Without kissing a single trophy or feeling one drop of ticker tape fall on his comic book arms, LeBron James has changed the conversation in sports. How do I know this?
I don't believe I'd ever uttered the expression "global icon" until the past two weeks.
No matter which rabbit James pulls out of his hat Thursday night on ESPN -- Miami Heat, Cleveland Cavaliers, New York Knicks or Fort Wayne Mad Ants -- he should understand something about becoming a global icon, whatever that means.
You don't find it. It finds you.
Reports have James leaning heavily toward signing with Miami, where he would form basketball's latest Big Three. But maybe we've already unearthed the reason James hasn't claimed an NBA championship, other than the fact that his Cleveland roster wasn't built to win one.
He's poured way too much blood, sweat and tears into his pursuit of an entirely different title.
Lord and Master of the Free Agent Universe.
LeBron is chasing the kind of fame and stature attained by no American athlete before him, Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan and Muhammad Ali included. It reminds of another breathless free-agent drama nearly a decade ago, when Alex Rodriguez entered the marketplace fixing to conquer the world, not the World Series.
Somehow A-Rod persuaded Texas Rangers owner Tom Hicks to give him $252 million over 10 years. Not $250 million over 10 for a nice and tidy quarter-billion-dollar layout. That wasn't going to cut it. A-Rod and agent Scott Boras needed the extra 2 million bucks for this absurd reason:
Now you know why Rodriguez won his first championship 15 years deep into his career, and only after the New York Yankees paid nearly a half-billion dollars in one offseason to help him. A-Rod had spent too much time and energy on being A-Rod. He needed to be humiliated by his steroids confession -- left a shattered Humpty Dumpty, in the words of Yankees general manager Brian Cashman -- before remembering why he chose baseball as a profession in the first place.
LeBron James has suffered no such public emasculation. He was widely criticized for his performance in Cleveland's second-round loss to the Boston Celtics, but his career has gone untouched by scandal. James remains a made-for-Madison Avenue pitchman, a likable and approachable figure with superhero skill.
Only on the day Kevin Durant quietly revealed that he had agreed to a five-year extension with the Oklahoma City Thunder, almost whispering it as if he were sitting in the back pew of a packed church, James did himself no favors by confirming a report from ESPN The Magazine's Chris Broussard that he's going to pull a Geraldo and reopen Al Capone's vault.
No, ESPN isn't to blame here. The network is in the business of providing programming that sports fans want to watch (yes, it's a business that allows ESPN to sign my paycheck), and nobody doubts that sports fans sure as hell want to watch this programming.
If James had planned to make a large donation to the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, the cause booked to receive sponsorship proceeds from the hourlong ESPN show, he would've been better off writing that organization a check.
It's too late to turn back now. James announced on his website that the show will be called "The Decision," and he's doing his best to keep the Cavaliers, Heat, Knicks, Chicago Bulls and New Jersey Nets in the dark.
Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are lobbying James to join them in Miami, and Amare Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony -- scheduled to be a free agent next summer -- are selling James on the possibilities in New York, according to a source close to the situation.
James should follow his heart, wherever it takes him, then schedule his next meeting with the man in his bathroom glass. LeBron doesn't need another sitdown with desperate owners, executives and coaches trying to fulfill their own dreams. He needs a face-to-face with himself.
The Chosen One should choose a different path than the one he's on and use his favorite ballclub, the Yankees, as a road map. Instead of being basketball's A-Rod, it's much better to be basketball's Jeter.
Don't chase attention and stature as though it's a loose ball in the fourth quarter of a big game. Let the attention and stature chase you.
Derek Jeter became Derek Jeter by racking up championships. He won four in his first five years before signing a 10-year, $189 million contract, a deal announced in a 15-minute conference call on a slow Friday afternoon.
All these years later, LeBron wanted the prime-time sizzle, and the prime-time sizzle he'll get. Lights, camera, action for the King and his court.
Given James' title-free run in Cleveland, this can't be called a three-ring circus -- a no-ring circus is more to the point. Either way, when it's all over and LeBron replaces his team of business advisers with, you know, a team of actual basketball players, he needs to rearrange his priorities.
He's a tremendous athlete, a wonder to watch. But in the end, the victor's spoils go to only the on-the-court victor.
Let's face it: Nobody's ever sprayed champagne on a global icon.