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 had 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 those teams 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