The LeBron James Sweepstakes

Gregory Shamus, Getty Images
Gregory Shamus, Getty Images

These are anxious times in the city of Cleveland where a downtown banner in honor of two-time NBA Most Valuable Player LeBron James proclaims, "Born Here. Raised Here. Plays Here. Stays Here."

In most cases, three out of four is seen as a winning percentage. (I know I would've glady accepted that as a batting average while asking girls out back in high school as opposed to the school record hitless streak I preserved through graduation.)

But whether James stays in Cleveland with July 1 free agency approaching is a complete game changer in the mental health of a dedicated, reinvigorated but still mostly hapless sports town.

Taking down the "Born here" banner is the least of it. Having to use it to break falls from high ledges -- fireman rescue style -- is a possibility if LeBron bolts.

Only the Cavaliers can talk to James between now and July. NBA rules allow teams to pay more than other suitors to keep their own superstars. Yet, James' announced intention to "go through the process" and his track record of flirting with New York is the cause of much trepidation and -- at the very least -- downgrades the banner declarative to a question:

Stays Here?

Musical Chairs (Really Expensive Ones)

James, Miami's Dwyane Wade and Toronto's Chris Bosh are friends and Olympic teammates who orchestrated their free agencies to coincide, thereby raising the volume and increasing the tempo in this game of high-stakes musical chairs.

In part for that reason, this is like no other free agency. Baseball, still without a salary cap all these years later, most often produces the free-agent buzz. Alex Rodriguez signed with Texas for $252 million over 10 years. Long before him, Pete Rose made the one of the first ego-inflating "free agent tours" in 1978.

Only in basketball, though, can one superstar change the fortunes of a franchise so quickly. And James is launching himself into those waters at the height of his game and at the still precocious age of 25.

Forbes magazine estimates that the Cavaliers franchise was worth approximately $250 million the year before James came out of high school in Akron, Ohio, and went to work 30 miles north. This past season, in which every home game was sold out, the magazine estimated owner Dan Gilbert's investment at $476 million.

The stakes in part explain why Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland recently stopped in town to join a chorus of local celebrities and politicians in serenading James in a "Please Stay LeBron" video to the tune of "We Are The World."

Strickland defended taking time out of his busy schedule, telling reporters, "Come on, this is economic development. Do you know how important this is to the state of Ohio? LeBron means a lot to the future of our state."

Comedian Mike Polk came up with the idea for the video. His previous Cleveland tourism videos were outrageously funny, though some city officials didn't see the humor. Maybe some of the lyrics -- "Buy a home for the price of a VCR" -- had something to do with it. So, too, the battle cry sign-off of "We're not Detroit!"

The LeBron video was likewise done for comic relief. Some outsiders took it seriously. (I mean, folks, really now. We know "We Are The World" was originally used to raise awareness about world hunger. That's the joke.)

Polk put a famous-in-Cleveland furniture salesman and a personal injury lawyer on the same stage with the Governor and had a U.S. Senator (Sherrod Brown) pipe in on a remote feed. The lyrics offer to name every street in the city after James.

Which, of course, is ridiculous. Too costly. They'd just change the town name to LeBronland.

The LeBron-O-Meter

On the subject of things LeBron, the website partner of the newspaper I work for, The Plain Dealer, began running a daily LeBron-O-Meter offering a daily measurement (do I need to say "unscientific"?) of this period of transition.

Depending on the news or rumor of the day, the LeBron-O-Meter needle can settle into any one of five areas:

Staying.

Looking Good.

Keep 'em Guessing.

Uh-Oh.

Gone.

(It strikes me that given the divorce rate in 2010, this could be a handy tool for marriage counselors to give couples to better help them deal with issues as they arise.)

Everywhere the people of Cleveland look these days they find other women flirting with their beau and third parties sticking their noses in and adding to the stress.

His Many Suitors

From New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg says he wants James to know what a great place his town is to raise kids. (James has two children.)

On behalf of Chicago, President Obama told Marv Albert in a recent interview that the Bulls would be a "great fit" for James.

Cleveland Browns' great Jim Brown says James will leave because Cavaliers fans were so harsh in their criticism of him after the team's surprising second round loss to the Boston Celtics.

The same day, author Buzz Bissinger, who did a book on James and his high school teammates, said James probably should leave for the benefit of his emotional development because Cleveland fans have coddled him too much.

In Dallas, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban was fined $100,000 by the NBA for saying the obvious -- the Mavs would be interested in James if he chooses not to stay in Cleveland.

