Summer of LeBron evokes memories of controlled frenzy of ‘96

LeBron leaving meeting with the Knicks. Is that a gold medal hanging from his rearview? Most likely? Last night truly felt like New Year’s Eve. When the clock flipped over to midnight, and the calendar moved to a new day and month, LeBron James became available for any team to attempt to sign. There was plenty of other top NBA talent for which that was also true, with Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade at the top of the list, but there’s nobody truly like LeBron.

From the time I first watched him on ESPN in late 2002, and then sat courtside in Trenton and was enthralled, I dreamed of having him on the Knicks – the best player in the biggest city in the world. Of course, the Cavs won the draft lottery, and the Knicks “won” Mike Sweetney.

As I type this, the Knicks’ brass just left a 2 1/2-hour meeting with LeBron, hopefully not horribly offending him or something. Donnie Walsh called his attitude “Cautiously optimistic,” which doesn’t tell me much, but is probably better than “Assuredly fatalistic.”

Everything I’ve heard over the past few days indicates that they really don’t have much of a chance of luring him to New York, but I’m honestly just enjoying the fact that there is that opportunity out there.

It truly reminds me of the halcyon summer of 1996, when the most talented crop of free agents ever hit the market. That was a different time, an era in which information wasn’t as instant as it was now. We couldn’t get up-to-the-minute updates on what players were meeting with what teams.

Yes, I still have all three jerseys I talk a lot about how the nature of sports information has changed over the years. Well, 14 years after the first big free-agent summer, we know precisely what LeBron James was wearing after he left his meeting with the Knicks (sunglasses, t-shirt, backpack, stench of money).

Back in the Summer of ‘96, having headed to Upstate New York with my family for the summer without the benefit of even cable television, I found out that the Knicks had signed Allan Houston and Chris Childs and traded for Larry Johnson – one of my favorite players – by picking up the Daily News at the corner store the day after they completed their new roster.

In what isn’t a stunner, by January, I had all three of their jerseys. And I still think that they might have given the Bulls a run if P.J. Brown didn’t flip Charlie Ward, leading David Stern to suspend half the Knicks during their playoff series against the Heat.

These acquisitions, of course, came after Reggie Miller feigned interest in the Knicks to drive up his price with the Pacers. Is it any wonder he’s one of the most reviled athletes in these parts?

I remember hearing about Shaquille O’Neal leaving the Magic for the Lakers – to support his budding movie career – on some news report on the radio in my dad’s minivan. I was practicing for my driving test by driving my parents to a lake to go swimming. I asked my dad, “Could you believe this? Shaq left the Magic?” I can’t remember his response, but it probably was something to the effect of, “Whatever, keep your eyes on the road.”

Sweet hatOf course, I found out much later about Jordan meeting with the Bulls, with the Knicks waiting downstairs with an offer. That, my friends, is the stuff of legends – a.k.a. impossibly cool. It’s almost too much to fathom the fact that the Knicks were one insulting Jerry Reinsdorf offer from bringing the greatest player in the history of the game to Broadway, to thrill us nightly instead of tormenting us.

And now we’re there again, except that we get information in a heartbeat. When the Wolves inexplicably gave Darko Milicic a four-year deal, we knew about it within seconds. When the Grizzlies signed a second-tier player at best in Rudy Gay to a max deal – amazingly broken by David Aldridge – that news was at our fingertips. It’s wild.

The Knicks are at least in the game here, despite the fact that they’re one of the only major contenders for LeBron that we don’t ever hear is the favorite.

For example, the Nets show up with Jay-Z and proclaim themselves “the front-runners,” while Mike D’Antoni evokes Billy Joel – not exactly the epitome of new-millennium cool – saying that they put LeBron in a “New York State of Mind.”

And earlier in the day, the NBA slipped up and put a LeBron jersey as the image for their customizable Bulls jerseys, so there’s that.


The Knicks? Well… we got Gallinari. At least for now.

So yeah, I don’t expect to get LeBron, despite his being their entire focus the past two years. I’ve been enjoying this anyway, though. This NBA free agency period is like the baseball Winter Meetings on a trio of Red Bull/Vodkas. It’s actually even better, since most of the time, nothing happens at the Meetings.

If nothing else, it’s another chance to experience what we did in 1996, when the entire NBA landscape changed. Something like this only comes along once every 14 or so years, and I have a feeling the stories from this first day, when the Knicks went coast-to-coast only to cross paths with Jay-Z in Cleveland, will resonate for years to come.

Just like when they missed on Jordan.



    • If he were in the Lincoln Tunnel, most likely stuck in traffic, I'd probably slip into the back seat and begin my own personal sales pitch. It'd be a total disaster.

  1. Correction. New York is not the biggest city in the world. It's not in the top three, but I get what you mean. I suppose LeBron in Tokyo wouldn't be the same.

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