As fans go, they don't come more dedicated than Dave Sommo. The day the Knicks put tickets on sale, the 20-year-old college student from Long Island emptied his bank account to buy a pair of $750 seats for New York's first Friday night home contest of the new season. On game day Sommo fashioned himself a poster, slipped on a Knicks jersey and was one of the first fans through the turnstiles at Madison Square Garden.
But Sommo wasn't there just to cheer for the Knicks; he was on a mission. His seats, you see, were next to the Cavaliers' bench, and his number 23 jersey had KING JAMES sewn on the back (sorry, Toney Douglas). His poster featured two images of LeBron James in a New York uniform with COUNTDOWN 2 LEBRON: 236 days at the top. "I'm a Knicks fan," says Sommo. "But I'm a die-hard LeBron fan."
No story line will dominate the 2009--2010 NBA season more than the courtship of LeBron, who this summer will become the most sought-after free agent in history. And no team is more smitten in that courtship than the Knicks, who for the past 18 months have been paring their roster to get far enough under the cap to play the big spenders.
Last Friday, New Yorkers got their first (and only) chance of the year to do their wooing in person, and the timing couldn't have been better. In a fortuitous stroke that proves that someone up there enjoys turning the rumor mill, James and his Cavaliers arrived on the day that more than a million people lined the streets of Manhattan to celebrate the Yankees' first World Series championship since 2000.
No matter that James missed the parade; the parade came to him. There was Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia, James's old Cleveland running buddy, sitting courtside. There was Alex Rodriguez poking his head out from behind the crush of cameras following James after the game in the hopes of catching his attention. (LeBron eventually came over and gave him a quick shug.) When the seven Yankees at the Garden were introduced during a timeout, James was the first Cavalier off the bench applauding.
The sheer Yankee-ness of the scene had to make all of Cleveland a little queasy. The Knicks are taking a page from the Bombers' front-office playbook, tempting LeBron with the promise of both money and fame. As often as LeBron soothes Clevelanders' fears with some version of his frequently repeated I've never given any indication that I'm leaving line, he aggravates their ulcers with hints that his eye may be wandering. He wears Yankees caps. He counts New York hip-hop mogul (and Nets co-owner) Jay-Z as one of his best friends. The day the Cavs hit Manhattan, James, in conjunction with Nike, took out a full-page ad in the Daily News announcing the opening of seven new basketball gyms in New York City. (No word if there will be a similar ad when LeBron visits Memphis.) It's not just fans who are on edge: Last week teammate Shaquille O'Neal reportedly offered to hand-deliver $10 million in cash to LeBron's house if he would announce where he'll be playing next season. James declined.
There were plenty more tea-leaf moments on the court—and in the stands—on Friday. The rumbling that began as James jogged out of the tunnel before the game swelled into an eruption of applause when he took the court, a reception that split James's face with an ear-to-ear grin. As Woody Allen, John Legend and Chris Rock looked on, James smiled at Jay-Z and patted his knee when he landed in the hip-hop artist's lap after hitting the game-icing fadeaway J. When Douglas was yanked from the game in the fourth quarter, James walked over to the Knicks' bench and told the rookie to keep his head up. After the game James shared a long embrace with second-year Knicks forward Danilo Gallinari, telling him to keep working hard. Good sportsmanship? Of course. And perhaps encouragement for two future teammates. "I would be surprised if he didn't come," says Sabathia. "He knows what it means to play here. You win here, there is nothing like it."
No question, James likes to visit. The reigning MVP has averaged 30.4 points, 5.8 rebounds and 6.8 assists in 11 games in Gotham. He speaks reverentially of the Garden, calling playing there "humbling," and he said that the NBA is missing out by not having a quality team in New York City. And that is where the Knicks' ability to mimic the Yankees' recruiting pitch—"Come play with a team of All-Stars!"—breaks down. The importance of playing for a winner has been the one constant in James's rhetoric. While the Cavs have assembled a star-studded supporting cast, the dysfunctional Knicks will have only six players under contract when James hits free agency in July. Only one, Gallinari, has All-Star potential. "The where-will-he-go debate is fun to talk about," says a Western Conference G.M. "But at the end of the day, he would be crazy to leave Cleveland."
Until James decides, New York fans will wait, hopeful that the one impression they got to make on James this year was a lasting one. When the final buzzer sounded, there was Dave Sommo, his sign held high, hoping to make eye contact with LeBron and maybe have his hard work acknowledged. It didn't happen. Still, when asked if it was all still worth it, Sommo didn't flinch: "Every penny."
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