In Los Angeles, 75 fans of the Clippers staged a parade around Staples Center last Thursday to show James how much they want him. That's impressive. I mean, who knew the Clippers had 75 fans and that they'd know how to stage a parade?

Not to be outdone, a 23-year-old transplanted Clevelander by the name of Brandon George, is intent on making James understand how important it is that he stay in Cleveland.

So George, who lives in Atlanta, waxed his chest.

Then he brushed his teeth with Dave's Insanity Hot Sauce.

I don't know the state of his list, but at that point he had 21 other self-tortures planned. Twenty three in all to match James' jersey number.

George started inlebronwetrust.com. Similar sites have cropped up on behalf of other fan bases. There are at least 67 Facebook groups dedicated to bringing James to New York.

His free agent tour can start on July 1. It'll be the recruiting period he never had as a high school senior, seeing as how every college recruiter knew it would be a waste of time since James long planned to go right from high school to the NBA.

With the NBA keeping an eagle's eye out for tampering with other teams' players ahead of the July 1 date, no organization is even hinting at how it will go about enticing James. Only a handful of teams have the salary cap flexibility to sign a superstar looking for a max contract.

Recruiting Pete Rose

Coincidentally, one of the first free agent tours also involved a hometown guy facing the prospect of leaving his local team—the aforementioned Pete Rose in 1978.

What I remember about that first ego trip was that Rose appeared to be wearing Zsa Zsa Gabor's fur coat.

Atlanta, Kansas City, St. Louis, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia were among those who declared interest in Rose as part of a free agent re-entry draft back then.

Rose chartered a Lear jet and showed up places wearing a $4,000 mink coat. Earlier in the 1978 season, the Reds had asked Rose to stop driving his Rolls Royce to the park because it "made the fans mad." Rose refused.

He took two things on the trip. His agent, Reuven Katz, was one.

The other was a 25-minute video tape of his highlights.

Rose had already won it all with the Big Red Machine. He'd chased Joe DiMaggio's 56-game record hit streak. And he needed a video?

In Atlanta, Ted Turner offered him $1 million a year while he played and $100,000 a year for life in retirement.

In Kansas City, Kaufmann offered him a four-year deal and an oil investment.

Augie Busch in St. Louis offered a beer distributorship.

The Galbreath family in Pittsburgh, which owned Dandy Don Farms, were willing to cut him into the thoroughbred biz.

When Rose accepted a four-year deal in Philadelphia, he left money on the table but wasn't worried.

Of his four-year, $3.2 million contract, Rose said, "You could stack it all up and a show dog couldn't jump over it."

Keep 'em guessing

NBA rules prohibit teams from circumventing the salary cap these days. Like Rose choosing the Phillies because he felt they gave him the best chance to win a World Series, James says his decision will be all about the opportunity to win championships.

When he accepted his second consecutive MVP award during the Boston series, he staged the ceremony at the University of Akron basketball arena where he played many games as a high schooler. His family and friends and teammates all joined him.

Looking at the scene that that day, you couldn't help but think that it would take something extraordinary to extract James from his comfort zone in Northeast Ohio, what with the Cavaliers on the verge of a title.

Someone asked him about that in not those exact words.

"Wherever I go, Akron will always be my home," he said.

On the LeBron-O-Meter, that was "Keep 'em guessing."

Then the Cavs lost three straight to the Celtics and the series.

That put Cleveland fans in "Uh-oh" land.

The LeBron Sweepstakes

Cleveland Cavaliers

Pluses: The Cavs can offer James more money. If he signs a three-year deal, which is the conventional thought, he could make $9 or $10 million more simply by staying. Cavaliers' owner, Dan Gilbert, has spared no expense in trying to build a winner around James. His mother, long-time girlfriend and children are already here. Head coach unsettled after the firing of Mike Brown. But James could have a say in his successor. In a CNN interview with Larry King, James said that Cleveland "absolutely" had an advantage over his other suitors.

Minuses: The Cavs' roster may take a year or more to overhaul and they've lost salary cap flexibility in chasing a title. James may feel a bigger market would help sell him as a brand. He may simply be ready for a change of scenery.

New York Knicks

Pluses: James loves New York and Madison Square Garden as a stage. If you can make it there, you can make...oh, sorry, that's a song I had stuck in my head. The Knicks have the cap room to potentially add James and, say, Toronto's Chris Bosh.

Minuses: The Knicks roster. If they spend on James and Bosh, the rest of their team will be made up of players making the minimum. That's not a recipe for a championship.

New Jersey Nets

Pluses: Some good young players. A new arena in Brooklyn in the works. Well-heeled new ownership in Russian Mikhail Prokhorov. James' friendship with Jay-Z, a Nets' part owner.

