How the Cavs plan to keep LeBron James

Last March, online mortgage magnate Dan Gilbert bought the Cleveland Cavaliers for roughly $375 million, more than double the club's estimated value in March 2003.

March 2003 was before LeBron James.

Upon taking the reins, Gilbert, a highly competitive, self-made man, professed his desire to bring the franchise its first championship in the blue-collar image of his hometown team, the Detroit Pistons. But his first goal was to make sure there was no after LeBron James.

This August, the NBA's most dynamic young player will get to make a statement about his long-term NBA future when the Cavs offer him a five-year, maximum contract extension worth about $75 million (the exact figure depends on the final salary cap number). James will have until Oct. 31 to accept. If he doesn't, he'll become a restricted free agent after the 2006-07 season.

During his first three seasons in the league, James often has been the subject of two sorts of speculation: What will his place in history be, and when will he leave Cleveland?

With James' endorsement potential and the unimpressive history and midmarket nature of the Cavs, many assume he'll eventually want to leave for the bigger, better and perhaps more lucrative.

However, Gilbert and his handpicked operations chief, general manager Danny Ferry, have done everything in their power, not just in their job description, to forever keep it mere speculation.

Their effort is a multilayered operation with highly public and highly private facets. It includes traditional and nontraditional methods, some even controversial.

Regardless, it is working.

Despite rumors to the contrary over the last year, and despite the Cavs' mixed record on the court, the plan to retain James seems to be a success. He is pleased with the Cavs and appears to be on track to sign the deal.

"I can't wait to sign my extension," James said recently. "I'm very happy here."

To ensure that happiness, the Cavs have embarked on a "keep LeBron" program that has three broad strokes: (1) upgrade the talent around their young star; (2) invest in the comfort and enjoyment of the team as a whole; and (3) take care of the every need of LeBron and his powerful entourage. Not necessarily in that order.

"From the day we bought this team, we have stated that we are going to be philosophically driven," Gilbert said in an e-mail. "[The] best practices across all parts of the organization. All the things that any winner, LeBron James or anyone else, who shares our vision and values would immediately be attracted to and where they would want to play their entire careers."

When Gilbert assumed control of the team March 1, he rapidly made changes. He fired coach Paul Silas nine games into his tenure as owner. When the Cavs tied for the last playoff spot and lost out on a tiebreaker to the New Jersey Nets, Gilbert swiftly fired general manager Jim Paxson and later his entire staff.

But there were other moves, more subtle, yet important ones. Gilbert had known he was going to buy the team since the previous December, shortly after his bid to purchase the Milwaukee Brewers fell through.

He is a self-professed details person, like his close friends and business partners. As team co-owner David Katzman said about his role in Gilbert's venture capital and mortgage companies: "Dan finds the bones, I dig them up."

In the months leading up to his takeover, Gilbert was in an information-gathering mode. When it came to the delicate issue of protecting his massive investment, it was fruitful.

Gilbert learned that James' friends were influential in his decision making and were rising to power. That was especially true of LeBron's longtime friend Maverick Carter, who was working for Nike as a part of James' shoe contract at the time but was making plans with James to break free of his agent and manager, Aaron Goodwin.

It has been suggested by several team sources that Gilbert gathered this from his association with William Wesley, a well-known figure in the NBA who befriends players and advises and connects them with various opportunities. Wesley, like Gilbert, lives in suburban Detroit and had forged a relationship with James. It is no coincidence that James chose Leon Rose, a longtime business partner of Wesley's, as his new agent.

The man Gilbert bought out, 20-year Cavs owner Gordon Gund, was staid and distant. That's not the new owner's style, especially not with so much as stake.

Within days of Gilbert's taking over the team, Carter and James' other close friends and family members were watching games with Gilbert and his fellow owners in his courtside box.
They would communicate away from the games, as well.

Last spring, Gilbert railed against a report in The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer that he offered to fly James' mother, Gloria, to road games in a private jet. That was indeed false. But Carter was a guest on Gilbert's jet.

By the time James officially filed the papers with the NBA Players Association, shortly after last season, to sever ties with Goodwin, Gilbert had developed a good relationship with James' new management team, led by Carter. That relationship helped build the basis of the trust James has developed with the new leadership.

