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'LeBron-athon' free agency tips off

LOS ANGELES, July 1 – Let the LeBron James Sweepstakes begin.The Cleveland Cavaliers star became perhaps the most sought-after free agent in NBA history when the 2010 free agency period began at one minute past midnight Eastern Daylight Time (04:01 GMT) on Thursday.

Just where the two-time reigning NBA Most Valuable Player might land has already sparked feverish speculation.

Everyone, it seems, from President Barack Obama to golfer Tiger Woods has an opinion on where "King" James could best pursue the NBA championship that has so far eluded him in Cleveland.

Obama, in an interview in May, mentioned his beloved Chicago Bulls as perhaps a good fit for James.

Woods this week said he’d like to see James end up with his favored Los Angeles Lakers.

While NBA teams were barred from wooing James until the free agency period began, other interested parties haven’t been shy in their attempts to lure him.

New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg spearheaded a campaign to bring James to the Big Apple, perhaps to the New York Knicks or the Nets, currently of nearby New Jersey but slated for a move to Brooklyn, New York.

Hours after Cleveland were eliminated from the NBA playoffs, Bloomberg said New York would welcome James – drawing a tetchy response from Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert who hopes to keep his superstar in Cleveland.

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Gilbert can outspend any rival for James under NBA salary cap rules, but with already-rich James wanting a championship chance more than a king’s ransom, it remains to be seen how the free agency period already dubbed "LeBron-athon" pans out.

While fans in Cleveland hope – joining such stunts as a radio station’s "Beards for Bron" campaign – other cities and other teams plot and the other players in a remarkable free agent class ponder how James’s eventual decision might affect them.

This year’s crop of free agents figures to be one of the greatest ever available, with Miami’s Dwyane Wade, Toronto’s Chris Bosh and Dallas’ Dirk Nowitzki among those on the market.

Atlanta’s Joe Johnson was in Los Angeles – where it was still only 9pm when the clock struck midnight on the East Coast – and expecting quick visits from the Hawks and the Knicks.

Nowitzki’s decision to travel from his native Germany to Dallas was seen by some as a sign that the Mavericks had the inside track toward keeping him on board.

Players can agree to deals but can’t start signing new contracts until July 8.

Some teams have spent several seasons clearing space under the salary cap in order to be in position to make lucrative offers.

James was set to host several suitors at an undisclosed site, reportedly near his hometown of Akron, Ohio, on Thursday.

That’s in lieu of a previously reported plan to tour the wannabe teams.

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"We’ve never had anything like this in my time that I can remember," Nets president Rod Thorn said of the hoopla. "There have been big-time free agents before, but never this many teams that are trying to woo them. So it’s unprecedented."

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