LeBron Drawn to Miami by Friends, Dreams of NBA Titles

LeBron James said he was drawn to the Miami Heat by a pair of friends and his confidence the All-Star trio can win NBA championships, even though he could have made more money by staying with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

James, the National Basketball Association’s reigning two- time Most Valuable Player, said in a nationally televised show on ESPN last night that he will join Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh by signing a free-agent contract with Miami.

James, Wade and Bosh won gold medals for the U.S. team at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and the three talked frequently before and during the free-agency period that began July 1.

“I think the major factor, the major reason, in my decision was to give me the best opportunity to win and to win now,” said James, who never won an NBA title during his seven seasons in Cleveland. “Winning is a huge thing for me.”

Teams including the New York Knicks and Chicago Bulls vied for the six-time All-Star, who could have signed a six-year contract worth about $128 million in Cleveland. He can get a maximum of about $99 million for five years in Miami.

Spurned Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert said James committed an act of “cowardly betrayal,” saying in an open letter to fans on the team’s website that “this shocking act of disloyalty from our home grown ‘chosen one’ sends the exact opposite lesson of what we would want our children to learn.”

Gilbert’s Reaction

Gilbert, the founder and chairman of Quicken Loans Inc., accused James of a “heartless and callous action” and said the days leading to last night’s announcement were a “narcissistic, self-promotional build-up” without precedent in sports history.

He also told the Associated Press that James quit on the Cavaliers during their playoff series loss last season to Boston, which won the final three games after trailing 2-1.

“He quit,” Gilbert told AP in an interview. “Not just in Game 5, but in Games 2, 4 and 6. Watch the tape. The Boston series was unlike anything in the history of sports for a superstar.”

James grew up in Akron, Ohio, about 40 miles from Cleveland, and acknowledged it will be difficult returning there as an opponent.

“It’s going to be a challenge going there and playing on the other side of the court,” he said in the ESPN show. “It’s a lot of mixed emotions because of what I was able to build there from being an 18-year-old kid to being a 25-year-old man.”

Personal Coup

James’s move to Miami is the latest personnel coup for Micky Arison, 61, the billionaire owner of the Heat and chairman of Carnival Corp., the biggest cruise-line operator. In his 15 years as the team’s managing general partner, Arison has won an NBA title and brought in All-Stars such as Alonzo Mourning and Shaquille O’Neal, in addition to James, Bosh and Wade. He also installed Pat Riley as coach in 1995 and then team president.

Miami hasn’t won a playoff series since capturing the NBA championship in 2006. The free-agent signings of James and Bosh and the re-signing of Wade has transformed the NBA’s Eastern Conference.

“We are looking forward to the opportunity of building something that our fans in Miami will be proud of for a long, long time,” Riley said in a statement released by the Heat. “The journey is just beginning.”

Cavaliers General Manager Chris Grant said the team would “compete at the highest level” even without James.

“We will work relentlessly to continue to build a team that will contend, a team that will win championships,” Grant said in an e-mailed statement.

Home Attendance

Miami ranked 15th in the NBA in average home attendance last season. Sales of season tickets for Heat games next season were suspended yesterday afternoon after all currently available seats sold out, the Associated Press reported.

“For a franchise that cost $32.5 million in the mid-80s and now is worth over 10 times that, a LeBron James-Wade-Bosh trilogy will immediately raise the value of the franchise to a significant degree and lead to significant incremental marketing dollars beyond that and increase the chances of a dynasty, which will raise the value even further,” Rick Horrow, a Miami-based sports consultant who is a contributing editor to Bloomberg Television, said yesterday in a phone interview.

In December 2009, Forbes magazine estimated the value of the Heat at $364 million, 12th highest among the 30 NBA franchises.

Franchise Value

Russ Granik, the NBA’s deputy commissioner for 30 years and now vice chairman of Galatioto Sports Partners in New York, said yesterday in an e-mail that James’s signing would have “a small impact” on the Heat’s value.

“If the three of them play as well as people project, that’s going to put more people in the stands, create more sponsorships and that could have an effect over time on revenue,” Granik said. “I don’t believe it would have a great impact on the franchise value because, no matter how good things turn out, it’s only for a limited amount of time.”

James, who has said he aspires to join friend Warren Buffett as a billionaire, was named the world’s second-most powerful athlete this year in a ranking by Bloomberg BusinessWeek -- trailing golfer Tiger Woods, with whom James shares a Dec. 30 birthday.

LeBron Raymone James skipped college and jumped from high school to the NBA at 18. He had a $90 million shoe contract with Nike Inc., the world’s largest athletic shoemaker, before playing his first pro game. He also endorses McDonald’s Corp., the world’s biggest restaurant company; Coca-Cola Co., the world’s biggest soft-drink maker; and State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co., the largest U.S. home and auto insurer.

No. 1 Pick

James, a 6-foot-8 forward, has career averages of 27.8 points, seven rebounds and seven assists per game. When he arrived in Cleveland as the No. 1 draft pick in 2003, the Cavaliers hadn’t won a playoff series in a decade. The Cavaliers reached the NBA Finals in 2007 and had the best regular-season record in each of the past two seasons.

The Heat cleared an NBA-high $43.3 million in salary cap space to be able to pay James, Wade and Bosh close to the $16.6 million maximum allowed for free agents in the first year of a new contract.

Wade announced two days ago on ESPN that he will re-sign with Miami after considering free-agent offers from teams including the Bulls. Bosh said on ESPN that he will move as a free agent to the Heat from Toronto.

Outside Madison Square Garden, a fan wearing a blue “LeBron or Bust” shirt said the Knicks were among the biggest losers in the bidding for James.

“It’s such a shame,” said Greg Wolinsky, 22, of Dix Hills. “The hype was ridiculous. We wasted an entire season just to get him. We shed our entire (salary) cap for one man only.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Rob Gloster in San Francisco at rgloster@bloomberg.net

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