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Luring LeBron: NYC Beckons; Cleveland Begs

In the front row, Ted Strickland, the governor of Ohio, croons into the microphone, shoulder to shoulder with Dick Goddard, the ageless Cleveland weatherman. Around them on a soundstage, a chorus chimes in plaintively: city clerks, radio personalities, blues musicians, the ponytailed Norton Furniture pitchman Marc Brown.

Everyone is swaying to the music, Live-Aid style, and offering a heartfelt videographic plea. It is sung to the tune of “We Are the World”: “Please stay LeBron/We really need you!”

LeBron James during Game 6 of the Cleveland Cavaliers v Boston Celtics playoff game.
Getty Images
LeBron James during Game 6 of the Cleveland Cavaliers v Boston Celtics playoff game.

Cleveland, a city that has lost its share of celebrities to New York — John D. Rockefeller and George M. Steinbrenner come to mind — is desperate to keep LeBron James, the N.B.A. All-Star who is up for free agency next month.

So a group of local boosters has produced a homespun three-minute video begging him to stay.

But New York City, the capital of advertising, is fighting back. On Thursday, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg released his own appeal to Mr. James: a 49-second pitch in which he cited Clyde Frazier and Willis Reed and beseeched Mr. James to “come write the next chapter in N.Y.C. basketball history.”

The somewhat stilted video — the mayor looks as if he has never held, let alone shot, a basketball before — is part of a media blitz that will eventually include a Facebook page, a live Twitter feed, professionally silk-screened “C’mon LeBron” T-shirts, digital messages in Times Square (and in taxicabs), even fan kits available for download on the Internet.

All of which raises the question: Will Mr. James, who hails from Akron, Ohio, remain at home, persuaded by his landsmen’s earnestness and self-deprecating humor?

Or will he be lured to New York City by, among other things, a highly packaged and somewhat excessive advertising campaign?

“Based on the videos alone, there’s no way LeBron is coming to New York,” said Andy Borowitz, a humor writer for The New Yorker and a former Clevelander. “There was so much more effort put in the Cleveland video. Mayor Bloomberg’s looked like it was produced for, and rejected by, Taxi TV.”

Cleveland’s attitude is understandable. Mr. James, 25, has been playing for the Cavaliers since graduating from high school, and he is not only among the premier players in the N.B.A., but also perhaps the city’s only marquee celebrity.

At the same time, one could make the argument that the “C’mon LeBron” onslaught in New York is only the latest example of the city’s puzzling descent into boosterish antics that are perhaps better suited to less sophisticated towns.

There was, for instance, the overt begging for the Super Bowl and the subsequent tabloid glee (front-page pictures of the Statue of Liberty!) when the big game was obtained. There was the Little League-ish appearance of a beaming Yankees squad on the steps of City Hall. It sometimes seems as if so many keys to the city have been handed out of late that no locked door is safe.

The city’s Economic Development Corporation recently declared that the economic impact of Mr. James’s arrival in New York could be as much as $57.8 million a year. Still, it can seem a little silly for the city to bat its schoolgirl eyes to attract a big star, even one as big as LeBron James. Do we really — seriously — care about this stuff?

Apparently, we do. The city claims that Bartle Bogle Hegarty, its full-time advertising firm, concocted the idea for the media blitz, devising the “C’mon LeBron” logo and ordering the special T-shirts. The city says it cannot break down exactly how much is being spent on the effort, because the firm is on a yearly retainer.

The advertising firm appears determined to give the campaign a grass-roots feel. Bartle Bogle Hegarty went so far as to track down an authentic-looking street performer to sing on camera for its Facebook page.

The performer, Laurence Woodson, 35, said he was playing last week at his preferred spot, outside a Prada store in SoHo, when two men in their 20s, wearing slacks and button-downs, approached him, “C’mon LeBron” T-shirts in hand, and explained that they worked for an advertising agency hired by the mayor’s office.

Mr. Woodson recalled that one of them asked, “Dude, can I get you to put on one of these shirts and film you playing?” Mr. Woodson, currently living in a camper, agreed. Turns out, he arrived in New York only 9 or 10 days ago (he is from Washington). He said he improvised fresh LeBron lyrics as he went along.

At least, the performance did not cost much. Mr. Woodson said one of the men reached in his pocket and made what he called a “nominal” donation to his kitty.

Of course, if you are looking for a somewhat more vigorous expression of LeBron fever, consider Brandon George, a college student from Middleburg Heights, on Cleveland’s west side, who is studying advertising in Atlanta.

Mr. George made a two-minute YouTube video in which a succession of 23 women (Mr. James wears No. 23) slapped him in the face. Hard. He followed that effort with another video in which he had his chest hair ripped off with strips of hot wax.

The real question, of course, is whether Cleveland can withstand the geared-up New York publicity machine. Governor Strickland thinks it can.

“I understand the skill and talent of the advertising world in New York City,” he said. “But what we have in Cleveland is genuine, deeply felt love.”

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Karen Zraick contributed reporting.

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