Minuses: It's the Nets, not the Knicks. It's not Manhattan. The Nets aren't close to winning.

Chicago Bulls

Pluses: Point guard Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah. James grew up a Michael Jordan fan. He switched his number from 23 to 6 for next year in honor of Jordan.

Minuses: Not the kind of ownership James has enjoyed in Cleveland. Head coach unsettled. Living up to the Jordan legacy would be next to impossible.

Miami Heat

Pluses: The Heat have the flexibility to add another superstar. James could team up with Dwyane Wade, who has already won a title. A Hall of Fame coach, Pat Riley, is already in the organization. Florida is tax friendly for athletes. The weather can't be discounted.

Minuses: NBA rules only allow teams to play with one ball at a time. Who gets it with the game on the line, James or Wade? James is a better distributor of the basketball but James and Wade are too similar to truly complement each other.

Los Angeles Clippers

Pluses: They have cap flexibility. And talent.
Minuses: They're the Clippers. Donald Sterling is still their owner. James would play second fiddle to Kobe Bryant in L.A.

Bud Shaw is a columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer who has also written for the Philadelphia Daily News, San Diego Union-Tribune, Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The National. You can read his Plain Dealer columns at Cleveland.com, and read all his mental_floss articles here.

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From Ear to Eternity: When Mike Tyson Bit Evander Holyfield

Evander Holyfield (L) and Mike Tyson (R) compete in their rematch in Las Vegas on June 28, 1997. The bout would make sports history.
Evander Holyfield (L) and Mike Tyson (R) compete in their rematch in Las Vegas on June 28, 1997. The bout would make sports history.
Focus On Sport/Getty Images

As the 16,000 spectators began filing out of the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada, following a night of fights on June 28, 1997, MGM employee Mitch Libonati noticed something strange on the floor of the boxing ring. He later described it as being roughly the size of a fingernail, with the texture of a piece of hot dog or sausage.

It was no concession stand remnant. It was a piece of Evander Holyfield’s ear.

Wrapping the morsel of flesh in a latex glove, Libonati hurried backstage, where Holyfield was conferring with officials and doctors after his opponent, Mike Tyson, had been disqualified for biting him on the left ear. In all the commotion, Libonati wasn't allowed inside the room. But Michael Grant, one of Holyfield’s training partners, accepted the ear fragment on Holyfield’s behalf.

Libonati’s discovery was the climax to one of boxing’s most controversial and bizarre evenings, one in which "Iron" Mike Tyson—the most famous fighter of his era—meted out a savage reprimand for what he perceived was dirty fighting on the part of Holyfield. The ear-biting far exceeded the brutal underpinnings of boxing and added to Tyson's reputation as a frenzied combatant both in and out of the ring.

 

Mike Tyson’s collision with Evander Holyfield had started when the two were just teenagers. On the amateur circuit, they had sparred together—not quite knowing the heights each would achieve, but understanding the other would be a formidable obstacle if they were to ever meet as professionals.

Evander Holyfield (L) had success against Mike Tyson (R) early on.Focus On Sport/Getty Images

Tyson was a prodigy, having won the heavyweight championship of the world in 1986 at the age of 19 and dominating the division up until an upset loss to James “Buster” Douglas in Tokyo, Japan, in 1990. Holyfield was the lighter fighter at cruiserweight (190 pounds), moving up to the heavyweight division in 1988 and gaining respect for his trilogy with Riddick Bowe.

Long before that fateful night in 1997, Tyson's personal life had started to overshadow his accomplishments inside the ring: An allegedly abusive marriage to actress Robin Givens darkened his image in the media and ended in a very public divorce after just one year. In 1992, a rape conviction sidelined the fighter for more than three years while he served out his prison sentence.

When Tyson returned to the ring, he rattled off a string of wins against fighters not quite at his level, including Peter McNeeley, Buster Mathis Jr., Frank Bruno, and Bruce Seldon. Holyfield had stepped away from competition in 1994, but as Tyson knocked off inferior opponents, talk of a bout with Holyfield intensified. Finally, the two met in Las Vegas on November 9, 1996, with Tyson a 17-1 favorite over the semi-retired Holyfield.

Holyfield would prove his doubters wrong. Through 11 rounds of action, he outmaneuvered and outclassed Tyson by negating his opponent's power with movement and volume. Holyfield also landed headbutts that were declared unintentional, but to Tyson seemed deliberate. Before the fight could see a 12th round, Holyfield knocked Tyson down and earned a technical knockout victory.

