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All It Took to Make LeBron King of New York Was a Sound Bite

This time, the Lakers star didn’t even need to be a free agent to hurt Knicks fans

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LeBron James does not say things just to say things. He “knows everything that comes out of [his] mouth,” and those things are “not a coincidence, man.”

LeBron James says things so that we will dissect them, interpret them, rack our brains to try to discern whether they fit OUT or IN with the things he has said and done before. Such is the burden of a “beautiful mind,” one that can leave him feeling like the only person who truly understands, and also sometimes like he’s Batman? (I don’t claim to understand it all; my mind, if we’re being honest, is pug fugly.)

Which is to say: When LeBron James said to Dwyane Wade, moments after the Los Angeles Lakers’ 108–105 win over the Miami Heat on Monday, that the venue for what will be their final NBA game against each other before Wade retires at season’s end “could only be here [at Staples Center] or the Garden” …

… perhaps he was not just saying a thing.

Oh, sure: Everyone will say that this was a meaningless comment — that, despite the initial rush to frame the comment as a revelation that James surprisingly and secretly actually considered joining the New York Knicks last summer before leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers to head west, he wasn’t really saying that at all. They’ll say that James only really weighed a return to the Cavs or a move to the Philadelphia 76ers (sort of) before agreeing to terms with the Lakers, and that the Knicks were never a legitimate option. They’ll say that this comment was just about the bright lights of Broadway and Hollywood being the only appropriate venues for the last meeting of two of the most massive stars and greatest players of their generation.

“I told [Wade], I said, ‘What’s the odds that our last game would be in an environment like this?’” James told ESPN’s Dave McMenamin after the game. “He was like, ‘Thank you for coming here because our last meeting is in Staples Center.’ I said, ‘There’s only two places that could have ended it: It’s here and Madison Square Garden.’ And I felt like here is even more [appropriate] because of the star power. And for us to be throughout this journey our whole lives and for us to have that final possession and us have those moments in the game, Staples Center is a place that appreciates that.”

And yet … that John Nash shit, though.

LeBron-to-the-Knicks chatter has been a staple of NBA scuttlebutt for more than a decade, dating back to James wearing a New York Yankees cap to Game 1 of the 2007 American League Division Series between the Yanks and Cleveland Indians. Before the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, James fielded questions during a Team USA photo shoot about a possible future in New York by sharing his affinity for the World’s Most Famous Arena: “I loved the Garden way before I got into the NBA. For some odd reason, when I get to the Garden, I always play well.”

This has remained true: James has averaged 28.2 points on 53.2 percent shooting, 6.9 rebounds, 7.5 assists, and 1.8 steals in nearly 39 minutes per game in 26 regular-season visits to MSG. He’s 19–7 in those games, hasn’t lost in New York in nearly five years, and has authored some monster performances that really make it seem like he enjoys seizing the spotlight in New York.

“So they want me to do it for 41 games, instead of two games a year,” James said back in ’08.

That was certainly the idea. When the Knicks finally decided to move on from Isiah Thomas’s disastrous tenure as the team’s president in April 2008, new personnel boss Donnie Walsh began working to undo years of mismanagement, jettisoning every bad contract he could with a gargantuan goal in mind: setting New York up to have enough financial flexibility to offer two maximum-salaried contracts in the summer of 2010, when James, fellow 2003 draftees Wade and Chris Bosh, and a slew of other stars would hit unrestricted free agency.

Things, um, didn’t work out that way. James and Bosh chose to join Wade in Miami, forming a Big Three that would revolutionize the NBA. Meanwhile, the Knicks wound up with Amar’e Stoudemire and a roster-imploding trade for Carmelo Anthony. Miami made four straight NBA Finals and won two NBA championships. New York won one playoff series. Strikes and gutters, you know?

The Knicks were eyeball-deep in rebuilding territory, shopping in the Robin Lopez and Arron Afflalo section of free agency when James next hit the market in 2014; they never had a real chance at procuring his services. But that didn’t stop Knicks fans from dreaming.

“If I could have 82 regular-season games in the Garden, I would,” James said during 2015’s All-Star Weekend in New York. “Because it’s the Mecca of basketball.’’

There remained just one nettlesome problem with playing all those games in the Garden: James would have to play for the Knicks, a franchise with fewer 35-win seasons (five) than dismissed head coaches (10) since 2003, when James entered the NBA.

And then, in the fall of 2016, Phil Jackson, then the Knicks’ president of basketball operations, decided apropos of nothing to start talking spicy about LeBron spoiling for special treatment during his time in Miami, which included the wince-inducing quote, “You can’t hold up the whole team because you and your mom and your posse want to spend an extra night in Cleveland.”

The “posse” thing really didn’t go over well. Nor did Jackson waging a yearlong cold war with Knicks star/James friend Anthony. That fight ultimately ended with Jackson fired, Melo in Oklahoma, the Knicks continuing their interminable rebuild … and, depending on who you ask, the extinguishing of any flickering ember of a chance that LeBron would one day don orange and blue.

It seemed like both sides had moved on, with James now locked into life as a Laker through at least July 2021 and the Knicks at long last trying to build from within (and/or look to a different hoped-for savior at small forward).

But then: Monday, with James deciding not to cover his mouth for the postgame chat just this once, reasserting himself as the King of New York without ever having to actually go work for James Dolan, and in the process reopening old wounds using the most painful instrument of all: disappointment. Hope is the thing with feathers. It never stops sucking to watch it fly away.

“They have a right to dream about it,” James said, all the way back in 2008, when asked about New Yorkers imagining him playing for their hometown team. “I can’t take that away from them.”