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With multiple sources now willing to fill in the blanks, it becomes more and more clear how much advance work and planning was put in by (from left) Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James -- as well as Miami Heat President Pat Riley -- to bring the NBA's three biggest free agents to South Florida. It was anything but a last-minute decision by James.
During a rally for Miami Heat fans Friday night, Chris Bosh said he had been talking with new teammates LeBron James and Dwyane Wade about the moment for months.
Sure it was a slip, which some, including Bosh himself, caught. The premise that the trio had been talking about teaming up for months hinted there was a plan in place. That potentially would be against rules, and could raise concerns from the league since Bosh and James were playing for teams battling for the playoffs in Toronto and Cleveland.
Bosh quickly revised the statement and said they had been talking about it for "days." But it appears James, Bosh and Wade had been discussing this for years.
That won't be comforting for Cavaliers fans who still are reeling from what many considered James' stunning departure. But it appears to be part of a complex master plan that was the trio's desire for much of the past four years.
Now that the move has been made, the veil of secrecy is being raised to a degree as people are beginning to talk. The Plain Dealer talked to numerous sources to piece together a picture of how James ended up in Miami.
It is still a somewhat fuzzy picture, but here are the broad strokes:
The seeds were planted in the summer of 2006 after Bosh, James and Wade finished their third seasons. Established All-Stars and clearly the future of the league, the three were part of a bonding effort led by USA Basketball to revamp and re-energize the national team after the disappointing 2004 bronze medal.
The three played together for the first time that summer in Japan at the World Championships. For the first week, they were sequestered without family or friends in Sapporo, Japan, in an attempt to build chemistry. But it wasn't just the players. Working as an intern for Team USA and getting to know the players was Nick Arison, the son of Heat billionaire owner Micky Arison.
Now, Nick Arison is a rising executive with the Heat. He was part of the team that recruited all three players this summer.
Already close because they came from the same draft class, the Team USA experience strengthened the relationship. Even before the team gathered in Las Vegas to prepare for the World Championships that summer, the three had talked about playing for that team.
That same July, the co-op took on another role when all three decided to extend their contracts with their teams. They couldn't all become unrestricted free agents until 2007 under the rules, so the smart play was for them to extend with the respective teams.
But with some of the league's higher-profile older stars perceived as being stuck in long-term contracts with struggling teams, the three decided to go for shorter contracts
By the time Team USA was preparing for the 2008 Olympics, sources say Chris Bosh and LeBron James had frequently shared their common desire to play together with Dwyane Wade for an NBA franchise. There were already several teams -- most notably the New York Knicks but including the Miami Heat -- gutting their rosters in order to free up salary cap money for the summer of 2010.
After talking about it amongst themselves, James, Bosh and Wade decided to accept three-year extensions with their teams. It would make them all unrestricted free agents at the same time in 2010. For players on maximum contracts, becoming an unrestricted free agent after just seven years in the NBA is rare. But it would put them all in position to potentially team up that year as well.
In the ensuing years, four important events happened that were major contributors to their teaming in 2010.
First, the three had a positive and emotional summer in 2008 in China, winning the gold medal. They proved they could play effectively together. For the most part, they checked their egos, with Wade even deciding to come off the bench.
Second, Los Angeles-based management company Creative Artists Agency decided to get into the basketball agent business. Seeing how influential they could be in the summer of 2010, CAA bought the agencies that represented James, Bosh and Wade. Bringing them all under one roof gave CAA huge control of the market and took down any barriers the three would have with negotiations.
Third, the recession hit, and NBA owners started tightening their spending, a trend that would last for two years. The result was a bubble of salary-cap space that eventually would result in giving numerous teams large blocks of cap space in 2010.
Fourth, the struggling New York Knicks launched a plan in the fall of 2008 to clear off enough cap space to sign two maximum level free agents in an effort to recruit James to New York by promising to sign another star as well. Though he never said so directly, James began openly flirting with the thought. Other teams saw the opening and hatched the same plan.
That included the Heat, which was in the midst of a large-scale rebuilding process after a 15-win season. Miami had won the title in 2006 but had to make several trades that caught up with it. With Wade already on the team, team President Pat Riley decided to begin his own saving even if it limited what the Heat could do with Wade during two seasons in his prime years.
The Knicks got most of the attention for moves to position themselves for James, especially when they traded away their best players for pennies on the dollar in an effort to clear the books. But Riley was just as passively aggressive in not spending, at one point last summer getting into a public battle with Wade, who was frustrated at the lack of additions to the roster.
