Minutes after news had broken that LeBron James would announce he was signing with the Miami Heat at his Super Huge ESPN Press Conference Laser Show, Knicks fans started sounding like Cleveland Cavaliers fans. That is to say, existentially depressed. The prospect of signing LeBron has been the centerpiece of every Knicks-roster construction plan of the last two years: Everybody (including this magazine) has been talking about LeBron James playing for the Knicks for so long that it feels like we’re the ones being betrayed. His decision leaves Knicks fans feeling like they miss a limb that was never there in the first place—and perhaps finally facing up to our city’s new place in the sports universe.
The Heat’s triumph is particularly frustrating because they actually accomplished what the Knicks have been trying for two years to do: coldly cut loose everyone on their team and give piles of gold to a mercenary gang of free-agent superstars. Worse, the team was foiled by an old friend, Pat Riley, the Miami president—Gordon Gekko, gliding in and sealing the deal, telling tales about a fantastical land of gated communities unsullied by a state income tax. Florida turned out to be the selling point we thought New York would be. As much as we cherish the Walt Frazier–Willis Reed Knicks glory years, as much as we toss around the Basketball Capital of the World moniker, New York, to those of LeBron’s generation (the man, after all, is still only 25), is just a chaotic city; by contrast, Florida is a place practically engineered to make millionaire athletes happy, safe, and private. (Tiger Woods had to take painkillers and drive his car into a tree before word of his epic and long-standing infidelities escaped.)
It also apparently didn’t matter much to LeBron, Inc., that his personal brand will be missing out on the exposure and connections he’d have access to here. It remains to be seen whether he’s right, but the guy who said his goal in life is to become a “global icon” has just made a very big bet that the world of sports marketing is flat—that he’ll be able to do just as much corporate partnering and personal-brand leveraging from a condo in Miami as he would if he were running into Rupert Murdoch at galas in Tribeca. It’s a sobering thought for a city accustomed to a certain exceptionalist image of itself.
But let’s not be too grandiosely pessimistic: The Knicks are still better off than they’ve been at any point in the last decade. The bright lights were still enough to lure Amar’e Stoudemire, a tremendous player and a marvel to watch, good for one or two Garden-electrifying moments a night. The Knicks aren’t going to be the instant NBA game-changer they would have been if LeBron had come, but they won’t be a league-wide embarrassment anymore either. And we can play this game again. The team has plenty of salary-cap space to play with, and more coming once Eddy Curry, the last meaningful remnant of the Isiah Thomas era, finally boulders his way out of town after next season. Carmelo Anthony, perhaps the league’s best young player after LeBron, is a free agent next July. Anthony was born in Brooklyn and played college ball at Syracuse. This may sound vaguely familiar, but: Come on down, Carmelo. Trust us, you’ll love it here. Please?