As crazy as it may be to hear, LeBron James‘ now-infamous decision to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers and join the Miami Heat occurred a decade ago now, in the summer of 2010.
To celebrate that amazing-yet-shocking moment in James’ prolific career, we’re going back in time to relive everything LeBron-related that happened each day of 2010 free agency leading up to James’ announcement on July 8 – from meetings he took with teams to what news what being leaked and everything else in between – starting on July 1 when free agency opened up.
Before we jump in, however, it must be noted that prior to July 1 there was already some smoke connecting James with Miami. Two of ESPN’s top reporters at the time, Chris Broussard and Marc Stein, reported that the Heat were the frontrunners ahead of free agency to land James and that James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh had met in Miami over the weekend just before July 1 to discuss their future plans. (Some might call that potential collusion, but that’s neither here nor there.)
Wade’s agent at the time, Henry Thomas, smartly denied that rumor, but the fact that word of that meeting got out there before free agency had even started was enough to send people into a frenzy.
Broussard and Stein weren’t the only ESPN reporters saying James, Wade and Bosh would be teaming up in Miami: Stephen A. Smith actually was, reporting as early as June 28 that it would happen, days before free agency was set to begin.
Heat president Pat Riley also sounded pretty confident just ahead of July 1, calling the 2010 offseason the most pivotal in franchise history and saying that he thought Miami would be able to build a ‘great team’ over the next 18 months.
Now, let’s get into what happened on July 1 as 2010 free agency opened up.
NETS GET FIRST MEETING
James’ first meeting on the opening day of 2010 free agency took place at 11 am EST and was with the then-New Jersey Nets, a meeting the superstar forward arrived to punctually in a white Cadillac Escalade.
The Nets’ owner at the time was Mikhail Prokhorov, who showed up to the meeting a bit under 15 minutes after James and Co., and did so in a black limo with an Ohio license plate on it. Besides Prokhorov, New Jersey’s group for the meeting included then-head coach Avery Johnson as well as Nets president Rod Thorn and hip-hop mogul, Jay-Z, who used to own shares in the team.
New Jersey’s group came prepared for the presentation to James, bringing along with them a lot of luggage and a large box for a computer.
Well, all that preparation must have paid off, because the meeting went so well that anonymous executives within the Nets’ organization reportedly felt they were ‘definitely in the game’ after it had concluded. The Newark Star-Ledger reported the following after the meeting:
“For the better part of the day, you heard nothing but baseball clichés. They put it in the upper deck. They hit a grand slam. Either way, owner Mikhail Prokhorov and the five associates who accompanied him to Cleveland today came away from their historic meeting with LeBron James believing the Nets ‘are definitely in the game,’ a team official familiar with the talks revealed after conferring with several members of the team’s chief recruiters.”
The report continued, describing what exactly the Nets’ pitch to the best player in the world was:
“James purportedly found that story very compelling. He listened attentively to Prokhorov and Razumov as they explained how they will expand his profile on a global scale. He heard Thorn and Johnson share their plan for building a championship-caliber roster with a long shelf life. He was given an evocative demonstration by Yormark about how he could become not only King of Brooklyn, but of all of New York. And then, according to reporters at the scene, Jay-Z stayed behind to reinforce the Nets’ bullet points and get a feel for how his 25-year-old protégé reacted to the presentation.”
An ESPN report made New Jersey sound even more optimistic:
“After the presentation was done, Jay-Z spent some time one-on-one with ‘Bron before the Knicks arrived. How did it go? A source close to the Nets said their meeting with LeBron was ‘tremendous’. How tremendous? ‘Front runner tremendous.'”
With his first meeting out of the way, James wouldn’t have to go far to meet with his next potential free-agent suitor.
KNICKS ARE NEXT
At 1 pm EST came James’ meeting with the New York Knicks, one that started with a video presentation from Tony and Carmela Soprano, played by James Gandolfini and Edie Falco, trying to convince James that Madison Square Garden was the place for him to take the next step in his career.
The Knicks knew James was a huge fan of the classic TV show The Sopranos, so they pulled some strings to get the show’s two main characters to be a part of their video pitch. The video also contained appearances from Willis Reed, Mark Messier, Reggie Jackson, Earl Monroe, Spike Lee, Rudy Giuliani and even Chris Rock.
Apart from the creative video editing, the Knicks’ meeting with James featured Mike D’Antoni, Allan Houston, Donnie Walsh and James Dolan. The fact that James could earn a billion dollars playing in a market as huge as New York City for one of the most well-known NBA teams in the world was their main selling point. They reportedly did their best to put James in a New York state of mind.
One well-known person in league circles didn’t totally agree with that pitch, however. Former NBA super agent David Falk, best known for representing Michael Jordan during his playing days, nailed it when he said in a radio spot that day that the market advantage the Knicks believed they had in the LeBron sweepstakes didn’t really exist because it was no longer 1996, and as big as New York is, social media had made it so that James could have played anywhere – even Neptune, Falk said – and still be a major brand.
Falk was absolutely right, and we’re still seeing it now, a decade later, where New York continues to struggle to land marquee free agents despite the awesome market they reside in.
James’ meeting with New York lasted 2.5 hours, and the Knicks reportedly felt good about how it went. D’Antoni told The New York Times that the team was ‘cautiously optimistic’ about their chances.
After their meetings with James, both the Knicks and Nets reportedly headed to Chicago for meetings with Wade and Bosh which were set to take place the next day, on Friday, July 2.
THE HEAT CONTINGENT PREPARES
The Heat weren’t set to meet with James until the next day, but that doesn’t mean they sat idly by one Day 1 of free agency.
