The New York Knicks were throwing everything — and everyone — they could at landing LeBron James.
As his contract with the Cleveland Cavaliers came to an end in 2010 and he became a free agent, the 25-year-old NBA superstar now had his pick of teams — and the Knicks were desperate to seal the deal.
Central to their sales pitch was a promotional video, directed by the documentary maker and lifelong Knicks fan, Jonathan Hock, in which they summoned the great and the good of sports and showbusiness — and Donald Trump.
There was actor Alec Baldwin and comedian Chris Rock, New York Rangers star Mark Messier and Knicks legend Walt Frazier.
“Sopranos” stars James Gandolfini and Edie Falco reunited as Tony and Carmela for a sketch, and even Robert De Niro made a cameo appearance alongside Harvey Weinstein at Miramax’s Tribeca offices.
Then there was Trump.
But as author Jeff Benedict describes in “LeBron” (Avid Reader Press), Trump wanted to be the star of the show.
“Trump’s staff had sent special instructions on how to light him for the interview,” he writes. “The orange gel that was applied to his hair was a certain thickness to ensure that the color accentuated his hair in the proper manner.
“Otherwise, you’d see through his hair to his head.”
In just seven years as a pro, LeBron James had already rewritten basketball’s record books. But while nobody doubted his individual ability, he had yet to win an NBA title in his time with the Cavaliers.
And that irked him.
“Ohio was his home. He’d never lived elsewhere. His family was settled there. His inner circle was there,” writes Benedict.
“Yet LeBron desperately wanted to win championships, and he’d concluded that he needed to go elsewhere and play with other stars for that to happen.”
And New York seemed to be winning the race.
In September 2009, James appeared on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” where the host, another huge Knicks fan, toyed with him about joining his team, placing an “I ♥ New York” mug on the table and selling him on the delights of Shake Shack.
“Have you made up your mind yet?” Stewart asked.
“Are you gonna stay in Cleveland? Have you thought about another city to play in?”
“Well, I’m in New York now, with you,” LeBron said. “So, I’m here now.”
The audience loved it.
LeBron grinned. “We’ll see,” he said.
The flirting continued.
Two months later, as the city prepared for a ticker-tape parade for baseball’s all-conquering Yankees, James had arranged for seven gyms around the city to host high-school players for free open runs so that local kids could have a warm, safe place to play now that the weather was turning cold.
He even took a full-page ad out in the local press to explain why he was doing it, describing New York as one of his “favorite places to play in the world” and how “the Big Apple has always been good to me.”
As Benedict writes: “New Yorkers were thrilled. The Yankees were champs again, and LeBron was talking about the Big Apple like it was his future home.”
When LeBron James finally became a free agent on July 1, 2010, his many suitors swung into action.
The Knicks weren’t the only team chasing his services.
Also in the running were the Los Angeles Clippers, Chicago Bulls, Brooklyn Nets and the Miami Heat.
He could always opt to stay in Cleveland, too.
That same day, delegations arrived at a downtown office building in Cleveland to meet with the player.
First up were the Nets, led by the team’s part-owner and a close friend of James, rapper Jay-Z.
“But he didn’t push,” writes Benedict.
“They were close friends. And the friendship wasn’t going to rise or fall based on LeBron’s decision.”
Next in were the hot favorites to land LeBron, the New York Knicks.
Owned by billionaire James Dolan, the Knicks delegation also included team president Donnie Walsh, head coach Mike D’Antoni, the president of Madison Square Garden Sports, Scott O’Neill and former Knicks star-turned executive Allan Houston.
They went in hard on the financials.
Not only had the Knicks commissioned a consulting firm to produce a report demonstrating that New York was the city where LeBron’s earning power would be at its greatest but they also put a figure on it: US $1 billion in salary and endorsements combined.
Then they showed him their star-studded video.
“LeBron was amused,” writes Benedict.
“He wasn’t interested in guys like Trump — a phony — and Weinstein — bad vibes. He loved seeing De Niro — Vito Corleone!
“But LeBron got the biggest kick out of Gandolfini – Tony f–king Soprano was making him an offer he couldn’t refuse.”
Money aside, New York ticked many of LeBron’s boxes. He loved playing at Madison Square Garden and loved the city itself and the many friends he had there.
There was just one issue.
“He wasn’t impressed with James Dolan,” writes Benedict.
“Ever since Dolan had taken over the Knicks, the team had been a virtual disaster. His presence was a deterrent in LeBron’s mind.”
The following day, the Miami Heat, led by their President, Pat Riley, made their pitch.
After a brief video presentation, Riley reached into his briefcase, removed a small mesh bag and placed it on the table.
Intrigued, James opened the bag and watched as a bunch of rings spilled out.
“Riley explained they were a collection of his all-star rings, championship rings, and Hall of Fame ring,” writes Benedict.
“Over his career as a player and a coach, he had amassed six titles with the Lakers and one with the Heat.
“Every championship team he’d been a part of, he explained, included one star and two superstars.”
It was a masterstroke, argues Benedict. “Riley knew basketball and he knew what the great players wanted more than anything — championships,” he writes.
“And he was confident that money wasn’t going to be the deciding factor. Nor would location matter. LeBron, Riley figured, would move to the Black Hills of South Dakota if that was what it took to win an NBA championship. But Riley did have the benefit of offering South Beach.”
As the interested parties concluded their pitches, LeBron James confirmed his decision would be made not in private, but live on television in an ESPN special called “The Decision,” to be aired on July 8.
Still, though, all the signs pointed to New York, not least because the show was being aired from a Boys & Girls Club gym in Greenwich, Conn., or “deep Knicks country” as Benedict describes it.
But when presenter Jim Gray asked James what his decision was, the answer wasn’t quite what everyone expected.
“This fall, I’m going to take my talents to South Beach and join the Miami Heat.”LeBron James, announcing his long-awaited decision on live television
“This fall,” he said, “I’m going to take my talents to South Beach and join the Miami Heat.”
While Pat Riley’s powers of persuasion had sealed the deal for the Heat, the fact they had also signed fellow free agents and Team USA members Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh, also played a major part in James’s decision.
But while joy was unconfined in Miami, the reaction elsewhere was one of disappointment, despair and even rage.
Social media was ablaze with criticism.
Esquire writer Scott Raab found himself banned from Heat games for calling James “the Whore of Akron” while in Cleveland, fans took to the streets and set fire to LeBron’s jersey, forcing the police to intervene and make arrests.
It didn’t help that the Cavaliers owner, Dan Gilbert, had fanned the flames by posting a caustic letter to on the Cavaliers’ website, criticizing LeBron for being “cowardly” and “narcissistic.”
“In the heat of the moment, Gilbert wasn’t looking down the road,” writes Benedict.
“He was busy burning down every bridge that connected LeBron to Cleveland.”
In time, though, James’s decision would be vindicated.
Over the next four years, James would win two NBA Championships and was also named the league’s Most Valuable Player twice more.
But, for the meantime, he had to live with the consequences of his controversial decision. “He was relentlessly booed and heckled in arenas throughout the country. It seemed that even people who didn’t follow basketball were rooting against him and the Heat,” concludes Benedict.
“LeBron had become the most hated man in all of sports.”