"I think [LeBron] is a very intuitive person, he is highly aware," Gilbert said. "LeBron knows that when his GM, head coach, owner or anyone else in the Cleveland Cavaliers organization says something, then you can be sure they are going to do it. That it is important to a young guy who many people from all over are pulling at to get a piece of him and his aura."

Last fall, Ferry hired Randy Mims, another member of James' so-called "Four Horsemen" management wing of his company, LeBron Inc., to be what the team termed a "player liaison." Mims traveled with James during his first two years and rode the team jet; this season, he became an official employee of the team.

Other perks have been more understated, but there's no questioning the lengths to which the team will go to make sure James and his friends and family are as comfortable as possible.

In December, the team reworked its practice schedule around James' 21st birthday party at the House of Blues in Cleveland. Another member of James' team, Rich Paul, organized the party, where 1,000 tickets costing $50-300 were sold to fans.

At certain road games, members of James' group are sometimes given the premium tickets usually reserved for visiting owners or general managers while the Cavs personnel finds other seats.

All the Cavs are aware of the extra benefits, but in the locker room, where James is very popular among his teammates, the players insist all is equal.

"LeBron knows this franchise's future depends on him; we understand it, too; and all the rest comes with that territory," center Zydrunas Ilgauskas said. "I don't have any problems with any of it; from the team perspective, he doesn't get treated different than any other player."

When Ilgauskas refers to "the team perspective," he's acknowledging the Cavs' efforts to raise the entire team's standard of living. The Cavs' key players, except Drew Gooden, have lucrative, long-term contracts, and Gilbert's and Ferry's personnel moves are intended to have another effect: to make LeBron more comfortable believing the Cavs can win.

As Gilbert and Katzman conducted a wide array of interviews for their open general manager position in May and June, strategies for dealing with James and his new management were part of the process. The same went for their search for a coach, which ultimately led them to Indiana Pacers assistant Mike Brown.

Ferry, who was a part of the San Antonio Spurs when they went through the process of getting franchise player Tim Duncan to stay put happily in a smaller market, had experience in such matters.

"You have to build the foundation first and make the player feel a part of the foundation," Ferry said.

"We've worked to make LeBron and all our players feel that way."

When Ferry was hired, he was given more than $28 million in cap space to use, a legacy from Paxson's long-term rebuilding effort. This was maximized by Gilbert's willingness not to spare any expense.

The Cavs cleared an extra $2 million in space when they traded Jiri Welsch to the Bucks on draft day. The Bucks said yes only after the Cavs agreed to pay his salary for this season. Ferry also got Gilbert to green-light the insertion of millions in reachable incentives into the contracts of free agents Larry Hughes and Donyell Marshall.

In all, Gilbert committed to $150 million in contracts in the offseason to Marshall, Hughes, Ilgauskas and Damon Jones, pieces that -- alongside James -- he and Ferry hope will lead them to the playoffs.

Then there are the less expensive but critical cosmetic touches. Following the model established by the Dallas Mavericks and other NBA teams, Gilbert has upgraded the team's facilities and perks in a number of ways.

Gilbert poured $12 million into Quicken Loans Arena for a new scoreboard and new seats. He renovated the Cavs' locker room, complete with televisions in every locker -- James has two -- along with video game and stereo systems.

He upgraded the players' food service before and after games and on the team jet and he remade the family room at the arena. Soon, the Cavs will unveil plans for a new suburban practice facility, one costing $30 million to $40 million and intended to set a new standard in player amenities in the NBA.

Gilbert wants to make sure the facilities and the care equal or exceed those of any large market. His upgrades are to attract future free agents, but also to ensure a current player never becomes a free agent.

Especially one player in particular.

"I know that here and when I was in Philly, they did the best they could to keep their best player," said Cavs captain Eric Snow, who was with the 76ers when the club persuaded Allen Iverson to stay long term. "Ultimately, that decision is going to come down to the player, but they have to do their best to keep them happy. Thus far, they've done that here."

Ultimately, Gilbert understands that his mission to succeed in Cleveland and his efforts to keep James content are essentially one and the same.

"Whatever great reaction you saw with the awesome Jerome Bettis winning his last game as a pro in the Super Bowl in his hometown Detroit will be multiplied a thousand times the day LeBron James holds the Larry O'Brien Trophy over his head in the parade in downtown Cleveland," Gilbert said. "I can't tell you when, exactly, but I can tell you something that all of us, including LeBron, know: That day is coming."

Brian Windhorst covers the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Akron Beacon-Journal.