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Will he stay or will he go? The fate of LeBron James may be the most dramatic cliffhanger in the history of professional sports. And while he may not have said all that much about his intentions during the past six months, there have been plenty of clues,
There are 40.5 million Google results for the phrase “LeBron James unrestricted free agent.” Yes, our stomachs quiver at the sound of those words, too. LeBron’s relentlessly bandied, hypothetical departure would be a nightmare scenario at best and a Cleveland sports apocalypse at worst.

It panders to our deep-seated insecurities, our feelings of abandonment and inadequacy. And why shouldn’t it? This kind of stuff has been going on for quite some time. Oil magnate John D. Rockefeller bolted Cleveland for New York. BP America packed up and left for Chicago. Hell, even Yankees owner George Steinbrenner was a Clevelander before he became the man who bankrolls our most hated baseball rivals.

This is just how things work here mocks the voice in our heads. It’s the same one that warned of Manny Ramirez’s departure to Boston and Jim Thome’s decision to forego a huge paycheck for an even fatter contract in Philadelphia. It reminds us that the two starting pitchers in this year’s World Series Game 1 were both wearing Cleveland Indians uniforms two seasons ago.

But LeBron James is different. He’s arguably the best player in the game. He leads an outstanding team with a talented supporting cast and an unrivaled owner. He is one of us.

But still, that little voice nags. To be honest, we’d worry even if speculation about LeBron’s future hadn’t bloomed into a mushroom cloud of hype long before the 2009-2010 season tipped off. The Big Apple-driven feeding frenzy has turned anything said by anyone connected to LeBron (and even those not connected to him) into a headline. Newspaper columnists have become freak-show barkers crafting overblown theories about how he could end up playing for the Bobcats or the Clippers.

So, as the NBA’s All-Star break arrives this month, it’s time to make sense of the barrage of clues, speculation and publicity as only a true Cleveland sports fan can — by reading into, translating and dissecting it to death.
Roll over the superscripts for our take.

“In a perfect world1 … he has no choice but to stay here. … Mr. Gilbert and Mr. Ferry have given him the world right here.2 If we do what we came here to do,3 everything will fall into place.” Shaquille O’Neal at the Cavaliers press conference introducing him, reported by The Plain Dealer

ANALYSIS: We get a summer glimpse into the mind of the Big Aristotle (reliable source = +55), and we like his philosophy on why LeBron should stay (sound argument = +25), but the season is still 117 days away (pending uncertainty = -10).

LEBRON-O-METER: 70 out of 100*

Trevor asked LeBron if he would be in Cleveland after next season,”1 the source said. “And LeBron said, ‘I’ll be there. Of course, I’ll be there.’2 an unnamed source speaking on behalf of current Houston Rocket Trevor Ariza, one of the free agents the Cavs were trying to land, reported by ESPN.com3

ANALYSIS: Maybe we’re overly optimistic, but this sounds plausible (why-would-he-make-it-up factor = +50). Of course, the ESPN reporter (trusted authority = +45) who penned it ended up leaving Cleveland for New York (bad coincidence = -10).

LEBRON-O-METER: 85 out of 100

According to a source close to LeBron James, the current NBA Most Valuable Player did not tell free agent Trevor Ariza that he was for sure going to be with the Cavaliers past 2010.1 Earlier today reported James told Ariza “I’ll be there. Of course, I’ll be there.” as part of the Cavs’ recruiting pitch. … The report said Ariza deemed the statement to be a ploy to convince him to drop a commitment to sign with the Houston Rockets. The source close to James indicated it wasn’t even a ploy.2 reported by The Plain Dealer

ANALYSIS: LeBron’s camp shoots back within hours with a comment we won’t like (bad news = -20). However, it’s delivered in a very short, bewildering article (benefit of the doubt = +30).

LEBRON-O-METER: 10 out of 100

My loyalty is to Akron. I’m looking forward to this upcoming season,1 but I’m looking forward to the summer of 2010, too, to see what may happen. … I love this city, and I’ll always give back to this city no matter what my profession, if it takes me somewhere else.”2 LeBron James, from his ESPN Sunday Conversation interview with ESPN’s Rachel Nichols

ANALYSIS: Sure, LeBron left the door wide open for either staying or leaving (deliberate vagueness = -10), but an overwhelming number of ESPN-tabbed NBA experts don’t see him going anywhere (boost of confidence = +70).

LEBRON-O-METER: 60 out of 100

He’s a hometown boy.1 Gloria James 2 comment during a book- signing party for Shooting Stars in New York City,3 reported by sportingnews.comm

ANALYSIS: An inflammatory comment in enemy territory (didn’t see that coming = +60), delivered by LeBron’s mother no less (mama-bear factor = +30). Of course, she may be reminding LeBron of how good he has it, rather than speaking for him. (Remember, it’s not LeBron saying it = -15.)

LEBRON-O-METER: 75 out of 100

10/15/09 | NEW YORK, NEW YORK
He’s got a good opportunity to win there.1 And I know a lot of people talk about him playing in a big market, but he just wants to win a ring. It’s not about playing in a big market. New York Knick and former Cavalier and LeBron teammate 2 Larry Hughes,3 reported by the New York Daily News

ANALYSIS: The Cavaliers winning percentage during the Le-Bron era certainly shows the Cavs can rack up wins (winning tradition = +58.5) and Larry Hughes did play with LeBron for two and a half seasons (expertise of source = +15). However, Hughes isn’t always the most accurate guy (just in case his shooting carries over to other parts of his life = -29.7).

