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Clearly James couldn't see why he had turned off so many believers. Hadn't he, Wade and Bosh each sacrificed at least $15 million over the lifetime of his contract in order to play together in Miami? (Though the difference in real money for James, thanks to the absence of state income tax in Florida, was closer to $6 million.) Wasn't James putting the pursuit of championships ahead of his individual stats, potentially loosening his hold on the MVP trophy? Hadn't profits from The Decision resulted in a contribution of more than $2.5 million to the Boys & Girls Clubs of America?
Until the stain of The Decision is washed away and he has proved the sacrifices to be championship-worthy, however, James has surrendered the benefit of the doubt. "If I was 25 I would try to win it by myself," said Charles Barkley on NBA TV. "This definitely hurts LeBron. When you are 25 you shouldn't be trying to piggyback on other people."
PART III: THE SEA CHANGE
Think back to the NBA's golden era when Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Isiah Thomas were winning a combined 10 championships from 1979 to '90. Would those three rivals ever have wanted to join forces? They were more interested in beating each other than in deferring to one another.
"I came of age as commissioner when the Lakers and Celtics each had a Hall of Fame team," says David Stern of the Lakers of Magic, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy and Bob McAdoo, and the Celtics of Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, Dennis Johnson and Bill Walton. But those rosters were assembled over time by management, while this trio has come together as the result of a cabal by the players themselves. This AAU-ization of the NBA is the culmination of three decades of players gaining more and more power, a movement that started with the Magic-Bird era. Next summer the commissioner may, like Dr. Frankenstein, have to kill off the monster he created when he presides over labor negotiations that are expected to result in a lockout. "It's safe to say that if contracts are shorter and guarantees are less, we may see opportunities for this to actually increase," says Stern, noting that players in the next system may become free agents more often. "But the [next] collective bargaining agreement is going to be focused solely on sustainable business models, in a context where we encourage teams within the rules to compete with each other for talent as hard and tenaciously as they possibly can."
Mavericks owner Mark Cuban wants the league to reconsider its enforcement of tampering rules as it applies to players, with the inference that Wade helped lure James and Bosh to Miami while they were still under contract. "We're not going to become the thought police, the speech police, the private-meeting police," said Stern, who has received no formal complaints from the Cavs or the Raptors. "That said, if they are directed by their teams [to recruit other players], that would be a different situation."
Collusion among players is a common and unstoppable practice. The NBA salary cap has grown by 1,600% since its original 1984 threshold of $3.6 million per team, which has created a chumminess among the elite players. And never has a group of players exerted as much power as James, Bosh and Wade, all chosen among the top five of the 2003 draft. In 2006 James persuaded Wade and Bosh to join him in agreeing to three-year contract extensions (with a fourth-year option) that would make them free agents this summer to maximize their bargaining power before the collective bargaining agreement expires in 2011. They realized they could thrive together while helping lead the U.S. to the gold medal at the 2008 Olympics, and their bond was deepened further last year when Henry Thomas, who represents Bosh and Wade, joined James's representative, Leon Rose, at CAA Sports.
In the meantime Heat president Pat Riley was plotting what he called "the triple play." It began when he traded Shaquille O'Neal to Phoenix in 2008 to clear cap space and continued as he unloaded long-term contracts and developed relationships with confidants of the 15 All-Stars who were among this summer's class of free agents. One advantage of Riley's intelligence gathering was his understanding—as relayed to him by Wade—that James wanted to become less of a scorer and more of a distributor, and that he looked forward to no longer carrying the offense night after night. "Now the pressure of making every shot or shooting a high percentage for our team to win is not a big deal anymore," says James. "You look at Game 7 of the Finals—Kobe Bryant shot 6 for 24 from the field, and they still won because he knew he had help and guys came through for him."
The Cavaliers have depended on him to score (he's averaged at least 27 points per game over the last six seasons), but what if he never wanted to be the second coming of Jordan? James has long viewed himself as having more in common with Magic than with Michael, and this move enables him to become the Man in a more creative and entertaining way—as the playmaker who pushes the ball in the open floor and delights in watching Wade and Bosh finish what he has started. Riley knew exactly how to sell Miami to James. "LeBron would be Magic and Dwyane would be Kobe and Chris would be Kevin Garnett," said Riley, reciting the pitch he made during the Heat's July 2 presentation to James. "He actually liked that conversation. He lit up and he said that would be great if 'I didn't have to score,' that he could be maybe the first guy since Oscar Robertson to be a triple double guy."
The Heat's meeting with James in the IMG offices in downtown Cleveland lasted close to three hours, and Riley was the star. Riley has seven NBA championship rings, and he has three copies of each—one gold, one silver, one platinum—to go with whatever he may be wearing on a particular day. He tossed the bag of rings on a table for James to look inside. "Like a weapon," as Riley would describe the scene later.