King James in The Garden?

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Plaxico Burress won the Super Bowl, shot himself in the thigh and now may be looking at an abrupt loss of freedom if convicted of felony weapons charges. Stephon Marbury was living the dream; he was playing in the NBA for his hometown team, one of the storied franchises in the history of sports. He was making nearly $500K per game. And now he's throwing a $22 million temper tantrum to confirm that he has lost his mind. Clearly, something about being a sports star in New York can make a young man crazy and prone to self-inflicted wounds.


So if you're LeBron James, king of Cleveland and toast of the NBA, what do you do about all the talk that the New York Knicks want you as a special guest at a Garden party in 2010?

You start by milking it for all it's worth apparently.

"You have to do what's best for you," James said repeatedly in answer to the question. Knicks' megabucks owner James Dolan has made it clear that he intends to make the Garden James' permanent home. But King James fully understands that a better future may await if he stays in Cleveland: "When I decide to make the decision, it's going to basically put me in a position where I feel like I can win multiple championships," James said. "And this is the best team we've had since I have been here. July 1, 2010 is probably going to be one of the biggest days in NBA history."

Everything the Knicks have done recently—jettisoning leading scorers and top-feed earners Jamal Crawford and Zach Randolph to create more salary-cap space—was done with LeBron in mind.

Last Tuesday night, a packed house of nearly 20,000 turned out to the Garden to bear witness  to the NBA's latest version of royalty. And King James was sure not to disappoint. Both his teammates and the opposing Knicks were reduced to the role of supporting cast, mere props in a one-man show that generated 26 masterful points, four rebounds and two assists.

But beyond the obvious, what did it all mean? Was it a preamble to something?

"It's humbling to know that you have fans not only in Cleveland but in a big city that is a basketball mecca," said James in the wake of the Central Division-leading Cavs 119-101 victory."Every time I come here it's a warm feeling because you know the history; to know the fans like and respect the way I play basketball.It's two years away and who knows? If you want to sleep until 2010 and don't wake up… go ahead."


This is exactly the kind of talk that has Knicks fans daydreaming about 2010, when LeBron leads their team back to the Promised Land after more than a decade wandering in the loser wilderness. But New York expectations are the stuff of nightmares. James, who seems much more put together than either Burress or Marbury, must understand that. Still, one could see the wondrous look in his eyes when he talks about playing in the Big Apple.

It's no secret that James has long been enamored with the idea, and with an eye for marketing that transcends the hardwood, New York City seems the most logical choice for him. Cleveland may be able to offer him the most money—$133 million over six years—but the money he can make off the court is how James plans to achieve his goal of being a billionaire athlete. That money lies somewhere in Manhattan.


"I've dreamed about playing well in this building," James admitted last season following his 50-point explosion. "To get a standing ovation in the greatest basketball arena in the world was a dream come true for me. It's one of the best things that ever happened to me."

Ah, that New York state of mind!

Last week, a segment of the overflow crowd donned T-shirts with the prayerful words: "LeBron James 2010: Change We Can Believe In."


James was not doing anything to tamp down expectations: "If you're a Knicks fan, you should keep an open mind," he said.

But he should, too. For every light on Broadway and all that. New York is a city of dreams that doubles as the headquarters of heartache. Ask Plax. Ask Starbury.


Glenn Minnis is a New York writer.