NEW YORK -- LeBron James has obligations in Cleveland, and he needs to take care of those obligations. He cannot leave his hometown market a second time before winning the NBA title and reminding the city what it felt like that day in 1964 when Jim Brown pancaked the Baltimore Colts.
Cleveland has waited half a century for another championship, and James won't make good on The Decision until he delivers a parade on the rebound. But assuming he wins a couple of rings for the Cleveland Cavaliers over the next however many years, a couple to match his sum with the Miami Heat, James really should consider finishing his career in the gym he has long described as his personal field of dreams.
James was back at it Sunday night after scoring 30 points in the Eastern Conference's 163-158 All-Star Game loss to the Western Conference at Madison Square Garden, after passing Michael Jordan on the career scoring list in this event and landing two points south of Kobe Bryant's record of 280. James was asked a question about the experience, and his answer sounded like one supplied by his friend Carmelo Anthony.
"It don't get no better, man, than to be playing in the Garden in front of these fans," James said. "They know the game of basketball, and to be able to go out and represent my team and represent this league at the highest level, it means everything."
No athlete has ever spoken more adoringly about this gym, about any gym, than James has spoken about the Garden. Even Jordan, a most appreciative guest, didn't talk about the place with the same reverential tone. Just the other day, James said he wished he could play 82 regular-season games in the Garden "because it's the mecca of basketball. You get a great feeling when you walk in there because there is so much history."
So it was time to call him on it. James did choose the American Airlines Arena and the Quicken Loans Arena over the Garden as his home stage, which probably isn't something many of the planet's great entertainers would have done. If the Garden held such a special place in his heart, why hasn't he ever seriously considered signing with the New York Knicks?
"I don't know," James said after a pregnant pause. "It just didn't work out that way. I spent my first seven years in Cleveland. When I became a free agent in 2010, I felt what was best for me was to go to Miami. And when I became a free agent once again this past summer, I thought what was best was going back home. My family was feeling very comfortable. And that's how it goes."
But it doesn't have to go that way forever. James is only 30, so it's conceivable he'll still have a little of his prime to give when he's done doing what he has to do in Cleveland. If he burns to supplant Jordan as the greatest player of all time, or at least to earn a credible place in the conversation, following Mark Messier's lead -- winning a bunch of titles elsewhere, then ending a biblical drought in New York -- would go a long way toward making his case.
Of course, Jordan never seriously considered making the big jump to the big city. In the summer of '96, Knicks overlord Dave Checketts phoned agent David Falk right after midnight at the start of free agency and offered Falk's signature client every last nickel of the team's considerable cap space. Jordan thought about it for a night, then dunked the offer on Patrick Ewing's head.
Seven years later, a 40-year-old Jordan played his last game at the Garden in the colors of the Washington Wizards, scoring 39 points in defeat before borrowing a future page from LeBron's playbook. "It's unfortunate that we can't play here every night," Jordan said through a sigh.
At some point, it might make sense for James to listen to that persistent voice within. In 2008, he scored 50 points here and actually inspired some Knicks fans to chant for him to win the MVP award. "To get a standing ovation in the greatest basketball arena in the world," he said that night, "it was a dream come true for me. It was one of the best things that ever happened to me."
Not long after that, the Knicks hired Mike D'Antoni and hoped his video-game offense would help them in recruiting James two years later. Two years. In fact, at the news conference to introduce D'Antoni, the coach's agent, Warren LeGarie, openly talked up the "very good" relationship his client had built with James in their time with Team USA and that he would be quite open to coaching the world's best player full time.
Who wouldn't be? James showed up in the Garden the following November, his uninspiring cast of Cavaliers in tow, and elevated everyone's heart rate in the Knicks' executive suites by calling D'Antoni "an offensive mastermind," and by saying this about the possibility he'd sign in New York in July 2010: "I don't know if it's going to happen, but at the same time you have to stay open-minded if you're a Knicks fan."
The teases never stopped. In 2009, James delivered a Garden performance nearly the equal of Jordan's 55-point comeback game in 1995, finishing with 52 points, 11 assists and 9 rebounds, and then going on and on about the building one more time. But when the free-agent push came to shove, James had a choice between Pat Riley/Dwyane Wade/Chris Bosh and James Dolan/Donnie Walsh/D'Antoni.
Michael Spinks had a better chance of beating Mike Tyson (look it up).
James is an entirely different figure now, comfortable in his own skin, a mature superstar with a strong voice on social issues and a willingness to take on ownership-level opponents as VP of the players' union. He's done making rash decisions, uppercase or lowercase. He's set up to land a killer long-term deal in 2016, when the new TV money comes pouring in, and who knows if James will protect himself with opt-out clauses in that contract to come.
But James could hunt a fresh and final conquest in the not-too-distant future, and it wouldn't be crazy to think he'd want to join the club of old Knicks honored Sunday night during a break in All-Star play, the Fraziers and Reeds and Bradleys and Monroes.
Dolan would have to be completely marginalized by then, and Phil Jackson -- or Jackson's replacement -- would have to have a winning plan in place. The last time the Knicks presented a plan to James, in 2010, Jackson wasn't even a glimmer in Dolan's eye, and the franchise had to settle for the $100 million consolation prize, Amar'e Stoudemire, who mercifully was bought out Sunday night while James was throwing down the kind of All-Star dunks that would have made Zach LaVine proud.
"They wanted to see me do what I've been doing this year," James said of the fans, "and that's why they voted me in. ... It's my obligation and my responsibility to go out there. If I'm feeling 80 percent or 85 percent or 90, to go out there and give my fans something. Give my fans what they wanted to see. And hopefully I did that."
No, LeBron James never disappoints at Madison Square Garden. Maybe he should remember that after he makes Cleveland whole, and after he starts reviewing his options for that one last challenge for the road.