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Sorry Knicks, LeBron's Not Coming

Wake up and smell the powder, New York. LeBron's not coming.

It's hard to blame Knicks fans for clinging to hope. The most sophisticated basketball clientele in America has been saddled with a team that's richly embarrassing. The toxic remnants from the Isiah era remain in the form of mismatched players, empty seats, and the stench that comes with a 2-10 record.

Donnie Walsh has performed a miracle in clearing enough cap space to have room for a big free agent in the coming offseason. Mike D'Antoni coaches a style players love, one that lets them run the floor and make plays without looking to the puppet-master on the sidelines.

Doesn't matter. LeBron's not coming.

Why would he? As much as any superstar we've ever seen, he understands that it's a team game, and he always has. He has nothing to prove individually; it's about winning championships.

Add LeBron to the Knicks, and you're still three years away from being any good. He'd make them respectable, but why would he take such a great leap backwards? From a basketball standpoint, the move makes no sense.

But what about the dollars? He'd be coming to New York! The Big Apple! The World's Most Famous Arena! Think of all the off-court benefits that flow from being a big star in The Big City.

The notion that playing in New York has any significant effect on an athlete's value is an utter myth. It's a holdover from the "Mad Men" era, a relic from the days when you only saw endorsement opportunities if your name was Gifford or Mantle or Namath.

To begin with, how many more commercials does LeBron have time for? It's not as though he's underexposed. If he wants to release his own songs, make a movie, put his name on a fragrance or design a line of nonstick cookware, he can do it tomorrow without setting foot outside Ohio. He's at that level of fame where the world comes to him. (Have you even noticed that his last name hasn't appeared in this column yet?)

Playing in Chicago didn't exactly limit Michael Jordan's income. Indianapolis hasn't prevented Peyton Manning from appearing in more commercials than the ShamWow! guy. Nolan Ryan and Cal Ripken became endorsement juggernauts from their bases in Texas and Baltimore respectively. Tom Brady met Gisele Bündchen despite the handicap of being in New England. Brett Favre did okay playing in the smallest market in sports. (His one season in New York only hurt his reputation.)

Who exactly has reaped the rewards of New York exposure? I don't recall Patrick Ewing getting a lot of endorsements. Mariano Rivera is considered the greatest closer ever, featured in loving closeup for dozens of hours of postseason television. What's it given him in off-field opportunities? Jason Giambi, C.C. Sabathia, even Alex Rodriguez - they came to New York, and didn't exactly set business hearts a-flutter. [I'll grant you Tiki Barber. Without New York, he'd've had to work his way up the ladder in local sports or at ESPN, not move directly from the field to the Today Show.]

The two New York athletes with greatest market visibility right now are Derek Jeter and Eli Manning. No matter where he played, Jeter's looks and championships and captaincy of a team with the Yankees' history would have brought him those opportunities. (See "Favre, Brett" above.) Eli probably benefits as much from being Peyton's little brother as he does from playing his home games in New Jersey. And he wasn't making serious off-field money until he won a Super Bowl.

For most athletes - those below the LeBron-MJ pantheon - being in New York is actually a detriment. In smaller markets, there are as many local endorsements available and far fewer celebrities to claim them.

Add in the simple fact that the NBA's salary cap rules mean that the Cavs can pay LeBron more than anyone else can, and there is simply no economic reason for him to come to New York. It's a wonderful place to live, but it wouldn't really give him anything he doesn't already have. (I'm assuming he's already got a dish so he can watch his beloved Yankees.)

So sorry, Knicks fans, Tony Kornheiser, and everyone else investing their emotions in the LeBron-to-New York delusion. He won't say it, because it's not in his interests to rule it out yet. But he's not coming. Find another straw to grasp at.

 

Jeff Neuman is a sportswriter and editor, and co-author of A Disorderly Compendium of Golf. His columns for RealClearSports appear on Monday and Thursday.

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