CLEVELAND - On each corner of the intersection of St. Claire Avenue and East 9th Street, desperate locals held placards that read: "Home."
Eight floors up in an office conference room in the IMG Building, located in the heart of this troubled downtown, the Knicks were attempting to sell the idea of a new home - with a big-city address - to LeBron James.
Donnie Walsh, wearing his usual poker face, labeled it "a good meeting." When asked if he expects to talk with James again and take another step in the process, he said, "I don't know if there's a next step, but I'm sure there will be."
After two years of being asked about LeBron, D'Antoni seemed to enjoy just being able to talk about him without retribution from the NBA.
"LeBron James," he said with a laugh. "I can say it. Nobody can call me for tampering. It's liberating."
D'Antoni and the Knicks can do the same with two other superstars on the free-agent market, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, with whom they will meet Friday in Chicago (Wade at 10 a.m., Bosh at 1 p.m. Central time). There is some skepticism about just how genuine Wade's interest is in meeting the Knicks, especially with his public admission that he'd prefer to re-sign with the Miami Heat and his attempts to recruit other players to join him.
But as one NBA source said, the fact that Wade is listening to what other teams have to offer suggests he might not be completely confident - as has been reported elsewhere - that the Heat will be able to sign another star player.
"We're going to make this sales pitch a couple more stops and the train keeps going," D'Antoni said. "Hopefully, at the end of it, we come up with what's best for the Knicks."
But with Plans B and C seemingly already off the table before the first day of the NBA's free-agency season ended - Joe Johnson is believed to be prepared to accept a six-year, $119-million offer to re-sign with Atlanta and Rudy Gay reportedly has accepted a five-year, $81-million deal to re-sign with Memphis - the Knicks are eager to see Plan A (that would be LeBron) come to fruition.
It has been a long wait for D'Antoni and Walsh, who in the spring of 2008 outlined a two-year plan to clear salary-cap space and target this summer's star-studded NBA free-agent class as a means of rebuilding the franchise. That's why when asked what the best part of yesterday's meeting was, D'Antoni replied, "That LeBron was in it. That was really good."
What is more important, of course, is what LeBron got out of it. A person with direct knowledge of the meeting said the main theme of the presentation was how, with the extra cap space and the Garden's resources, the Knicks not only have the ability to build a championship contender for one year but can sustain it for many years.
"We were given the opportunity to explain our franchise, explain the Knicks and explain what we're trying to do," Walsh said. "In that sense, I thought it was very good."
D'Antoni started the free- agency season in Los Angeles on Wednesday night, when he met with Johnson and Mike Miller and had a phone conversation with Amar'e Stoudemire, which resulted in Stoudemire scheduling a trip to New York for Monday. D'Antoni and the Knicks contingent then flew here overnight for yesterday's meeting with James.
Walsh met the group here and attended the meeting in a wheelchair, which is a precautionary measure after recent surgery to remove bone spurs in his neck. Also at the meeting were team owner James Dolan, Garden CEO and president Hank Ratner, MSG Sports president Scott O'Neil and Allan Houston, who serves as special assistant to the team president. There were no celebrities among the four-car caravan that brought the Knicks officials to the meeting, but it is believed that taped messages from several famous Knicks fans were included in the presentation.
"We've been working toward this for a long time,'' Houston said, "and now we're here. I just told him, 'I think you'll know. You'll have a peace about it and make a decision accordingly.' And I wished him the best."
The meeting with the Knicks followed a 90-minute sit-down in the late morning with the Nets, who were led by new owner Mikhail Prokhorov and new coach Avery Johnson and highlighted by Shawn "Jay-Z" Carter, the hip-hop star who is a close friend of James and owns a 1-percent stake in the franchise.
"I would like to comment," Prokhorov told reporters outside the IMG Building, "but I cannot."
James, who came dressed in sweats and a T-shirt, left the building in the mid-afternoon without making any comments to reporters. He was driven away in a silver Range Rover that rolled right by the placard-holding onlookers, who later were revealed as Cavaliers employees.
Coincidentally, on the day their star player was being wooed by other teams, the Cavs were coming to terms with their new head coach, Byron Scott.
The receiving line continues for LeBron today, when the Miami Heat and Los Angeles Clippers come to town to make their own pitches. Then the Chicago Bulls, who according to national media reports are the odds-on favorite, complete the process tomorrow.
D'Antoni dismissed the reports that suggest the Knicks aren't as close as other teams by saying, "I hate to be snide, but I know you guys really well and I'm really glad that we're not considered a lead horse."
The Dolan family owns