friend Randy Mims and agent Leon Rose.
The Cavs’ entourage only had to make a three-block drive from Quicken Loans Arena to James’ downtown business offices to make their homespun proposal to the mega free agent. Instead of making a national tour, James decided to have the New Jersey Nets, New York Knicks, Miami Heat, Los Angeles Clippers, Cavs and Bulls meet him on his home turf. At this point, he has no other scheduled visits.
Indications are that James will spend the remainder of the holiday weekend considering the offers before announcing his decision sometime next week.
The Cavs did not ask James when he will announce his decision, the person said.
Because it’s home, because they can offer him $30 million more than any other team on a maximum-length contract, and because they’ve built a championship-caliber team around him, the Cavs feel good about their chances of keeping the two-time MVP.
Hoping to tug on James’ heart strings, the Cavaliers organized a “fan tunnel” down East Ninth Street to welcome him. Hundreds of fans lined the sidewalks outside the IMG building, and when James pulled into the parking garage, fans held up signs that said “Home” while others tossed white powder in the air, mimicking his pregame ritual.
As the Cavs departed, the Bulls’ delegation arrived for its meeting – the last of the six scheduled teams to see James and his advisers.
Owner Jerry Reinsdorf, general manager Gar Forman, vice president of basketball operations John Paxson and new coach Tom Thibodeau showed up at 1:15 p.m. dressed business casual in sport coats. Unlike the other suitors, the Bulls did not cart any visual aids or equipment, and as the foursome made its way across the intersection, it looked like basketball’s version of the Beatles on Abbey Road.
The Bulls stayed for three hours, one day after they sat down with Dwyane Wade for the second time since free agency opened. Chicago’s group left in two black SUVs to a chorus of boos from the Cleveland fans who hung around while they were upstairs.
Chicago is hoping the chance to follow Michael Jordan’s larger-than-life legacy, a talented roster featuring rising star guard Derrick Rose and forward Joakim Noah, and nearly $30 million of space under the salary cap will be enough to lure James to the Windy City.
It’s ironic that James would consider joining a team he knocked out of the playoffs last season. But he has said his goal is to win multiple championships, and his addition to the Bulls would make Chicago among the top teams in the Eastern Conference.
With James as their leader, the Cavs made it to the playoffs in each of the past five years, including their first visit to the finals in 2007. But despite having the league’s best regular-season record, they fell short of a title, losing this year to the Boston Celtics in the second round.
James has higher goals, and the Cavs share his vision.
“We’ve done some amazing things the last five years,” Grant said. “We won a lot of games and went deep into the playoffs, but we’re not satisfied with anything we’re doing. We continue to make improvements and upgrade our roster as we move forward. This is the time of year we do those things.
“We think it’s pretty incredible that LeBron chose to have these meetings here in Cleveland, at his home. We want to thank the fans for unbelievable support and support from our city. Very proud of that, and very proud of Northeast Ohio.”
Cleveland fans, pained by decades of sports heartache and without a championship team to call their own since 1964, can’t bear the thought of life without LeBron.
“Without him, we won’t be anything,” said 20-year-old Jordan Martin, who came to see James with his father and three brothers. “If he leaves, the team and the city won’t be the same.”
For others, this was one last chance to show James some love.
Tom and Jill Galmarini, who both grew up in Cleveland, made a 12-hour drive from Charleston, S.C., with their 1-year-old son, Riley, and 4-year-old daughter, Katie, to support James.
“I don’t think he’s going to go anywhere,” Jill Galmarini said. “I think he likes being in his hometown.”
AP Sports Writer Larry Lage contributed to this report.