By Kevin Glew
A devoted Cleveland sports fan is dreaming.
In his dream, Cavs fans rise in anticipation as LeBron James approaches the scorer’s table at Quicken Loans Arena and reaches for the talcum powder. King James may be from Akron, Ohio, but his pre-game chalk toss is pure Hollywood.
He pours the powder into his hands, pauses for effect, and then dramatically unleashes it in the air. The crowd erupts, but just as the chalk begins to disintegrate, poof, LeBron disappears. The King is gone.
The Cavs fan jolts awake in a cold sweat. Phew, it was just a nightmare. Or was it?
Beginning July 1, Cavs supporters face the very real possibility that LeBron could skip town. On that date, King James becomes the biggest free agent in sports history and will entertain offers from a long line of suitors.
“I think that Cleveland is a football city … it’s not a basketball city; it’s a LeBron city, and I think the Cavaliers could be in real trouble if he leaves,” said Joe Posnanski, a senior writer with Sports Illustrated who grew up in Cleveland.
Dan Shulman, ESPN NBA play-by-play announcer, expresses similar sentiments.
“It will be devastating for the Cavaliers if he leaves,” he said. “I think they would go back to being what they were before he got there, which was an also-ran.”
And this season’s playoff meltdown won’t help the Cavs’ chances of retaining their star, either.
“It just ended so disastrously for him personally and for the team that I don’t have a good feeling that he will re-sign with Cleveland,” said Posnanski.
In his press conference after the Cavs were eliminated, James emphasized that winning was his priority. With an Olympic gold medal, two MVP awards and six All-Star selections already on his resume, the only hoops accolade that LeBron seems to be missing is a NBA title.
“Your legacy is largely determined by championships,” noted Shulman. “Bill Russell, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant – they all won championships, and wherever LeBron goes now, if he’s interested in that, he better go to a place where that’s a possibility. But he’s on a really good team right now.”
Jon Darby, who owns the No. 1 LeBron James Master Set on the PSA Set Registry, agrees.
“I still think LeBron has a chance to wind up being one of the top three or four players ever, but he’s got to win,” he said. “Right now, he’s going to be that Dan Marino guy. And Dan Marino is one of the greatest quarterbacks, but no one ever says he’s the greatest.”
But as important as winning appears to be to LeBron, James is also acutely interested in making money and enhancing his “brand.” He has secured lucrative endorsement deals with some of the biggest companies in the world, he’s hosted “Saturday Night Live,” “The ESPYs” and even appeared on “Oprah” and “Larry King.”
“He has publicly said he wants to be the first billion-dollar athlete,” noted Shulman.
To realize his lofty financial goals, some believe he has to leave Cleveland.
“I feel bad for Cleveland fans, but LeBron is crazy if he stays there. He’s too big to stay there,” said Darby.
Of course, speculation is running rampant on where LeBron will play in 2010-11, but Chicago has been the most rumored destination. James grew up a Bulls fan, and some believe his decision to switch from Michael Jordan’s No. 23 to jersey No. 6 for the 2010-11 season foreshadows his intentions. With young stars like Joakim Noah and Derrick Rose, the Bulls also offer a solid supporting cast to build around.
“The Bulls have a coaching vacancy (Chicago has since named Boston Celtics assistant coach Tom Thibodeau its coach effective the end of the NBA Finals), which means that if they wanted him, they could hand-pick his coach. They have cap space. They have good young talent. They’re in a big city, where, if he feels the need to, he can raise his profile, if that’s even possible,” said Shulman.
The speculation alone has Chicago card shops buzzing.
“My LeBron sales have increased,” said Ronnie Holloway, co-owner of Chicago All-Stars, who’s selling a lot of James rookies. “Anything I can get on LeBron now, I’m going to take it.”
Marc Goldsmith, owner of Chicagoland Sports Cards, says LeBron is also a regular topic at his store these days, and he’s selling a lot of the superstar’s low-end base and patch cards.
“I rent out my showcases, so there are guys who bring in LeBron stuff, and usually whenever guys bring in LeBron stuff, it goes out. His stuff sells right away,” he said.
