An Empire state of mind, but where is LeBron’s heart?

July 07, 2010 | Luke Jones

Everyone has an opinion on “The Decision,” whether you’re a LeBron James fan or you completely loathe the media colossus created over the last two years surrounding his free agency and where he’ll eventually be lacing up his Nikes this fall.

It’s taken on a life of its own that’s far greater than any feat the 25-year-old, two-time MVP has accomplished in his brief NBA career.

To be clear, James has every right to choose a new home without any regret over what he accomplished—or didn’t accomplish—in his seven professional seasons in Cleveland. The amount of money involved in this decision is far more than I can even comprehend, let alone hope to earn in my lifetime.

Yes, it’s about earning potential and Nike and an opportunity to become a billionaire, a moniker James has aspired to earn. But let’s not forget: James will earn an extra $30 million contractually should he choose to remain with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

In the world of professional sports, we know all too well that it’s always about the money, especially when an athlete says, “It’s not about the money.”

With James’ planned hour-long special on ESPN Thursday night, we’ve officially reached uncharted territory in terms of pomp and circumstance surrounding a professional athlete. It’s true James’ representation has generated funds for the Boys and Girls Clubs of America (how much?) by selling sponsorships, but we know this television event is far more about continuing to build the LeBron James empire. James’ website has been revamped, and the star has finally joined the Twitter universe, picking up 275,000 followers in a matter of 30 hours.

The only thing left is the actual decision.

All the tea leaves point to James signing with the New York Knicks. The special will take place at the Boys & Girls Club in Greenwich, Conn., a stone’s throw away from Gotham City. If James is remaining in Cleveland, why would he leave the state of Ohio after he forced NBA teams to come to him during his free-agent courtship of the last week?

Twitter king Chad Ochocinco and the Suns’ Jared Dudley—a former teammate of newly-signed Knicks forward Amare Stoudemire—have indicated King James will be moving his kingdom to Madison Square Garden.

If James is parting ways with the city of Cleveland and the state of Ohio, Thursday night’s nationally-televised spectacle reeks of insensitivity to his hometown. We’re not talking about a high school kid putting on a college cap in front of the ESPN cameras and a roomful of local supporters wishing the youngster well as he moves on to bigger and better things at the collegiate level.

Should James leave in this contrived manner, northeast Ohio will have deserved better, as superficial as that might sound coming from a native Baltimorean whose football team once played in Cleveland as the Browns.

Even though the Cavaliers and the city of Cleveland have benefited more from James than what he’s gained from playing there, the star has always prided himself in being the talented kid from Akron who became a star before the locals’ very eyes.

Announcing he’s leaving in such a manner sends a message that he’s not only leaving but turning his back vehemently on a community that so deeply idolizes him.

(Admit it, a similarly-themed video about Cal Ripken or one of Baltimore’s heroes would cause you to shed a tear or two.)

In short, James’ departure would be devastating, with only the Browns’ announced move to Baltimore in 1995 topping it on Cleveland’s list of sports disappointments.

It would be comparable to Cal Ripken, in the prime of his career, going on national television and donning a Yankees cap as he announced he was leaving his native Baltimore to play for the Bronx Bombers.

Perhaps it’s all about nothing. It’s conceivable that James is creating this media event to redefine his brand and create publicity for what would be an otherwise anticlimactic decision to remain in Cleveland.

Or maybe James will give a 20-minute heartfelt speech about his pain in leaving Cleveland and shed a few sincere tears while doing so.

If not, James will not just be leaving his hometown in the dust but completely destroying the feel-good, local-boy image he’s maintained while still earning millions from Nike, McDonald’s, and a plethora of other sponsors.

Perhaps the bright lights and dollar signs of New York City are worth it to James, but there will be no going back—ever.

We’ll finally learn his decision on Thursday night.

And for the sake of Cleveland and its dignity, I hope he decides to stay.