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At the Beijing Olympics, where LeBron James(notes) was surrounded by such talent and possibility, the Cleveland Cavaliers began to lose their star to free agency. The beginning of his departure came in small moments on the daily bus rides through the city’s choking smog and bigger ones on the basketball court. Together, Dwyane Wade(notes), Chris Bosh(notes) and James kept talking about the summer of 2010, about the chance of a lifetime to chase championships and roll like a touring rock band.

And yet before Pat Riley’s free-agency vision for the Miami Heat could ever be validated, James had to first become a member of that 2008 Olympic team. The public never knew what those on the inside of American basketball’s elite power structure did: In the years and months before Beijing, that was very much in doubt for James.

Back when the Heat’s three new superstars had signed short contract extensions and started to explore the idea of free agency thrusting them together, a different discussion had played out within the NBA and USA Basketball: What should we do with LeBron?

From Team USA coach Mike Krzyzewski to managing director Jerry Colangelo to NBA elders, the issue of James’ immaturity and downright disrespectfulness had become a consuming topic on the march to the Olympics. The course of history could’ve changed dramatically, because there was a real risk that James wouldn’t be brought to Beijing based on fears his monumental talents weren’t worth the daily grind of dealing with him.

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