CLEVELAND — It's a flirtatious courtship, media frenzy and global event rolled into a package unprecedented in sports history.
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.
The Nets will try to sell him Brooklyn – not the bridge, but their next home.
The Knicks will entice him with basketball's Mecca, Madison Square Garden, and the brightest lights.
The Chicago Bulls can offer a talented roster and the chance to walk in Michael Jordan's footsteps.
The Miami Heat are counting on South Beach, a favorable income tax climate and the possibility of teaming up with fellow free agent Dwyane Wade to lure him from Ohio's snow.
The Los Angeles Clippers can offer Hollywood and the chance to do the unthinkable: make them a winner.
And then there's the Cavs, his team for the past seven seasons, who can only hope that his head makes his heart stay close to his Akron home.
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 6-foot-8, 260-pound player wants. He's after titles, lots of them.
While he has led the Cavs through their most successful stretch in team history, James has come up short in his pursuit of a championship to solidify his legacy. Cleveland was bounced in the second round of the playoffs this season by the Boston Celtics, who have won 17 titles. That's 17 more than the Cavaliers.
James' decision, which isn't expected to be announced for at least another week, has many fans in this city fearing the worst. After all, this is where sports heartbreak has taken up permanent residence. Ask anyone from Cleveland to recite the local teams' misery since the Browns won the NFL title in 1964, and they'll roll their eyes before rattling off nicknames given to the most gut-wrenching losses by the Indians, Browns and Cavaliers.
Losing James might top them all.
"They'll be heartbroken here if he leaves, but we're used to it," said Eric Riley, a Cleveland native and former NBA player, who stopped on a downtown sidewalk to watch the commotion surrounding the wooing of northeastern Ohio's most famous son.
Cleveland also stands to lose tens of millions of dollars from its already-ravaged economy by one estimate if James decides to skip town. In larger markets like New York or Chicago, he could bring in hundreds of millions of dollars to businesses.
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. Wearing a gray Nike T-shirt, sweat pants and sunglasses, he was hardly dressed for the occasion and didn't seem fazed by the magnitude of the moment.
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 papparazzi-like 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. Others in New Jersey's delegation carried luggage and computer equipment for a high-tech visual display to James.
About 90 minutes later, the Nets packed up and left town, headed to Chicago for a meeting with 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.
The Knicks have been hoping to get James into a New York state of mind, with Mayor Michael Bloomberg taking part in a "C'Mon LeBron" campaign designed for the Ohio-born superstar.
"I think it went well," D'Antoni told The Associated Press after the Knicks completed their two-hours-plus session with James. "But obviously everyone that gets the chance to talk to him will probably say same the same thing."
James followed the Knicks out the door. He didn't say anything to reporters, presumably driving back to his 40,000-square-foot mansion in Bath, Ohio, where he'll rest up before Friday's scheduled visits by the Heat and Clippers. As he left, a pack of photographers and reporters chased his vehicle, hoping for one signature shot or a clue to what he's thinking.
None came, and for now, no one's sure – maybe not even LeBron himself – where he's going next.