Terry Pluto, sports columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, has been covering LeBron James since his first high school game. His latest book, LeBron James: The Making of an MVP (cowritten with PD Cavs beat writer Brian Winters) is the definitive work to date on how James became the best player in the NBA and challenger to Michael Jordan’s legacy as the best ever. We spoke to him shortly after the Cavaliers were eliminated from the NBA playoffs by the Celtics last night.
Let’s get to the point. What’s going to happen with LeBron?
Look, if this was baseball, he’d be gone, like C.C. Sabathia to the Yankees.
What’s the basic difference between superstars in baseball and basketball?
Here’s a big one: in baseball, the bigger city is a bigger market. Simply put, the Yankees can afford to pay Sabathia more than the Indians could. In the NBA, most of the revenue comes from TV contracts that are more evenly divided between all member franchises than TV money is in baseball. Also — and this is a really big factor – there’s the NBA salary cap. The way it’s structured, there’s no bidding war. The Cavs can outpay the Knicks as far as salary, so there’s no real financial lure for him to come to New York.
What about income outside salary? Wouldn’t the Knicks ownership, which is fabulously wealthy, be able to get him better endorsement deals than he’s getting playing in Cleveland?
I think you’re overestimating the clout of the Knicks’ front office. LeBron is already the third highest paid endorser in sports — behind only Tiger Woods and David Beckham. Tiger may be ready to drop from the pantheon, and Beckham is no spring chicken, either. LBJ may well move up to the number one spot while staying with the Cavs. In the NBA it doesn’t make that big a difference what town is your home base. You have a national showcase — really, you get an international showcase with the NBA. I don’t think it matters much to Chinese fans buying jerseys whether LeBron is playing for the Cavaliers or the Knicks.
It seems to me that the New York press is overrating the impact LeBron could have on the Knicks. Do you think he could make them into a winner?
Well, the Knicks were 29-53 last season. If he alone could swing, say, 15 more wins, he’d have them over .500. That sounds about right. He might be able to deliver a couple more than that. But do you really see the Knicks winning a championship with the team they have now, with LeBron James the only significant addition? I don’t. I’d be more nervous if the Atlanta Hawks were after him — their young talent is better than the Knicks.’ But no matter how you look at it, he’s more likely to win a championship with Cleveland next year than with New York.
Don’t you think LeBron’s head could be turned by the glamour of playing in New York?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking New York. But I do think a lot of New York sports media people overrate the lure for someone like James. He’s a local guy — he goes to Akron U games. Where he lives now, he doesn’t have an army of photographers camped out waiting for him to appear. If the owner situation in Cleveland was bad, things might be different, but I don’t think he wants to trade the Cavs’ owners for the Knicks.’
What about hanging out with his pals Jay-Z, A-Rod, and Sabathia?
Oh, if he wants to nightclub with them or host SNL again, he can always take a plane. Or live there during the off-season.
So if you had to take a guess at what you think is going to happen, what would you say?
I think LeBron’s a smart guy. Even though he didn’t go to college, he went to Catholic high school and was an honors student. He isn’t going to make any rash decision. My guess? I think he’ll sign a short contract to stay with Cleveland, maybe three years, and see if he can get that ring in front of the hometown crowd. If that doesn’t pan out, I would expect, at age 28, he’ll be looking for a deal with the best team out there.