They used the opening day of free-agent meetings to get a face-to-face between team president Pat Riley and Amare Stoudemire, who was one of the top players available that summer. According to one report from ESPN, Riley was pitching Stoudemire on the idea of teaming up with James and Wade in Miami, which gives us an interesting what-if regarding that offseason: What if Stoudemire was the third member of Miami’s eventual Big Three, and not Bosh? Does that change how the next four seasons go for the Heat?
Something interesting that not many remember from that first day of free agency in 2010 is that a contingent from Miami also gained an audience with James’ agent at the time, Leon Rose, a meeting that took place in Cleveland and included Riley, Heat owner Micky Arison and general manager Andy Elisburg. The meeting reportedly lasted 45 minutes, ending just before 12:30 am.
Even despite the Heat getting a meeting with an important member of James’ team the night before their actual meeting with the MVP forward, indicating there was real smoke to the fire connecting James and Miami, an anonymous veteran coach in the Eastern Conference told Yahoo the following:
“LeBron going to Miami doesn’t make sense when you really think about it,” said a veteran NBA coach in the Eastern Conference Thursday. “You think LeBron is going to be happy being viewed as Robin to Dwyane Wade’s Batman? And that’s how it would look. It’s not happening.”
Just the possibility of James and Wade, two of the best players in the world at that point in time, teaming up was still so hard to believe for many people, even with all the signs pointing to there being a very real chance of that happening.
Another interesting Heat-related tidbit on July 1?
The Miami Herald reported that Ray Allen had spoken to James about the possibility of joining the Heat:
“I’ve come across a source who has told me that free agent player could be Ray Allen. The source tells me that Allen has spoken to James and his preference is to remain with the Celtics, but that’s predicated on Paul Pierce remaining with the team. The money is not a huge factor. Winning more championships is the most important factor. According to the source, Allen has spoken to James and would consider joining said, ‘Dream Team.’ Along with possibly taking less money if it was the perfect opportunity.”
This was two summers before Allen would end up joining James in Miami, though it now seems possible that those seeds were planted way back in 2010.
ON CLEVELAND AND LEBRON
On July 1, the Cavaliers announced that Bryon Scott would be their next head coach (though the news leaked the night before) replacing Mike Brown after five years on the job. The final two candidates for the job were Scott and Brian Shaw, and James reportedly preferred the former as the hire, which surely played into the final decision for Cleveland.
The New York Daily News reported that since Scott was pursuing the job, that must have surely meant James was planning on staying in Cleveland, an assumption that turned out to be quite wrong.
Veteran swingman Matt Barnes, for his part, didn’t believe that James would ditch the Cavs, comparing it to Larry Bird and Magic Johnson being one-team players their entire careers:
“Those top guys may talk to each other about teaming up but realistically, I don’t see some sort of ‘Dream Team’ being made. I could definitely be wrong but I kind of see LeBron being the caliber of player like a Magic Johnson or Larry Bird where regardless of how his original team is doing, he’s going to stick it out and make them a winner. That’s why I don’t see LeBron jumping but I could be wrong. Everybody else is just waiting to see what he does. There’s a lot of rumors, a lot of this and a lot of that, but they’re just rumors. Until you hear a team say something like that or a general manager say something like that, then it’s just rumors.”
Barnes had and still has a lot of friends in the league, so for even him to be so blindsided by James eventually heading to Miami just goes to show how shocking the news really was.
On July 1, however, there was legitimately still some hope that James might decide to stay with the Cavs, to the point that a group of fans organized a rally at a local bar in Cleveland called ‘Please Stay LBJ’, and it was pretty official seeing as how the Cavaliers’ team dancers showed up.
Cavs owner Dan Gilbert was undoubtedly hoping James would decide to stay, and not just so Cleveland could keep fielding an elite basketball team, but also because, according to Bloomberg, the Cavaliers could lose $250 million in value if they lost their best – and most marketable – player.
Things didn’t get quite that dire, but at the start of the 2009-10 season, Forbes calculated the Cavaliers’ franchise value at $476 million, making them the fifth-most valuable organization at that time. One season (and one LeBron departure) later, that number dropped all the way down to $355 million, putting Cleveland at the No. 15 spot that year.
ELSEWHERE THAT DAY
The Los Angeles Clippers happily announced through ESPN that they were one of the teams selected to be granted an audience by James for a free-agent meeting.
Then-Clippers general manager Neil Olshey (now with the Portland Trail Blazers) said:
“‘We are honored to be one of the select organizations to have been invited to meet with LeBron James and his team. At that time, we intend to present the many reasons why his joining our organization is the best possible choice he could make. Key among those reasons is our extraordinary nucleus of players. We have a core group in place which is made up of talented players at every position, a component which would prove attractive to any free agent.'”
This was pretty surprising and a meeting that James likely took as a courtesy, because the Clippers were coming off of a 2009-10 season in which they went 29-53 and were led in scoring by Chris Kaman. The fact that Blake Griffin was set to debut the very next season might have made them more appealing, but even so, Los Angeles was still a full two seasons away from the ‘Lob City’ era that was to come.
Regardless, the Clippers landing that meeting with James was a pretty huge deal and could be seen as the start of the franchise turning things around towards no longer being a perennial laughingstock.
Interestingly enough, despite all the talk about Miami, Cleveland and the two New York clubs, the betting favorites to land James on July 1 were actually the Chicago Bulls. Considering how spot-on Vegas usually is with that kind of thing, that’s pretty odd they were that far off as free agency kicked into full swing.
In Chicago, the Chicago Sun-Times would report that James had been telling teams he met with on Day 1 that he didn’t want to drag out the decision process and that he wanted to have one made by Monday, July 5.
Little did we know, ‘The Decision’ itself wouldn’t come for another full week…
You can follow Frank Urbina on Twitter: @FrankUrbina_.