 

While it was an undoubtedly disappointing moment for Tyson, an upset in boxing virtually guarantees a lucrative rematch deal. Both men agreed to meet a second time, with Holyfield earning $35 million and Tyson getting $30 million. Tyson’s camp, however, insisted that the referee from the first bout, Mitch Halpern, not be booked for the second, because Tyson felt he failed to call the illegal headbutts. The Nevada State Athletic Commission didn’t want to be seen capitulating to Tyson’s demands, but Halpern stepped aside voluntarily. So referee Mills Lane took his place.

Evander Holyfield (L) and Mike Tyson (R) first met as amateurs.Focus On Sport/Getty Images

Before a huge crowd full of A-list celebrities like Sylvester Stallone and a then-record 1.99 million households that had purchased the event on pay-per-view, Tyson and Holyfield met for a second time at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on June 28, 1997. While Holyfield took the first round, Tyson appeared fit and adaptive, and came out blazing in round two. Then, just as Tyson had feared, Holyfield’s headbutt struck him again.

The clash of heads opened a cut over Tyson’s right eye, which threatened to obscure his vision as the fight went on. It also opened a reservoir of frustration in the fighter that would manifest in a spectacularly violent way.

Coming out for the third round, Tyson had forgotten his mouthpiece and had to go back and retrieve it—a foreshadowing of things to come. His aggression was working against Holyfield, but with 40 seconds left in the round, the two clinched up. Tyson moved his mouth so it was near Holyfield’s right ear. With his mouthpiece still in place, he clamped down on the ear, ripped the top off, and spat it along with his mouthguard onto the canvas.

Holyfield jumped up in the air in shock and pain. Referee Mills Lane was initially confused by what had happened until Holyfield’s trainers, Don Turner and Tommy Brooks, yelled out what Tyson had done. Lane called for a doctor then told Marc Ratner, the executive director of the athletic commission, that he was going to end the fight. Ratner asked if he was sure. Seeing Holyfield was bleeding from his ear but otherwise ready to fight, Lane waved the two men back into competition.

Incredibly, Tyson bit Holyfield a second time, this time on the left ear, before the round ended. This time, Lane was aware of what was happening and had seen enough. Before the start of the fourth round, he disqualified Tyson.

 

That was far from the end of it. Realizing he had lost the fight, Tyson grew incensed, shoving Holyfield from behind and pawing at the security guards who had stormed the ring in an attempt to restore order.

After the bout, Tyson didn’t appear to be overly contrite. He explained that he was frustrated at Holyfield headbutting him without being penalized, and said he had lost control.

An emotional Mike Tyson reacts to his disqualification loss to Evander Holyfield.Focus On Sport/Getty Images

“Listen,” Tyson said. “Holyfield is not the tough warrior everyone says he is. He got a nick on his ear and he quit.”

Tyson believed his retaliation was justified. “This is my career," he said. "I’ve got children to raise and this guy keeps butting me, trying to cut me and get me stopped on cuts. I’ve got to retaliate. What else could I do? He didn’t want to fight. I’m ready to fight right now. Regardless of what I did, he’s been butting me for two fights. I got one eye. He’s not impaired. He’s got ears. I’ve got to go home and my kids will be scared of me. Look at me, look at me, look at me!”

Two days later, Tyson issued a tempered apology in an effort to minimize the consequences, but it was too late. In addition to losing his boxing license in the state of Nevada, Tyson was fined 10 percent of his purse, or $3 million, which was thought to be the largest fine in sports at the time.

 

Tyson could never entirely shake the stigma of his actions. When a lucrative bout with Lennox Lewis was being planned in 2002, the fight ultimately ended up taking place in Memphis, Tennessee; Nevada refused to restore Tyson's license following a press conference brawl between the two men.

Tyson ultimately continued competing through 2005, when he lost his last bout to Kevin McBride. Holyfield retired in 2011. Earlier this year, the 54-year-old Tyson expressed a desire to return to the ring. The fighter once known as "The Baddest Man on the Planet" is scheduled to fight Roy Jones Jr. on November 28, 2020. Yet Holyfield, now 57 years old, remains a possible future opponent.

The two have occasionally interacted in public in interviews, with Tyson expressing remorse and Holyfield admitting he briefly thought about biting Tyson on his face right back. The pair even filmed a spot for Foot Locker in which Tyson “gave” Holyfield the missing piece of his ear.

In reality, Holyfield never did get his ear back. After Mitch Libonati handed it over to Michael Grant, the piece somehow fell out of the latex glove while being transported to the hospital.

Many fighters talk about leaving a little piece of themselves in the ring. It’s usually metaphorical. For Evander Holyfield, it was simply the truth.