Three days in July around The Decision: Inside the maneuvers that transformed the NBA

WEARING AN IMPECCABLY tailored cream jacket, a light-blue button-down shirt and a jet-black tie with a contrasting platinum clip, LeBron James walked through the players’ entrance at Miami’s AmericanAirlines Arena for the first time. The day before, July 8, 2010, on The Decision broadcast, James told a national TV audience that he was taking his talents to South Beach to join fellow superstars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, an announcement that left the NBA world reeling. But James was not yet officially a member of the Miami Heat.

Just inside the door and down a hallway, a contract was waiting: six years, $109.8 million — with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

James signed it with a smile. After a news conference, he proceeded to the locker room and changed into a bright white Miami Heat uniform for the first time. Minutes later, James, Wade and Bosh were introduced to Heat fans as the NBA’s new Big Three in a massive celebratory rally.

As the trio was elevated on a platform rising above “YES WE DID” on giant LED screens and as James was declaring, “Not five, not six, not seven …” amid smoke and fireworks in the arena bowl, phones were abuzz in Toronto, Cleveland, New York and, of course, Miami. Executives and lawyers were executing the sign-and-trade agreements transferring James’ and Bosh’s freshly signed deals to the Heat and cementing a team that would change the course of NBA history.

The intensity of the three days in July that led to the construction of the quintessential superteam continues to resonate 10 years later. Here are new details from those who lived through the drama.

JULY 7: Two stars align

THE NOON SPORTSCENTER opened with Michael Wilbon, who cut right to the chase. On a split screen, Wade appeared from his basketball camp outside Fort Lauderdale, Florida. In the right box, Bosh smiled from his house in Dallas.

One day earlier, Wade’s number had popped up on Wilbon’s cellphone. The longtime journalist had hoped Wade was calling to say that he was signing with the Chicago Bulls, their shared hometown team. Instead, Wade asked Wilbon to conduct an interview in which he and Bosh would simultaneously announce their free-agent destinations.

“He didn’t tell me where he was signing,” Wilbon said, “but I had a feeling it wasn’t Chicago.”

Wade had given the Bulls hope. On July 1, he had been in Chicago. His first stop? The United Center. The Bulls were happy to host him but didn’t know where they stood with Wade. They were worried, sources say, that Wade would simply pass along their free-agent strategy to his incumbent team, the Heat.

Chicago had spent more than a year working on pitches for James and Bosh. The Bulls had Harpo Productions, Oprah Winfrey’s production company, create videos. Even as they met on July 1, the Bulls were skeptical that Wade was seriously considering signing with them, so initially, they revealed only part of their pitch.

Yet Wade beamed when he tried on a red Bulls No. 3 jersey with his name across the back. This was a feeling he’d dreamed about since he was a kid watching Michael Jordan win titles.

Meanwhile, high atop the Chicago skyline, Bosh was in a conference room receiving a pitch from the Heat — a meeting punctuated by Pat Riley unfurling a small velvet carpet onto the table, followed by the presentation of a small velvet bag.

“Oh, yeah, Pat brought his rings out. It looked just like a Crown Royal bag,” Bosh said. “He puts it down, like boom. Big boy talk. When he ended the meeting, Pat gave me a 2006 Heat championship ring.”

“Take it. Keep it. Give it back to me when you win one,” Riley said to Bosh.

“I still haven’t given it back,” Bosh said. “I wonder if he even remembers that? I think I mentioned it once, like, ‘Yo, do you want that ring back?’ And he said, ‘What are you talking about?’ And I kept it moving.”

But the most important part of the presentation wasn’t jewelry. The Bulls, New York Knicks and New Jersey Nets all positioned themselves to sign two superstars, and that’s what they offered.

The Heat offered the chance for three.

After their respective meetings, the two stars traded places. Bosh visited the Bulls, and Wade received a pitch from the Heat at the office of Henry Thomas, the agent Wade and Bosh shared. There, Riley showed Wade the formal plan to bring three stars to South Beach.

“I’ve never seen Pat Riley so nervous,” Wade told Thomas after the meeting, a moment captured on video in his recent documentary, D.Wade: Life Unexpected.

The Heat group then flew to Cleveland, where Riley and Andy Elisburg, senior vice president of basketball operations for the Heat, had a midnight meeting with Leon Rose, James’ agent, in the bar at The Ritz-Carlton. Riley detailed to Rose what the proposal to James would be the next day: three stars, not two.

That same night, Wade asked Thomas to arrange a second meeting with the Bulls. This time, Chicago gave its full pitch, Oprah videos and all. The Bulls, already feeling like they had a strong chance with Bosh, started to feel like they had a real shot at Wade. But he had a specific question: Could the Bulls create enough cap space for a third star?

Wade was bringing the Heat’s strategy to the Bulls — not the other way around.

One thing had made itself clear: Bosh, Wade and James were interested in playing together. It was a dream package. But which team could close?

To pull off the three-star bonanza, the Bulls needed an extra $16-18 million in salary-cap space. After looking at their options, they realized that any strategy to accomplish that would require trading Luol Deng, either by getting a team to take Deng’s remaining four years and $48 million in salary without taking any salary back or via a sign-and-trade with Cleveland, Toronto or Miami.

That wasn’t impossible, but it was complicated. Before even considering it, there was a major caveat: Commitments were needed from all three stars so the dominoes could be lined up.

The Bulls’ motivation, sources say, was split. After two days of meetings, they thought they were in competitive position with Bosh and Wade. They were not as sure about James, even as some rivals feared that Chicago was in pole position to steal him from Cleveland.

Nonetheless, with owner Jerry Reinsdorf’s blessing, the Bulls got to work on finding a path to land all three. They tried to move Deng to the LA Clippers, sources say, but were turned down. They talked to Toronto about a sign-and-trade for Bosh — the Raptors began discussing Deng’s fit and possible parameters of a deal, sources say — to leave room to sign Wade and James.

There was another issue for the Bulls, though: Derrick Rose, the team’s young star, wasn’t deeply involved in the recruiting process.

Another of their young players, Joakim Noah, ended up as the primary player voice. Although Noah has a magnetic personality and developed into a star recruiter in his days at the University of Florida, he was not the franchise player. He also had an acrimonious relationship with James. Underscoring that, Noah called James that week, and James never called him back.

Rose declined to be part of the pitch to James, instead recording a video. Being an active recruiter wasn’t part of Rose’s personality, and at age 21, he didn’t have the mindset of an empire-builder. Whether things would’ve gone differently if Rose had done what Stephen Curry did in helping convince Kevin Durant to come to the Golden State Warriors six years later will be forever unknown.

What is known, however, is that the free agents noted Rose’s missing enthusiasm, as well as the fact that Chicago didn’t have an actionable plan to clear cap space.

Miami, meanwhile, had home-team advantage with Wade, who’d already sold Bosh and was closing in on selling James. Plus, the Heat had a concrete plan to pull it all off. They were within hours of reducing their roster to a single player under contract.

Even years later, Bulls officials believe Bosh and Wade were close to committing to Chicago. But in the end, three was greater than two.

“I’m back in Miami,” Wade told Wilbon moments into the SportsCenter interview. “My decision is final.”

“I’m joining Mr. Wade in Miami,” Bosh said.

They said they’d see each other in South Beach.

JULY 8: Decision day

WADE AND BOSH had announced they would be teaming up, but privately, they expected a final piece.

Four days before The Decision broadcast, James dialed Wade asking for a conference call with Bosh. They discussed the pitches they heard, their options and their desires. In the final analysis, there was Chicago and there was Miami. By the time the call was over, it had been settled: They would all go to Miami.

But as Wade and Bosh began lining up details, James stopped returning calls — even from Wade. The news of a TV show to announce James’ decision caught Wade and Bosh somewhat by surprise and stirred last-minute anxiety.

“Everyone was excited, but LeBron had gone dark. And that made us all worry a little bit,” said David Fizdale, who was an assistant coach with the Heat at the time. “Even Dwyane wasn’t totally sure.”

It had been seven days since James started taking meetings with suitors, and some close to him still questioned which team he’d choose.

A week earlier, just after 11 a.m. on July 1, the Nets arrived at the IMG building in downtown Cleveland as the first of six teams to meet with James. Out of one side of a Lincoln Town Car emerged Mikhail Prokhorov, the billionaire Russian oligarch who had bought the Nets less than two months prior. Out of the other side emerged Jay-Z.

“It was a circus show,” said Avery Johnson, who had been hired to coach the team. “We were very excited. But in all honesty, we weren’t ready as an organization. And we were playing in Newark for the next two years — not New York. But Jay-Z really gave a great pitch. He appealed to their friendship and sold New York.”

Jay-Z stayed after the others left and had a 15-minute private meeting with James, which overlapped with the scheduled arrival of the Knicks. As Jay-Z’s SUV left the building, he passed the arriving New York contingent that included owner James Dolan and general manager Donnie Walsh, who was in a wheelchair because of a recent surgery.

“Our cars were rolling in as the Nets were rolling out,” then-Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni said. “It was all surreal. That moment was a great piece of NBA history. We’d been waiting two years to make that pitch.”

The next morning, the Heat representatives arrived early to prepare. Riley, Elisburg, coach Erik Spoelstra, Alonzo Mourning, owner Micky Arison and his son, Nick, then a vice president, showed up 45 minutes before James. Riley paced the hallway with nervous energy. The velvet bag with the rings came out again.

“Everyone was excited, but LeBron had gone dark. And that made us all worry a little bit.”

David Fizdale, former Heat assistant coach

During the presentation, Mourning shed tears talking about the organization’s support when he needed a kidney transplant and the joy of later winning a title. But two pieces anchored the pitch: the explanation of playing in Florida, where there’s no state income tax (and what that would save in salary and endorsement income), and the plan to unite James, Wade and Bosh.

“We’d all been pitching LeBron a two-star approach,” D’Antoni said. “All these teams had figured we could get him another star. The Heat walked in there with a three-pronged attack.

“They blew us out of the water.”

The morning of the third day, James’ hometown Cavs delivered their plan. The group had stayed up through the previous night honing their presentation. In the previous month, owner Dan Gilbert had hired a new coach, Byron Scott, and a new general manager, Chris Grant, after back-to-back 60-win seasons failed to produce a Finals appearance.

For the presentation, Gilbert had commissioned a cartoon in the style of “Family Guy,” James’ favorite show at the time, that included crude jokes at the expense of other teams delivering pitches. There was a video built around James’ connection to the community.

The Cavs told James that they’d discussed sign-and-trade scenarios with Toronto for Bosh and asked if he would recruit Bosh to join as a second star. James replied that he didn’t know Bosh well and didn’t know his plans. This was untrue, of course, but it didn’t matter. Bosh had no interest in playing in Cleveland.

The Bulls went last. It was Saturday afternoon of a holiday weekend, and their group had forgotten to book a car from the hotel. They arrived at the IMG Building in taxis but didn’t know to enter through the garage. They were stuck waiting on the street with the door locked.

The Bulls had prepared for this pitch for more than a year. They had a terrific, young core and so many possibilities. A lineup with Rose, Wade, James, Bosh and Noah was one of them. There was a possibility of losing Bosh and Wade but getting James. There was the idea of losing James but getting Wade and Bosh. As they went through the meeting with James, it was clear to the Bulls that the 25-year-old had a comprehensive plan, but they still weren’t sure if it included them.

In 2006, Bosh, Wade and James’ agents at Creative Artists Agency had worked together so that all three players signed matching short-term extensions to allow for this possibility. As All-Star and USA basketball teammates, the trio had conversations over the years about playing on the same NBA team, though nothing had been formalized.

Many around the league assumed that the playing together plan had been predetermined for months, if not years. To this day, all three players maintain that nothing was decided until that call.

After the group call on July 4, James hosted his annual Nike camp for elite high school and college players for three days at the University of Akron. Friends and teammates, including Chris Paul, Damon Jones and Daniel Gibson, made appearances. James let on nothing. At one point, Coach Scott arrived in brand-new Cavs gear, but James was uninterested in conversation.

More than 1,200 miles away in Miami, the Heat were gaining confidence that their offer was going to be accepted, especially when the Bulls didn’t get a commitment from Wade after multiple meetings. They worked on a set of moves to free the cap space to sign all three stars.

One was a sign-and-trade deal with the Raptors for Bosh, a maneuver that would give them some wiggle room and free extra cap space for other free agents. The other would send Michael Beasley to Minnesota for two second-round picks. Removing Beasley’s $4.9 million salary left Miami with more than $50 million in cap space, with just Mario Chalmers under contract. The decks were clear.

But there was no still official word from James, Rose or anyone else in their circle.

On July 8, after watching some games at an AAU tournament he sponsored at Cleveland State University, James and his camp traveled to Greenwich, Connecticut, where he would announce his plans.

Just before 8:30 p.m., James arrived at the Greenwich Boys & Girls Club, and hundreds of fans lined the street. Inside, final preparations were being made for what would be one of the most controversial hours in sports television history.

In Miami, Bosh had arrived with his fiancée, Adrienne, and taken a suite at the W Hotel. Wade was hosting a dinner party in a private room at Prime Hotel in South Beach. Although James said on The Decision broadcast that only a handful of people knew his choice, pilots for his private plane had filed a flight plan to Miami, and rooms were booked for James and his friends alongside Bosh’s group at the W.

As James readied to make his announcement and the party grew excited, albeit a little nervous, Wade whispered to those near him that it was a done deal.

At 9:28 p.m. ET, it was official. James was taking his talents to South Beach.

July 9: ‘Not five, not six, not seven …’

AS THE CAVS were dealing with the shock of James’ departure, Grant’s phone rang. It was Riley calling to offer a sign-and-trade for James.

Riley thought Grant might hang up on him. After Gilbert released his infamous Comic Sans letter ripping James the night before — for which NBA commissioner David Stern fined the Cleveland owner $100,000 — the Heat were not expecting the Cavs to be willing partners in a move that would help Miami and give James additional guaranteed money. Such a proposal would cost Miami draft picks, but the Heat wanted more immediate cap space to fill out their roster.

Grant knew he was now headed into a massive rebuild, so it was only responsible to consider the Heat’s offer. The Cavs hoped to never use it, but they had a plan: If James left, their aim was a sign-and-trade to target far-off draft picks. Riley made an opening offer, and Grant said he’d take it to ownership. Much to everyone’s surprise, Grant sold Gilbert on the trade.

Grant initially asked Miami for four first-round picks over the next seven years. The Heat said no, but eventually a deal was struck: first-rounders in 2013 and 2015, plus two second-round picks and a pick swap.

“All these teams had figured we could get him another star. The Heat walked in there with a three-pronged attack. They blew us out of the water.”

Mike D’Antoni, former Knicks coach

While Miami was busy sorting out the details of the James and Bosh trades, Thomas was trying to get another client to rejoin Wade in Miami: longtime forward Udonis Haslem.

James, Wade and Bosh all agreed to take $1 million less than the max to make room to sign Mike Miller, a free agent Riley discussed in pitches with James and Bosh. Miller was offered as much as $10 million per year elsewhere but took a deal starting at $5 million to join the Heat.

This left a marginal amount of space for Haslem. He had offers from the Denver Nuggets and Dallas Mavericks, both for five years and $34 million, and the Heat couldn’t get anywhere close.

“Dwyane and I had a heart-to-heart,” Haslem said. “And said, ‘I love you, and if we’re together in the future, we’ll win rings together again. But at this point, I’ve got to go.'”

But as Haslem drove to the arena to say goodbye to Riley, Spoelstra and Arison, Wade called Bosh and James. He told them about Haslem and said he was willing to give up another $1 million per year if they’d join him to make room. Both agreed.

When Haslem arrived, Thomas told him to wait in his car. Haslem wanted at least $20 million, and the numbers were still short. As Elisburg ran salary figures, Thomas called Wade one more time. Wade agreed to give up an additional $500,000 per year, allowing enough room to fit Haslem’s deal: five years and $20.3 million.

Haslem agreed in the car and ran into the building for a euphoric moment that many within the Heat organization regard as the most memorable part of the three-day joy ride.

The NBA’s axis had tilted toward Miami in the culmination of the most remarkable free-agency period the league had seen.

“We have 10 years of time and space, and I can look back and say, ‘Oh s—. This is really what this was about,'” Bosh said. “You can look back and say the story is about guys trying to find their way or whatever.

“We were just reacting to the stimulus around us. We were where we wanted to be. We were cool. We were innocent a little bit. We were naïve.

“But we learned. Oh, we learned.”

ESPN’s Jorge Sedano, Nick Freidell and Dave McMenamin contributed to this story.

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