AKRON, Ohio -- It will officially go down as a Most Valuable Player award ceremony. But in truth, it was a love-in, a community gathering, a chance for Akron to salute its favorite son and for its favorite son to big up his hometown.
Thousands of fans, scores of them wearing LeBron James jerseys, chanted "M-V-P! M-V-P!'' every chance they got. Hundreds of friends, family members and sponsors turned out to show their support for the world's greatest basketball player. And the superstar himself spoke of Akron as if it were some sort of utopia, declaring his commitment to the place nearly half a dozen times.
"I love Akron to death,'' James said. "Since I was a little kid, I always said I was going to find a way to put this city on the map. And I'm going to continue to do that.''
As James spoke after receiving his second straight MVP award Sunday at the University of Akron, you couldn't help but think to yourself: He ain't leaving.
Of course, James didn't go that far. He kept his wiggle room as the greatest prize in the greatest free-agent class in NBA history by saying, "No matter what might be ahead for me, this will always be my home.''
But everything else about the afternoon said he's staying with the Cleveland Cavaliers. After all, the overriding theme of the event was loyalty -- to his mom, to his family, to his high school teammates, to his city and to his team. Now in his seventh year with the Cavs, James even invited his teammates onto the stage, where they mugged and posed for pictures while sharing inside jokes.
"I don't have any special insight into this,'' said Keith Dambrot, James' first high school coach and now the head coach at Akron. "But if I had to, I'd bet my house that he stays. Why else would you do things like this?''
Things like open up your MVP presentation to the public, for free.
Historically, these ceremonies have been small, fairly mundane affairs. Held in a hotel ballroom or maybe a team's practice facility, they typically involved the player, the media and some team employees. Kind of impersonal, kind of routine, they were never as majestic as they appeared on TV.
But LeBron has turned them into a celebration, a party.
Last year, the students at James' alma mater, St. Vincent-St. Mary High School, along with family and friends, jammed into the tiny gymnasium where James became famous, honoring him in a way reminiscent of a raucous school assembly.
This year, he went one better, holding the event at much larger Rhodes Arena, where he played most of his home games as a high school junior and senior to accommodate the growing crowds and media.
James, who will be honored officially as MVP by NBA commissioner David Stern before Monday's Game 2 against the Boston Celtics, had a simple answer for why he made it a community event:
"Because I'm just a little kid from Akron.''
If James' desire is indeed to stay with the Cavs (even he might not know for sure), the one thing that could throw a monkey wrench into his plan is a Cavaliers bust in these playoffs. He has always insisted that winning ultimately will determine his destination, so if he brings Cleveland its first major league sports title since 1964, one would think he would re-sign and seek to build a dynasty.
But what if the Cavs, who lead Boston 1-0, bow out early, falling to the Celtics in the second round or to the Orlando Magic again in the conference finals? Would that increase his chances of leaving?
Remember, in leaving Cleveland, James, who has said he wants to become a billionaire, would have to leave roughly $30 million on the table. Visions any fan has of a sign-and-trade to Dallas or wherever are more like delusions because the Cavs aren't likely to aid James in a departure.
That leaves only the following teams with the salary-cap space to sign a player to a max contract: the New York Knicks, the New Jersey Nets, the Chicago Bulls, the Miami Heat, the Washington Wizards and the Los Angeles Clippers. Of those, the Bulls are probably the Cavs' biggest threat, with their young nucleus of Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah.
New York? Forget the urban legend that Nike will pay James more money to play in the Big Apple. His signature is already on his new Nike deal, and several sources tell me there's no clause in it that states he'll get paid more for playing with the Knicks.
The notion that James needs to relocate to a bigger market is also faulty. He's already the clear-cut face of the NBA, with plenty of endorsement contracts, even though he's playing in Cleveland and hasn't won a ring. In this global, Internet age, the size of the local market is virtually irrelevant. And if his social needs need satisfying, James can hop in a private jet and fly anywhere he wants to at a moment's notice, so why not stay in his hotel-sized crib on the outskirts of Akron?
James, who wasn't wooed and recruited by colleges because everyone knew he was NBA-bound, probably will visit several teams come July. Big on drama, he might let the suspense build to a crescendo. But in the end, Cavs fans should let these words from James comfort them.
"The city of Akron means so much to me,'' he said. "Akron, Ohio, is my life. I love this city.''
Cavs owner Dan Gilbert, who sat on stage with James, is convinced, or at the very least, feigning conviction, saying, "I'm sure we'll be here next year with MV3.''
There was no reason Sunday to believe that won't be the case.