It was a risk to mess with Wade as he headed for his own free agency, but Riley had been watching and doing research. He knew the three wanted to play together, and he knew he had a glamour destination to offer, a history of success and Wade. Riley crunched the numbers and thought he could get close to clearing three maximum salary spots to sign all three, or at least get so close that he could sell it.
According to sources, Heat President Pat Riley made sure to reassure James that his close friends would be taken care of by the franchise, in much the same manner the Cavaliers had accomodated them for the last seven years. It might have been the final factor that convinced James to leave Cleveland.
He got close enough to pull off the major score. In addition to the weather and the city's attractions for young, rich athletes, Riley knew the lack of a state income tax in Florida could help him sell it.
Riley really put the plan into action last November. During a Cavs visit to Miami, Riley arranged a get together with Michael Jordan and James. Jordan, who was in town to do some Nike work with Wade, at the time did not own a majority of the Bobcats.
During the meeting, Riley talked to James about how more modern players should pay homage to Jordan. Riley always had led this effort, retiring Jordan's No. 23 in the rafters at AmericanAirlines Arena even though Jordan never played in Miami.
The Cavs knew about it, and while it seemed like it could be classic tampering, they decided not to make an issue of it -- mostly because the meeting technically wasn't about free agency.
That night, James and Wade staged another strong individual battle. But the Cavs won when the Heat didn't have enough down the stretch, a common problem with Miami's roster last season. After the game, and after seeing Jordan and Riley sitting together courtside, James made an emotional statement on the court that he was going to ditch jersey No. 23 out of respect to Jordan. In fact, he felt all players should stop wearing No. 23.
It was controversial and got headlines. Riley probably didn't care so much about the statement but how his conversation obviously influenced James. It likely gave Riley confidence that he could win James over by playing to his emotions when it came time for free agency. Riley became more dedicated than ever before to trying his grand plan of getting all three stars to South Florida, with poaching James being the grand prize.
That was why Riley was so amped up before his presentation to James in Cleveland a week ago. He packed up his seven championship rings, had his salary-cap specialists create displays to show how Florida taxes could save James money and brought along Alonzo Mourning to make an emotional pitch about how the team backed him up as he recovered from a kidney transplant.
It was also made known to James that the Heat would take care of his friends the same way the Cavs did -- special treatment at the arena, changing practice and travel schedules to allow for money-making late-night parties in various cities, and perhaps even hiring a James associate in a high-paying position in the organization.
This was nothing new for Riley. He made the same accommodations for Shaquille O'Neal and, to a lesser extent, Wade in recent years.
Riley was so focused that he paced the halls outside James' offices while waiting for James to arrive for the meeting. The meeting went so well and so long that the Heat took up some of the Los Angeles Clippers' scheduled time with James.
But Riley may not have even needed to slam dunk the presentation. He already had a huge advantage working long before he even got to Cleveland.
As was their plan four years earlier and was discussed more deeply in 2008, Bosh, Wade and James had been talking amongst themselves. Unlike Bosh or James, Wade took the step of actually attempting to recruit other free agents to his team. Riley's efforts were more successful than the Knicks, and they had the most salary-cap space.
Getting all three together was really only possible in Miami, and Wade pushed the topic. Despite being discouraged by Commissioner David Stern and perhaps breaking tampering rules again, Wade flew with Bosh to Akron to meet at James' house in the last week of June. Still under contract with the Heat, Wade got the other two to the brink of a deal to join up.
All the players still met with teams just to make sure they wanted Miami. Wade and James were interested in Chicago, where there was a chance two of them could match up and play with rising star Derrick Rose. But Wade stayed strong to Riley's plan and kept tugging on James and Bosh.
Though many thought James would seriously consider the Knicks and the Nets, part owned by friend Jay-Z, they were never in his top two. The way it looks now, the Cavs may not have been in the top two for much of the process. James did talk with Bosh about the chance of playing in Cleveland, but Bosh resisted, and James seemed to be more attracted to teaming up with his friends than staying home.
The Bulls' chances were diminished for two central reasons. Wade wasn't willing to go to his own hometown. And the Bulls made it clear James' friends would not be given the privileges they were given in Cleveland or the high-paying jobs.
With the weather, his friends and glamour attracting him to Miami, and with just his hometown and hope that he could someday win a title alone in Cleveland, James was gone, breaking Cavs fans' hearts.
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