LEBRON-O-METER: 43.8 out of 100

None whatsoever, although I hope it is in Cleveland. NBA commissioner David Stern1 after being asked if he had an idea about where LeBron will end up after becoming a free agent, reported by the New York Post

ANALYSIS: Having a little good karma from the league commissioner can’t hurt (his signature is printed on the basketball after all = +80), but did the guy who some say rigged the 1985 NBA draft lottery so the Knicks would get Patrick Ewing just create his alibi for getting LeBron to New York (potential double agent = -30)?

LEBRON-O-METER: 50 out of 100

10/24/09 | CLEVELAND, OHIO
The hip-hop superstar and the NBA’s MVP were thick as thieves Thursday night at Cleveland State University’s Wolstein Center. When Jay-Z1 rapped an ode to his hometown of New York City (complete with a dazzling Manhattan skyline backdrop), James danced alongside. Alarmingly, No. 23 seemed to know all the words, too.2 Did we mention that the tune was called “Empire State of Mind”? Plain Dealer music writer John Soeder, from his review of Jay-Z’s concert, reported by The Plain Dealer

ANALYSIS: A conspiracy theorist’s dream: Jay-Z writes a rah-rah song about New York (insecurity fodder = -30) and then has LeBron perform it with him on stage in Cleveland (rubbing-it-in factor = -20). Of course, it is just a song (reality is the best defense = +35), and the New Jersey Nets won’t have a new arena by the start of the 2010 season (brick-and-mortar bummer = +30).

LEBRON-O-METER: 15 out of 100

I just hope he stays in Cleveland. He means so much to that state. Plus, I like to see players stay where they were drafted.1 NBA Hall of Famer and career Boston Celtic Larry Bird2 from a Plain Dealer wire-service story previewing his new book, reported on

ANALYSIS: In the past 11 NBA seasons, two of the players on that list — Los Angeles Laker Kobe Bryant and San Antonio Spurs forward Tim Duncan — have won four championships each (looks like longevity with a contender is directly proportional to multiple championships — let’s call it the Bird Principle = +70). We’ll tack on a bonus because Bird is among the first tier of NBA legends (Hall of Fame credit = +5).

LEBRON-O-METER: 75 out of 100

A max deal or anything like that doesn’t really matter to me at the end of the day. ... I want to win,1 and if I feel like the team is capable of winning,2 I’ll make my decision like that. LeBron James, comment following his team’s one and only game at Madison Square Garden this year, reported by

ANALYSIS: Because the Cavs are winners, this can’t really be bad news (nothing-to-see-here effect = +60); of course, we wish the Cavs hadn’t been underperforming at the time he said it (paranoia = -5). He also said during a pre-game interview the same day that there’s “no timetable” for the decision once July 1, 2010, arrives (an even sweatier summer = -10).

LEBRON-O-METER: 45 out of 100

This free agent talk is getting old.1 It’s getting old, and I think I’m going to stop. Tonight will be the last time I answer any more free agent questions until the offseason. LeBron James, addressing sports writers prior to the Cavaliers game against the Orlando Magic

ANALYSIS: LeBron sternly bows out of all the free agency talk (classy move = +75). Of course, this won’t actually stop anyone else from talking about it (spike in annoying chatter = -10).

LEBRON-O-METER: 65 out of 100

11/12/09 | MIAMI, FLORIDA
I know the city1 appeals to a lot of guys,2 but I don’t know, in his heart of hearts, how it appeals to him. I know LeBron really enjoys being the quote-unquote savior for Cleveland,3 a place that he grew up. Dwyane Wade, 4 when asked if he thought playing in Miami would appeal to LeBron, reported by The Miami Herald

ANALYSIS: Sure, Miami has balmy winter days and Dwyane Wade (weather adjustment + resident superstar = -35), but there’s something to be said for having 45 years of a city’s championship hopes riding on your able shoulders (because a 45-year title drought feels twice as bad as it is = +90). Finally, we can’t forget that Wade may actually have insight into King James’ true intentions because of the duo’s Olympic Team connection (Olympics in 2004 + Olympics in 2008: 2 + 0 + 0 + 4 + 2 + 0 + 0 + 8 = +16).

LEBRON-O-METER: 71 out of 100

11/13/09 | MIAMI, FLORIDA
I feel like no NBA player should wear 23.1 LeBron James, talking about a petition he wants to start to retire the No. 23 from the NBA and saying he’ll probably wear No. 6 2 in 2010-11, reported by The Plain Dealer

ANALYSIS: LeBron’s quest to retire No. 23 is admirable, but what better way to sell new Cavs jerseys to all of us who already own them than changing your number (wise marketing move = +40)? We’re always superstitious, but especially when it suits us (New Age mystique = +10). The only problem is none of this has anything to do with LeBron staying in Cleveland (penalty for reading too much into this = -5).

LEBRON-O-METER: 45 out of 100

Here’s what New York can’t offer — the man who made No. 23 famous.” 1Charlotte Observer columnist Tom Sorensen, on why Michael Jordan’s involvement with the Charlotte Bobcats makes the team a perfect free agency destination for LeBron. Share this story: