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Five Theories to Explain LeBron James’s “Here or the Garden” Comment

Did LeBron really consider signing with the Knicks? Let’s dissect everything his statement to Dwyane Wade could have meant.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

LeBron James ruined my year on Monday night.

After the Lakers defeated the Heat 108-105—the last NBA game in which LeBron will ever share the court with Dwyane Wade, who announced in September that he will retire at the end of this season—James pulled his longtime friend and former teammate aside and had a brief heart-to-heart. A heart-to-heart that just so happened to be captured by the dozens of cameras and microphones that were mere inches away from their faces.

LeBron commented on how cool it was to play against his friend in the Staples Center. Wade agreed. “I appreciate you letting it end here.”

James replied with a cryptic statement: “It was either here or the Garden, that’s it.”

Here or the Garden—as in Madison Square Garden, the venue where my beloved Knicks play. The implication seemed to be that this game could have taken place at MSG—which, of course, means that James entertained the idea of signing with the Knicks.

This is now the only thing I can think about. The Knicks are bad, and were bad last year, and have been bad for every year of my adult life besides one or two. I have nothing to focus on other than Kristaps Porzingis’s ongoing rehab, the 2019 lottery, and the mere glimmer of a suggestion that once upon a time the greatest basketball player of my generation considered playing for my perpetually trash team.

During my freshman year of college, I had the biggest crush on a girl in one of my classes. We were friendly and shared a few inside jokes, and at one point she gave me her number, unprompted, purportedly for class-related reasons. But every time I considered saying something like, “Hey what are you doing this weekend?” or “Wanna hang out?” I would instead take a pratfall down 14 flights of stairs and break every bone in my body. You know, much like the Knicks every year in free agency. (Please don’t ask which of my subsequent college relationships reminds me the most of paying $72 million to Joakim Noah.)

A few years later I ran into her at graduation, and we talked about how dumb our caps and gowns were, and how we were both moving to different cities. Eventually, we got to reminiscing about that freshman class. She said something to the effect of “Haha, I was so awkward at flirting back then.” Everything stopped. Wait—she had been flirting with me? Did I mess everything up? SHOULD WE BE MARRIED RIGHT NOW?

Instead of using this experience as an opportunity to reflect on my actions and do better in the future, I spent the next weeks and months thinking exclusively about that interaction, stewing about the ramifications of what she’d said. Anyway, I think there are five things LeBron could have meant when he halfway hinted that he once thought about joining the Knicks.

1. Oh, Jesus, He Really Meant It

LeBron thought about playing for the Knicks. He thought about it. It was on the table, a legitimate possibility.

We know it was a possibility in 2010, when LeBron made The Decision. The Knicks courted him, but he chose Miami, going on to win two NBA titles with the Heat while the Knicks got a series of NBA playoff participation trophies behind Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire. Wade said in 2017 that the Knicks were “not prepared” for James’s superteam aspirations at the time.

But LeBron’s comment sure didn’t sound like him relitigating a decision from eight years ago. It sounded like he was talking about where he wanted to finish his career—the choice he seemingly made this offseason when he selected the Lakers. The Knicks weren’t considered a contender this time around; LeBron has publicly said it was between the Cavaliers, 76ers, and Lakers. But what if maybe it wasn’t?

We blew it. WE BLEW IT. I don’t get emotionally scarred by the Knicks losing game after game after game. I’m used to that. But James’s comment has me imagining an alternate reality in which this wasn’t the case. I have given up on the Knicks providing me joy. But knowing that it didn’t have to be this way? That’s gonna eat at me for a while.

2. LeBron Just Loves Buildings

Maybe this conversation wasn’t about the Knicks and the Lakers. Maybe it was solely about the arenas where the two teams play.

Players have a certain esteem for the Garden. Staples and MSG have name recognition that buildings like the Smoothie King Center, Little Caesars Arena, and the two arenas named after American Airlines simply do not. When LeBron said “either here or the Garden,” perhaps he was talking about which arenas were worthy of an event such as the final matchup between him and Wade. I honestly don’t understand why players are so into these buildings—MSG doesn’t look anything like it used to, and in fact now resembles approximately 28 other arenas in the league—but I guess LeBron would know better than me.

This is the interpretation of the “here or the Garden” comment that LeBron has publicly endorsed. That’s exactly why I don’t believe it.

3. LeBron Is Trollin’ Dolan

LeBron has made a habit of having postgame conversations with players he cares about, but he’s generally careful to ensure that nobody can make out what he says. When LeBron wanted to have a chat with Lonzo Ball after a Cavaliers-Lakers game last season, he made sure to cover his mouth with his jersey, and Ball followed suit.

James has done the same for multiple conversations with Wade.

Are we really supposed to believe that LeBron hasn’t talked with Wade—his closest friend in the entire league—about his 2018 free agency decision? And that when it came time to have this conversation, he was willing to have it with a host of cameras inches away from his face?

No, LeBron wanted to be heard. He wanted the Knicks to know they messed up. LeBron is probably mad that Knicks management turned on Carmelo, and wants James Dolan and the people in charge of the franchise to feel like their treatment of his friend potentially cost them a chance at signing him.

Perhaps there was a fragment of truth to James’s comment, but this wasn’t about what he was saying so much as him making sure that everybody knew what he said.

4. Well, He Didn’t Specify Which Garden

I’m one of those New Yorkers who assumes that when I say “the city,” everybody will know I’m talking about New York. I also assume that when I say “the Garden,” people will know that I’m talking about MSG.

But there are other cities, and those cities’ sports teams are generally much better than mine. In fact, there are two “Gardens” in the NBA: Madison Square Garden and TD Garden, referred to by Bostonians as “the Garden.” Maybe LeBron was considering linking up with Jayson Tatum—not the talentless Knicks who would’ve wasted prime years of his career.

New Yorkers would realize this if we weren’t so conceited about everything. Nobody comes to the Knicks. The Red Sox win more than the Yankees. I’m surprised the Jets are even technically considered to be playing the same sport as the Patriots. Of course LeBron meant the Garden in Boston and not the one in New York.

(No, Bill didn’t ask me to write this.)

(Yes, I’m writing it to suck up.)

5. Hold On, What If There’s Still Hope?

LeBron’s statement implied that there are only two places where he would consider retiring. Our assumption is that he was saying There are only two places I’d consider finishing my career—New York and Los Angeles—and I have chosen L.A.

But unless I missed something, James isn’t retired. In fact, he’s averaging 28, seven, and seven for one of the best teams in the league and showing no signs of slowing down. He’s also previously discussed playing long enough that he can team up with his son, LeBron Jr., who can’t enter the NBA until 2024.

LeBron won’t be able to do that in Los Angeles. The Lakers are going to be good for as long as he plays there. But the Knicks? We’re lottery bound this year, next year, and probably for many, many years after that. We’ve got nothing going for us and never will—which will put us in perfect position to win the draft lottery in 2024, when Bronny is ready for the pros.

Monday night’s statement was not about how he chose the Lakers over the Knicks. It was about how the two choices for his eventual retirement are the Lakers and the Knicks. This is just a technicality, but until the ink on James’s retirement papers dries, I will live in this technicality.