Of course, with James often sporting a Yankees hat and New York being the business center of North America, the Knicks are another rumored match for the King. But while playing in the “Big Apple” might help his bank account, the Knicks are far from contenders. But that hasn’t stopped New Yorkers from talking about LeBron.
Alex Gregg, owner of Alex’s MVP Sports Cards in New York, says there has been an increase in demand for LeBron cards at his store in recent weeks.
“Anything LeBron will sell. He sells well,” said Gregg. “At this point, he may have taken over Jordan as the top-selling basketball player at my store.”
Michael Fata, owner of BBC Galaxee in the Bronx, also has customers talking about LeBron. Unfortunately, his sales of James cards haven’t increased.
“If he signs with the Knicks, you’ll see 5,000 people walking around with LeBron Knicks jerseys and that would definitely help my sales. Right now, I can’t sell basketball,” he said.
With a wealthy, new owner, ample cap space and a promising core of players, the Nets have also been mentioned as a long-shot contender for James. But their deplorable 12-70 record last season will definitely work against them.
“There is a little bit of talk about him possibly coming to the Nets,” said Steve Mandy, owner of Attack of the Baseball Cards in Union, N.J.
But this hasn’t translated into a rise in sales of LeBron cards in Mandy’s store, but the veteran dealer believes there would be a spike if the two-time MVP did sign with the Nets or the Knicks.
Los Angeles Clippers fans recently staged a rally outside the Staples Center to try to woo LeBron to the West Coast. Matt Federoneen, owner of the Beverly Hills Baseball Card Shop in Los Angeles, says people are talking about LeBron potentially landing in Lalaland.
“The Clippers have a good young team and they’ve got a lot of cap room,” he said.
But Federoneen says his sales of LeBron cards haven’t picked up with the speculation.
“I don’t know if it would immediately convert into that many sales either,” he said. “Because obviously if he becomes a Clipper, people will be waiting for the new products.”
But some question whether a move to a bigger market like New York or Los Angeles is necessary for LeBron to enhance his brand.
“I think he’s the center of the center of sports world wherever he goes. He could play in Oklahoma City, which is probably the smallest of the cities in the NBA and he’d be every bit as big a star and make every bit as much money from the gigantic endorsement possibilities that he has,” said Posnanski.
Steve Sloan, product manager at Upper Deck Authenticated, who has had an exclusive autograph contract with James since his rookie season, says that signed LeBron basketballs, jerseys, photos and shoes are already coveted all over the world.
“The market for his items is worldwide,” said Sloan. “He has been so popular nationwide within the United States, in every corner, from the East Coast distributors to the West Coast hobby shops. And he’s expanded beyond North American borders. We have sales in Australia, China and Japan.”
Matt Cassidy, webmaster of http://lebronjamescards.mycardsworth.com provides further proof of the King’s global popularity. He operates his site from Australia and fields questions from collectors all around the world.
“Interest in my site comes from North America, Australia, the United Kingdom and New Zealand (in that order),” he said. “About a quarter of the LeBron sales that occur on my site through eBay come from Australian collectors.”
The fact that LeBron already enjoys worldwide popularity should be a comfort to Cleveland fans. Rich Rinella, owner of All-Pro Sports Cards in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, devotes an entire showcase at the front of his store to James cards. He says low-end LeBron rookies, especially Topps rookies, continue to sell briskly at his location.
“Those cards pretty much sell for full book, which in this hobby and in this economy, is a rarity,” he said. But he also concedes that sales would drop if LeBron were to leave.
Greg Ward, co-owner of Mezzanine Sportscards in Cleveland, also sells a lot of LeBron rookies.
“If LeBron did leave, demand would slow down. I think it would slow down and people would only want his rookie card,” he said.
The fact that LeBron is from the Cleveland area also gives his hometown squad an edge and, as Posnanski points out, under NBA rules, the Cavs can offer him more money than any other team. The veteran sportswriter also believes that winning a championship in his hometown is something that likely appeals to LeBron.
“To come to Cleveland, his hometown, and take a Cavs team that was absolutely worthless, in a city that didn’t care, to build it up to the heights and then to finish the job and win a championship, he’ll be a legend,” said Posnanski. “He’s already a legend, but he’ll probably be the most beloved athlete in the history of Cleveland.” SCM
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