Ask not what LeBron can do for your team.
Ask what your team can do for LeBron.
Neither James nor his agents have gone public with any outrageous demands so far, but it's early and you know what they're thinking. Small wonder. Every discussion in the NBA these days eventually winds its way back to you-know-who and where he will deign to play next season. It's gotten so bad that the King should consider wearing a headband full time, if only to limit the swelling.
Shortly before Tuesday night's draft lottery, even commissioner David Stern weighed in on whether and-or where James' throne might end up.
"To be perfectly honest, it doesn't matter to me," he said. "Our job is to promote him and our league wherever he goes. I think it's terrific that he has the choice to make, and we'll be behind him whatever he does."
Stern did find time to congratulate his league for a compelling postseason so far, and predicted interest would only grow with a "great finals" in the next few weeks, followed by "a really interesting draft" on June 24. But the commissioner left no doubt about what he considered the most important event on the NBA calendar this year.
"Katie bar the door in July" is the way Stern referred to the beginning of free agency on July 1. And if the actual wheeling and dealing turns out to be half as entertaining as the build up has been — "Songs, banners, balloons, blimps, armies, I don't even know what," he marveled — Stern would be advised to take his own advice.
"I'm just going to hide in the office," he said, "and let it all roll out."
Unfortunately, not everyone will have that option.
"I'm 'LeBroned out.'" Charles Barkley told ESPN radio earlier in the day. "OK?
"I am so sick of ... you know I love ESPN. but they're really starting to annoy me. I'm going to have to turn it off for the 40 days. They've already got the 'LeBron free-agent clock' on. I am seriously sick of talking about LeBron James — every little whim, dissecting everything he says.
"I'm really just sick," the former and still-round mound of rebound repeated one more time, "of the whole LeBron thing to be honest."
Nobody wants to see another traveling circus similar to the one Brett Favre rolled out of Green Bay first to New York and then into Minneapolis. It happens much more frequently in big-time club soccer, but there's only a handful of athletes in the four major North American pro sports leagues whose relocation could cause anywhere near this kind of tumult.
Alex Rodriguez's move from Texas to New York didn't, but if Derek Jeter ever decided to leave, he probably could. Tom Brady and Peyton Manning in the NFL, certainly; Sidney Crosby and maybe Alex Ovechkin in the NHL, almost. Among James' NBA brethren, only a renewed threat by Kobe Bryant to depart Los Angeles would come close.
Because of league rules, staying put with the Cavaliers would allow him to pocket an extra $30 million or so more than any other team can pay. There's also the city's unquestioned loyalty, something that was demonstrated in a half-goofy, half-sad video made by a group calling itself "Clevelanders for LeBron James."
In it, a string of low-level government officials, local TV personalities and entertainers on up to U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown and Gov. Ted Strickland pledge their willingness to do almost anything to keep James, all of it set to the tune of "We Are the World." Similar efforts are already under way in a half-dozen other towns, all of them extolling the benefits of relocating there.
There is a lesson writ large in this episode, but you have to wonder whether James is interested in learning it.
Cleveland might be a small-market team, but so is Indianapolis and it hasn't hampered Manning's endorsement value one bit. James already exerts influence over virtually every move the franchise makes, from signing other free agents to deciding who the next coach would be. The only thing the Cavaliers can't guarantee him is a title, but neither can anyone else.
Then there's the little matter of what James owes a franchise that has already paid him a king's ransom in salary and enabled him to make several times that much money on the side. You won't hear that discussed too often, but anytime you need a reminder, find a photograph of the sign that covers nearly an entire side of the arena in Cleveland.
It was put there by James' handlers from Nike, and shows him with arms outspread. It reads: "One for all."
But maybe not for much longer.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org